Jonkonnu: Origins

ambience: Jonkonnu drumming and singing

We’re in New Bern, North Carolina where musicians and dancers, dressed in feathers and brightly colored rags make their way down the street from house to house. They’re observing a frenetic ritual that blends elements of West African, Caribbean, and English tradition. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. In the celebration known as Jonkonnu, revelers dance to the sound of a square drum called a “gumba box.” Slaves probably brought it to North Carolina from Jamaica around the year 1770. Historian Simon Spalding says that like the drum, many aspects of this festival can be traced back through time. However, the origin of the word “Jonkonnu” itself remains a mystery.

“There are literally dozens of possible derivations in several African languages that have to do with festival celebrations. It was also suggested that there was someone named John Canoe or John Cooner who was a slave trader on the coast of Africa, and that’s who it was named for – because in some versions Jonkonnu is a person, in other cases it’s the description of the whole celebration.”

It’s easy to hear the Afro-Caribbean influence of Jonkonnu music. But other important elements of the the celebration, like the prominent figure of a Ragman, harken back to English customs.

“Jonkonnu is often held in the Caribbean, and I’m told in Guyana as well, on Boxing Day, which is a very traditional English holiday, the day after Christmas. On Boxing Day in many parts of England men dance in the streets wearing ragman clothes like this – trousers and jackets or shirts that have these strips of cloth – and often carrying wooden swords. In Jonkonnu in Jamaica, and here in North Carolina, you have the exact same kinds of clothing and you also have the Ragman often carrying a wooden stick.”

We’ll hear more about Jonkonnu in future programs.

Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner

Jonkonnu: Origins

In North Carolina, the festival of Jonkonnu is celebrated with influences from West Africa, England, and the Caribbean.
Air Date:12/19/2007
Scientist:
Transcript:

ambience: Jonkonnu drumming and singing

We're in New Bern, North Carolina where musicians and dancers, dressed in feathers and brightly colored rags make their way down the street from house to house. They're observing a frenetic ritual that blends elements of West African, Caribbean, and English tradition. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. In the celebration known as Jonkonnu, revelers dance to the sound of a square drum called a "gumba box." Slaves probably brought it to North Carolina from Jamaica around the year 1770. Historian Simon Spalding says that like the drum, many aspects of this festival can be traced back through time. However, the origin of the word "Jonkonnu" itself remains a mystery.

"There are literally dozens of possible derivations in several African languages that have to do with festival celebrations. It was also suggested that there was someone named John Canoe or John Cooner who was a slave trader on the coast of Africa, and that's who it was named for - because in some versions Jonkonnu is a person, in other cases it's the description of the whole celebration."

It's easy to hear the Afro-Caribbean influence of Jonkonnu music. But other important elements of the the celebration, like the prominent figure of a Ragman, harken back to English customs.

"Jonkonnu is often held in the Caribbean, and I'm told in Guyana as well, on Boxing Day, which is a very traditional English holiday, the day after Christmas. On Boxing Day in many parts of England men dance in the streets wearing ragman clothes like this - trousers and jackets or shirts that have these strips of cloth - and often carrying wooden swords. In Jonkonnu in Jamaica, and here in North Carolina, you have the exact same kinds of clothing and you also have the Ragman often carrying a wooden stick."

We'll hear more about Jonkonnu in future programs.

Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner