Jonkonnu in Jamaica. a Dying Tradition or a Vibrant Practice

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Jonkonnu in Jamaica. A dying tradition or a vibrant practice.

According to Pamela and Martin Mordecai, they opined that culture is referred to “whatever traditions, beliefs, customs, and creative activities characterize a given community.” Every group has its own specific culture, its own way of seeing, doing and making its own traditions. Jonkunnu is a Jamaican traditional dance of African origin. Cheryl Ryman postulated that Jonkonnu linked music and dance, mime and symbols as the earliest traditional dance form of African descent. It is performed at Christmas time and a strong feature of the dance is the all male characters whose movements match their roles. The music is distinct with its fife and drum that has survived in Jamaica but has Jonkonnu become a vibrant practice or dying tradition? This paper will seek to analyze this. Cheryl Ryman wrote that Jonkonnu richly illustrated both the historical and social realities of Jamaica and provided a model for examining several old world traditions and new world phenomena. Reflecting on Jamaica’s colonial history, according to E. Noble the British in 1660 seized control from the Spanish and established a colonial outpost there. Some slaves had already lived on the island and in the late seventeenth century, the English colonists began to import more slaves from West Africa in great numbers to work on the sugar plantations. The English colonists brought many cultural traditions with them to Jamaica which included the celebration of Christmas with music, dance and masquerade. The African slaves retained their own music, dance and masquerade traditions which were utilized as an outlet against their oppressive state. The evolution of Jonkonuu is reflected in the creolization process in Jamaica, emerging from African and European cultural expressions. These two cultural streams flowed together in Jamaica celebrations gave rise to Jonkonnu. In Jamaica, Jonkonnu is the oldest recorded traditional dance form. A combination of European and African forms combined in some aspects and identifiably different in others with further addition of creole elements. Its essential features are costumes masking, a special fife, drum music, dance and mime. There are two types of Jonkonnu in Jamaica and these are “Fancy Jonkonnu” and “Roots Jonkonnu”. Mordecai called the two “distinctly African” Jonkonnu groups and “Masquerade actor groups” derived from English folk theatre. These actor groups recited dramatic excerpts, many from English plays such as Shakespeare and enacted many types of mime. (Mordecai 159-160). An examination of Jonkonuu‘s evolution led to the discovery of several characters. The traditional set of Jonkonnu characters includes Belly-woman, Policeman, Devil, Horsehead, Pitchy- Patchy, Cowhead and House-head to name a few. The character Belly woman, a pregnant woman is primarily played by a male. The antics and ability to make her belly move to the rhythm of the music is designed to amuse the audience. The character Policeman, represents legal authority and wears a uniform that consists of a black hat with a red band. He has a red cloth hanging from the crown of the head down to the neck. The character Devil is usually clothed in black, wears a cowbell attached to his backside and carries a trident. His headdress is made of cardboard in the shape of a cone and bears mirrors throughout. This character seeks to remind society of the need to resist the influence of this malevolent force. The character Horesehead is usually presented with a mule’s skull fitted with an artificial jaw which is attached to a pole. The skull is painted and eyes are added to give a real life experience. It is believed that this character represents the overseer of the plantation era who usually appeared mounted on a horse and clutching a whip. The character Pitchy Patchy is perhaps the most popular Jonkonnu figure. He is dressed in shredded strips of cloth bearing...
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