Friday, December 28, 2007

Jonkonnu and the Garifuna of Belize

Many thanks to Wellington Ramos for forwarding the article from which the passages below were extracted.

In Belize, a celebration of liberation
Jonkonnu is a masquerade party observed in parts of the English-speaking Caribbean during the Christmas season.

By Ericka Hamburg, Special to The Los Angeles Times
December 21, 2007

Welcome to Jonkonnu, a masquerade found in parts of the English-speaking Caribbean during the Christmas season. Unlike Carnival, this festival has secular roots; when Caribbean colonial masters loosened restrictions on slaves, the slaves then entertained and parodied them with costumed characters and musical processions.

Last winter, on a sultry Christmas morning, I found myself in Dangriga. This rough-and-tumble town is the cultural capital of the Garinagu, also known as Black Caribs.

In the 17th century, shipwrecked West Africans and aboriginal Arawaks found one another on St. Vincent and intermarried; thus began Garinagu society. Although Spain was the ruler of record, the British arrived with ambitions to farm cotton and sugar, with the unconsenting labor of island inhabitants.

The Garinagu (now known more commonly by their language, Garifuna) successfully fought off the British until 1797, when they were forced into exile, set adrift with a loss of thousands of lives. The survivors landed first on Becquia and Roatán and, in 1823, migrated to the mainland, settling in pockets of Honduras, Guatemala and the southern coast of Belize.

With a week to witness Jonkonnu and other seasonal traditions, I rented a beachfront room at Pal's Guesthouse and set out along Dangriga's main street, St. Vincent.

A crush of dancers, drummers, singers and wannabes had converged on a corner, and I fell right in. Flag bearers at the lead, we moved as one, like a many-legged organism, stopping in backyards, on driveways, under raised porches or drying laundry, to perform by request.

Jonkonnu participants are a multi-generation brotherhood of dancers, perfecting their routines over years. Some return from outside Belize to perform. Here, and in other Garifuna villages -- Hopkins, Seine Bight and Punta Gorda -- Jonkonnu brings both joy and catharsis: the formal black-and-white costumes, headdresses, European-featured masks and frenzied marching steps evoke and mock an old nemesis, the English military.

As we moved from house to house, some money and some rum were exchanged. The ritual would repeat on Boxing Day (Dec. 26), and Día del Rey (Jan. 6).

The fete continued into darkness, when I left the crowd and headed to Val's Laundry. Visitors gravitate here for Internet access, laundry service, fresh coffee and, my treat to myself, rum raisin ice cream.

The next day I drove about an hour south, through orange groves and rows of banana trees, to Hopkins and the Lebeha Drumming Center. Driving along a dirt road paralleling the beach, I slowed to accommodate homemade speed bumps fashioned from giant ropes.

At Lebeha ("the end"), under a handsome backyard hut, kids were putting crayons to cardboard masks and practicing drum routines for the holiday. Jabbar Lambey teaches the intricacies of Garifuna rhythms to locals, visitors from nearby resorts and serious percussion students. I chatted with Dorothy, his Canadian wife, as she cooked, orchestrated events and attended to a rescued canine.

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