Jonkonnu in Jamaica
The origins of Jonkonnu reflect Jamaica’s colonial history. The British seized control of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1660 and established a colonial outpost there. Although some African slaves already lived on the island, in the late seventeenth century the English colonists began to import slaves from west Africa in great numbers to work on their sugar plantations. The English colonists brought many cultural traditions with them to Jamaica, including the celebration of Christmas with music, dancing, masquerades, and mumming. The African slaves retained their own music, dance, and masquerade traditions, for which they, too, sought an outlet. These two cultural streams flowed together in Jamaican Christmas celebrations, giving rise to Jonkonnu.
Jamaican Jonkonnu celebrations take place on December 26 (see also St. Stephen’s Day). Most of the Jonkonnu performers are male. Bands of dancers prepare homemade costumes that identify them as specific characters associated with the festival masquerade. Some of these characters, such as “cowhead,” clearly reflect African imagery. Others, like “the king” and “the queen,” show remnants of British influence. Small bands of musicians accompany these dancers as they briefly parade to some public location. The bands are composed of both African instruments, like the gumbay drum, and European instruments, such as the fife. The dancing that takes place when the group arrives at the chosen site also illustrates this Afro-European cultural blend. The participants combine African dance movements with old European dance steps, such those from the quadrille. African cultural influences appear to dominate Jonkonnu dancing, probably because Jamaicans of African descent developed and kept the custom alive over the centuries.
No one knows for sure where the name “Jonkonnu” comes from. Some say it refers to an early eighteenth-century west African king, John Canoe. Others believe it represents a sloppy English pronunciation of a French phrase, gens inconnu, meaning “unknown people.” They suggest that early observers gave that name to the ritual because they could not recognize the masked and costumed dancers.