Holiday celebrations take to the streets with parrandas, Junkanoo, and Gombeys



Although it’s a territory of the U.S., Puerto Rico’s holiday traditions are very different thanks to their Spanish, African, and Taino roots. Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking diaspora, is when people gather; some to go to midnight mass and others parade through the streets in parrandas navideñas:

Puerto Ricans are known for their unforgettable “parrandas or trullas navideñas.” A parranda is when a small group of friends gathers together to “asaltar” or surprise another friend. It’s the Puerto Rican version of Christmas caroling. Most parranderos play some sort of instrument, either guitarras, tamboriles, güiro maracas, or palitos. And they all sing. A parranda tends to be more secular than religious; however, many of the traditional aguinaldos (Puerto Rican Christmas songs) retain the holiday spirit.

The parranderos arrive at the destination and then very quietly gather by the front door. At a signal, all start playing their instruments and singing. The parrandas usually begin after 10pm in order to surprise and wake the sleeping friend. The parranderos are invited in and refreshments, music, and dance follow. Of course we don’t surprise unsuspecting victims. The parranderos are given plenty of “hints” beforehand by the homeowner that he is ready to receive a parranda.

The party goes on for an hour or two then everyone, including the owners of the house, leave to parrandear some more. The group grows as they offer their parranda at several houses during that night. At the last house, probably around 3 or 4 in the morning, the homeowner offers the traditional chicken soup or asopao de pollo. The party is over at dawn.

I have to admit, I never made it to the last house years ago when I went out with a group of friends in Bayamón—they were serving shots of pitorro, aka cañita (Puerto Rican moonshine) at the first house we went to, and that homebrewed sugar cane drink kicks like a mule. I wound up falling asleep at house number two, which luckily was owned by friends. 

The parranda tradition is alive and well in the diaspora, as this video from Chicago, which has a sizable Puerto Rican community, illustrates.

For the start of the holiday season this year, El Gran Combo, Puerto Rico’s greatest dance band,  released the humorous salsa number, “No Hay (There isn’t any),” which recounts past experiences of getting to the party and finding out that all the goodies like roast pork and rum were gone. 

What I would have missed would have been the coquito—no Puerto Rican festivities are without this alcoholic coconut drink, which is similar to eggnog. 

I’ll post some recipes in the comments section below.

Switching languages and cultures to some of the former English-speaking colonies, we find a holiday that originated in what is now the United Kingdom and is celebrated on Dec. 26. Though historians still debate its origins in Europe, Boxing Day celebrations in the Caribbean are distinctly rooted in Africa, and have incorporated Indigenous elements, as well.

The most well-known celebration is Junkanoo from the Bahamas, shown in this video from the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. It is called Jankunu in Jamaica and Belize, and was also celebrated in the United States in North Carolina. As with Boxing Day, historians debate about the origin of the name, some attributing it to a legendary Ghanaian prince, John Canoe.

Bahamian blogger Gabrielle Gweneth takes us behind the scenes of a Junkanoo practice:

Junkanoo is a nighttime parade in the Bahamas that dates back to the 18th century. Rooted in slavery, it emerged as the way slaves celebrated the three days a year they were on holiday, at Christmas. In the early days, the parade was dominated by men, who masked their faces, created costumes out of whatever materials they could find, and made music with drums, cowbells, whistles, and conch shells. An event completely independent of slave masters, Junkanoo is the only celebration of its kind to thrive after the abolition of slavery. Today it has risen in prominence to a national festival and winners of the main parades on Boxing and New Year’s Days earn bragging rights for the year.

The association between Bahamianness and Junkanoo runs deep. A few weeks ago a friend of mine said something like, “Bahamians are either an FNM or a PLP, and a Saxon or a Valley.” The FNM and PLP are our two main political parties. The Saxons and the Valley Boys are the two largest Junkanoo groups. And it’s true, we’re divided not only into political camps, but Junkanoo ones.[…]

Although the biggest parades happen at Christmastime on New Providence, our main island, Junkanoo is a year-round event for many participants, especially the organisers. As soon as the season ends in January they begin planning their themes for the next year. Practices begin around eight months in advance. There are also events throughout the year and around the country where groups perform, like public holidays, community gatherings, sports competitions and private functions. Junkanoo is part and parcel of life here; it’s the soundmark of The Bahamas.

Lest you think that there are no politics involved, Junkanoo group performances often reference contemporary issues. For example, Gweneth features the “One Family” group, a splinter group of the Saxons, shown here performing a stirring tribute to Black Lives Matter, which opens with portraits of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Sir Milo Butler, the first Bahamian governor-general.

