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John Canoe or Jonkonnu has a very long tradition as a folk festival, incorporating both African and European forms. The ‘Jonkonnu’ Festival is secular in nature and its performance at Christmas time is merely historical. 

It was conceived as a  festive opportunity afforded the slave class by the planter class, as Christmas was one of the few periods when the slaves were relieved of their duties.  Hence, Christmas formed an appropriate season for festivities as all normal business activity on the island was halted by official decree and all males were called up for military service, augmenting the population in the larger towns.  Therefore, ample opportunity was given to the slaves to show off their talents to the spectators who had also been given time off from work. From as early as the beginning of the 18th century masked and costumed performers have paraded the streets of Jamaica most often at Christmas time, but also at state functions, receiving money and food in return for their performances.      
There is a bit of controversy as to the source of the name of the festival.  While some believe that the origin of the name is unknown, others contend that the name and principal character are honourable memorials to John Conny, an active, successful black merchant near Axim along the Guinea Coast around 1720.  John Conny was an important historical person.  He worked for the Brandenburg Company, having command over three trading forts – Pokoso, Takrama and Akoda on the coast of Ghana.  Over time, the spelling has varied, with British influenced writers spelling the name John Canoe, while the Jamaican spelling more closely resembles the pronunciation – Jonkonnu.

Traditionally, the Jonkonnu festival was held on a regional basis accounting for differences in characters, costumes and performance styles.  The English influenced troupes never include animal characters.  Instead their core members are usually a king and queen, courtiers and incidental characters bases on the English masquerades.  The traditional and English based troupes dress differently with the latter wearing ‘fancy dress’, while the former demonstrated a strong African influence. 

Notwithstanding these differences to be recognized across the island, traditional Jonkonnu most often includes as core participants, the cow head, the horsehead, the devil, the different categories of warriors and Indians, as well as a character known as Pitchy-Patchy.

The more popular characters are quite worthy of further mention as their presence in the festival evoked a mixture of fear and excitement in onlookers.  The Jonkonnu cowhead attire is made from a pan, or from half a shell of a coconut, with holes allowing for the insertion of real horns.  The headdress is worn over a headwrap and a wire screen mask with painted facial features; a cloth tail is attached to the dancer’s backside. 

Meanwhile, the horsehead is made from a mule’s skull, equipped with and articulated jaw, and attached to a pole.  It is painted, eyes are added, and the player covers himself with a piece of cloth.  The rest of the costume is left up to the individual performer but generally consists of white tennis shoes, pants, and a shirt in contrasting colours and patterns.

Another character that may reflect an African heritage is Pitchy-Patchy.  He is usually the most flamboyant and athletic troupe member and appears in both Jonkonnu and Masquerade bands.  His costume is made of layered strips of brightly colored fabric.  Contemporary oral tradition claims that this costume is based on a vegetal prototype (layers made up of plant leaves).  The eventual transition from a costume of layered straw or palm fronds to one of layered strips reflects the increased distribution of such materials, an increase in prosperity, or merely a visual statement of an urban image rather than a rural one.

The Devil carries a pitchfork and wears a cowbell attached to his backside.  His headdress is a cardboard cylinder on top of which rests a flat rectangular cardboard section.  The entire costume is black.  Meanwhile, another male plays Belly Woman, a pregnant lady whose antics, especially her ability to make her belly move in time to the music, are designed to amuse the onlookers.

Warrior Jonkonnu wears a foil-covered cardboard heart on his chest and strands of beads; his wooden sword is painted silver.  In addition to the obligatory head cloth and mesh mask worn by all performers, warrior wears a cone-shaped headdress with feather or groups of feathers at the top of the cone, which is adorned with mirrors, cutouts and old newspaper photographs. 

Wild Indian wears a very similar costume with the exception that he carries a tall cane and cross-bow. Although a tradition of the ‘common’ people, Jonkonnu has also received official recognition.  In more recent times, however, Jonkonnu is mostly seen on such important state functions such as the second celebration of Carifesta, held in Jamaica in 1976.  Also during the mid-1970s Michael Manley’s People’s National Party actively supported many grass-roots cultural forms, giving official sanction to Jonkonnu performances.  The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission has hosted competitions in the field, opening up avenues for public performances. 

The above article is from The National Library of Jamaica.

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