Year-long programme proposed for Jonkunoo
Tuesday’s launch of a project to revive interest in the fading, centuries-old, traditional folk form of Jonkunoo is just the start of what the organisers plan to be a year-long programme.
There is to be training of existing Jonkunoo bands, the formation of new ones, two road marches, one to Mandela Park, Half-Way Tree, the other to Emancipation Park, New Kingston, and a music and dance competition, among other things.
Educator and entrepreneur, Kenny Salmon, the chairman of the major organising group, the Institute of Creative Training & Development (ICTD), told The Gleaner that he also wanted Jonkunoo to get into both schools and hotels. Those are symbolic of the education system and the private sector.
The media launch on Tuesday at the Louise Bennett-Coverley Garden Theatre, along Hope Road, had the blessing of the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport (MCGES) and the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), among other entities. It was officially declared open by Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia Grange, who said she was behind the project “one hundred per cent”.
She added that months before, during the planning for Jamaica 60 events, the prime minister had expressed a desire to have a Jonkunoo band in the Grand Gala celebrations at the National Stadium in August. She said that though it had not happened then, she hoped to see “at least 300 Jonkunoo masqueraders” in the stadium for the 2023 Grand Gala.
Explaining the rationale behind the project, the ICTD stated in a media handout that the Jonkunoo tradition was rooted in important anti-slavery activities and should not be allowed to die out. (Both Grange and The University of the West Indies Professor Verene Shepherd, who appeared on video, agreed.)
Jonkunoo bands used to be prevalent in most parishes, but now are to be found in few, including Portland, St Mary, Westmoreland and St Thomas. The celebrations are usually associated with Christmas, with the groups coming out on Christmas Eve, Grand Market and Boxing Day. The handout states, however, that “today’s Christmas festivities have become so commercialised that the season has become more known for European carols, Christmas lights and decorations and Santa Claus.”
The handout states that the name was based on John Konny, a West African tribal chief who rebelled against the Dutch settlers in the 1720s. He was enslaved but became a folk hero.
However, a book, A – Z of Jamaican Heritage, by historian and current Jamaican Poet Laureate Olive Senior, suggests that of the “many explanations that have been advanced” about the name, that of Frederic Cassidy, in his book Dictionary of Jamaican English, is probably the correct one. Cassidy states the word originated “from similar sounding words spoken in the Ewe language (of eastern Ghana and Togo).”
Senior’s book also states that, “The Jonkonnu band today is a far cry from what it was around the late18th century. The bands were first encouraged, then suppressed by the authorities who increasingly feared slave uprisings. They particularly wished to discourage gatherings of the blacks and the use of drums, blowing of horns and conch shells, which were not only part of the musical elements of the bands, but were also instruments of communication among the slaves.”
The ICTD handout states that the ICTD and JCDC will offer workshops to competitors in January and assist with material for costumes in preparing them for the mini road march and competition on February 25. Groups will march from assigned locations in the Half-Way Tree area to Mandela Park.
There, each group will do a five-minute presentation onstage. It will be adjudicated on: the use of music, characterisation, costume, movement and overall creativity. The Band of the Year will be chosen, as well as the first and second runners-up.
December’s Grand Jonkunoo Road March and Party will open in the car park of the African Caribbean Museum in the UDC complex in downtown Kingston. There will be a combination of authentic Jonkunoo groups from across Jamaica, along with sponsored groups who will wear a symbolic version of the Jonkunoo characters while branding their companies.
The road march will begin in downtown Kingston, go through Cross Roads, into Half-Way Tree, and then into New Kingston to Emancipation Park. The event will culminate in a mask party with participants wearing branded masks.
Salmon said his intention was to get Jonkunoo into schools and have students study the form. Students from two colleges have already shown interest, he said. Currently, about a dozen Jonkunoo groups are slated for training, and Salmon’s vision is to have a group in every parish.
“We want to promote it to the private sector, such as hotels, where mento bands were once popular,” he said. He added that a human rights group from the USA asked the ICTD to help with a symposium on Jonkunoo as a human-rights vehicle.
Proposed Timetable for 2023
January to February 2023 – Training and workshops
February 25 (Black History Month) - Mini Jonkunoo road march and party in Half-Way Tree
March 14 – Awards ceremony for competition winners and presentation of certificates of participation
May – Symposium
July 31 to August1 - Participation in Emancipation and Independence activities
December 21, 2023 – Grand Jonkunoo Road March and Party