This short film on the spirit of Junkanoo in the Bahamas, produced and directed by Ivar Lightbourn and Tony Williams, highlights the amazing artistry of Junkanoo regalia. The filmmakers note that health protocols were enforced with participants and production crew and stated: “We are strong and resilient, the spirits of Junkanoo will rise again.”

Similar to Junkanoo, Bermuda has Gombey:

Throughout the year (and especially on Boxing Day), you’ll see Bermuda’s iconic Gombey troupes dancing down the streets and alleys. The Gombey tradition on the island goes back to at least the early 1800s—it’s a vibrant blend of African, Native American, Caribbean, and British cultures.

This 2008 documentary, Behind the Mask: Bermuda Gombeys Past, Present and Future, directed by Adrian Kawaley-Lathan, details their history: 

Historically, the Gombeys were not viewed as a respectable art form by the island’s ruling class. Slaves were allowed to dance only once a year and did so in masks in order to protest, without fear of retribution, the injustices done them by their slave masters. Incorporating elements of African, Native American, Caribbean and British cultures the Gombeys have evolved into the colorful, uniquely Bermudian art form beloved by locals and tourists alike. From archival texts and insights of our foremost historians to the memories of the oldest living Gombey Masters, from the hearts and minds of today’s Captains to the youngest Gombeys carrying the tradition into the future; Behind the Mask explores the past, the present and the future of this proud and resilient heritage, and is a celebration of all these exceptional Bermudian tradition-bearers.

Last year, the government of Bermuda made this announcement:

The Minister of Youth, Culture and Sport, Dr. Ernest Peets said, “This Boxing Day, if you hear Gombeys, please enjoy them from where you are and do not try to find them. Gombeys will be practicing their “musical medicine” in their private homes or isolated places. Some troupes may be sharing their drums on social media, you can find out more on the Bermuda Gombey Trackers Facebook Group. This year has been different for all of us in many ways.

“Christmas and Gombeys are likewise affected. But we can all make changes to our usual traditions to ensure they are safe. We appreciate the troupes’ willingness to serve as community leaders during this difficult time, by adapting their customs and practices to help keep our most vulnerable citizens safe. This will allow Bermudians to enjoy a little music on Boxing Day, and in doing so, we must do all we can to avoid the spread COVID-19 by not allowing the creation of crowds at this time.”

This restriction for Boxing Day 2020 was relaxed for New Year’s Day:

Gombeys will perform across the island on New Year’s Day – but with Covid-19 restrictions, it was announced tonight.

A government spokeswoman said that Gombey troupes would not stage “large performances in public places” and would ditch marches on the roads for “short, physically distanced pop-up” appearances in small neighbourhoods.

Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs and Deputy Premier, said: “We were very pleased to receive a proposal from Bermuda’s Gombey troupes suggesting how best to accomplish what we’re all wanting – the ability to enjoy this important part of our culture in a way that is safe in the midst of this pandemic.

I haven’t found out yet what the situation is for this year’s celebrations.

My last stop today is a visit to the Garifuna people in Belize who I introduced here in October.  Alejandro Tosatti, writing for Wilder Utopia, details an interesting gender-bending aspect of Jankunú:

The origin of this masked dance dates back to the epoch in which the Garífuna inhabited Saint Vincent Island (XVII-XIX century). In those days, the British colonizers infiltrated the island, setting their sight on the huge expansions of land and the local work force, the Black Carib. These Garífuna ancestors resisted imperialist attacks and engaged in armed conflict with the British. This dance readopts the disguise that the Garífuna warrior utilized as a strategic defense against British forces. It is a celebration of their military victories.

According to Garífuna oral tradition, Barauda, the wife of the legendary Garífuna chief, Satuye, insulted her husband for not “being enough of a man” to avenge the British. The British were invading their communities and burning their cassava fields. She says, “Women, we are going to have to dress as men and fight against the British. Meanwhile, men, you had better dress as women. Because the only thing you do is flee each time the British come near our villages.”

In response, Satuye developed a strategy whereby Garífuna men disguised themselves in women’s clothing. The British entered the Garífuna towns unprepared, not expecting male resistance. They assumed that only women were at home in the villages. Dressed as women, the male warriors assaulted the British and took the troops off guard. That is how the Garífuna cleverly deceived the British.

This trailer from the documentary Play, Jankunú PlayThe Garifuna Wanaragua Ritual in Belize gives a fascinating look into both Garifuna culture and history:

This concludes today’s story of celebrations across Caribbean cultures. However, there will be more music posted in the comments section below, along with the weekly Caribbean news roundup.

Join me!

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