- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

As he squints through the December cold of his 6 a.m. commute, Wall Street trader David Orloff closes his eyes and remembers Junkanoo.

The kaleidoscopic island festival held annually in Nassau is part Mardi Gras, part Macy’s Day Parade and an experience that never leaves those who have witnessed it firsthand.

“It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime party,” says Mr. Orloff, 28, who works at the wind-whipped tip of Manhattan. “The beach, the hotels, the drinks, the girls and a parade that is absolutely out of control. Sometimes I look out the window at the winter here and think, ‘Why did I ever leave?’”

Junkanoo apocryphally takes its name from escaped slave “Johnny Canoe.” A late night celebration held on “Boxing Day,” Dec. 26, and then again on New Year’s Eve, it is one of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets and an exotic tropical destination for those in the know. “People love Nassau, because it’s so close to the United States — it’s only 45 minutes from Miami — and because Junkanoo adds to the spectacle of New Year’s Eve,” says Benjamin Davis, manager of the Radisson Cable Beach Hotel. “You’ve got to see it, feel it and taste it for yourself.”

A short glimpse of the festival was featured in the Bond film “Thunderball,” when Sean Connery used the synchronized dancing of sequined mummers to escape his pursuers, but today’s Junkanoo is glitzier and more exhilarating. Those hoping to escape the New Year’s doldrums in the company of the same old crowd might consider Junkanoo as a way out of what for many is an annual anticlimax.

“In Nassau, you think New Year’s and the countdown to midnight is going to be a big deal, but it’s not,” says Jonathan Ross, a 33-year-old entrepreneur living in Sherman Oaks, Calif. “It’s really just a prelude of the blowout that’s to come: You almost have to go back to the hotel and rest up for the rest of the night.”

Indeed, uninitiated visitors must pace themselves, because Junkanoo literally runs all night and into the next morning. “Around 1 a.m. the drums start pounding,” says real estate agent Sara Parker, an American who made the island her home 32 years ago. “The sound reverberates through Bay Street, and part of the experience is feeling everything around you tremble and shake.”

Finding a good vantage point is easy given that rows of bleachers are set up along the parade route, but natives and a few daring tourists say the best place to stand is on one of the slanted, tar-glazed rooftops literally overlooking the street.

“It’s an unusual way to take in a parade — perched like an owl two stories up — but it honors the experience runaway slaves had to endure, climbing up walls and running along rooftops to escape,” says Mr. Ross. “You’ve had a couple of drinks and now you’re edging out along these steep rooftops — some of which are slanted 20 to 30 degrees — and you’re trying to watch the parade, clap your hands and have a good time while not ending up face first on the pavement 40 feet below. It’s pretty scary but also really exhilarating.”

Scores of less-daring individuals also watch the procession from a raised perspective, albeit one that doesn’t risk injury. “It’s a major honor to be invited up to one of the businesses or law offices with a window or a balcony facing Bay Street,” says Mrs. Parker, a Nassau real estate broker. “I suspect it’s also a major booking factor for the British Hilton Colonial, since that is one of the few places you can actually watch Junkanoo from a hotel room.”

While some may want take in the dizzying rhythm of synchronized finger cymbals and jazz band solos from the comfort of a luxury suite, Mrs. Parker’s Bahamian husband Keith, 71, claims eye level is the best way to appreciate the months of hard work that go into creating each costume. “Years ago, they had what used to be called ‘scrat’ groups that would basically invite anyone who could put a costume together, but that’s all changed,” he said. “Now it’s very competitive and much more organized, especially since the groups are almost four or five times the size they used to be.”

Each procession or “group” is drawn from island neighborhoods or communities, who make elaborate garments that sparkle and shake. The costumes’ colors evoke the coral reefs that glow only a few hundred yards from shore. Many groups also perform their own version of a jubilant and slightly hypnotic Junkanoo melody that could be described as Dixieland meets Hare Krishna.

“I remember the music, but the detail and the artistry of the costumes and the pageantry of it all is really astounding,” says Mr. Ross. “This is a relatively poor Caribbean nation, and you can really tell that people spend 364 days preparing for their shining moment in the parade and the chance to represent their community.”

High above the action is a spectacular light show provided by the full-on Milky Way galaxy, unobscured by the light pollution of nearby big cities. “You feel like you’re in your own private planetarium,” Mr. Ross continues. “You’re standing on these rooftops listening to incredible sounds, and if you look up, you can literally see billions of stars. It’s pretty intense.”


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