Behind the masks, the real dramas of The Bahamas

Juliet Highet

The Bahamas has more to it than palm-fringed beaches and luxurious yachts rocking gently under the sun in manicured marinas. There’s soul, respect for traditional culture and history, and a thriving artistic community

While Downtown Nassau might be popular with some tourists, close by New Providence Island is the real deal, with fishing villages and wharves where locals gather to gossip over conch fish salads.

Just south of Bay Street, with its designer shopping malls, is the capital’s original shanty town, Over-the-Hill, the African-Bahamian enclave of vibrantly painted wooden houses, many of which have now been restored. It seethes with lively culture. Games of warri, an African board game, are played beneath trees or in the bars vibrating with rake ‘n’ scrape music. Many of its people create crafts and paint, including murals celebrating the annual Junkanoo festival, originally inspired by the Nigerian Egungun sect, which has gradually been translated into a uniquely Bahamian carnival.

Junkanoo is vital to Black Bahamian identity and has become such an integral part of island culture that sober-suited professionals usually join in the fun too. Dating from the 18th century, when slaves were granted three days off for Christmas, an all-male cast of masqueraders hide their identity behind elaborate masks and costumes, many of which have taken a year to plan and craft, starting straight after the last Junkanoo.

They flash high-glitter attitude with plenty of rhinestones, beads and foil, a far cry from their Yoruba heritage. Even before the kaleidoscope of fiercely competing, costumed revellers whirls and gyrates into view, you hear the music – the goombay drums and blasts of conch shells, whistles and horns, as well as the ka-lick-ka-lick of cowbells. An award-winning beer brewed in The Bahamas is called Kalik. One of The Bahamas’ foremost artists, Stanley Burnside, says: “Junkanoo has influenced many aspects of our culture and is particularly evident in our music and painting.” He and fellow artists, brothers Jackson and John Beadle, founded the Doongalik Gallery, whose name echoes the sound of goatskin drums and cowbells.

It’s a cultural centre and art gallery with a multi-disciplinary team of creative and technical professionals, where costumes are created at a Junkanoo “shack”, alongside an architectural studio and publishing arm. Other Junkanoo and traditionally Bahamian-themed products burst forth too, such as furniture painted in exuberantly bold shades. “Colour is an expression of the Bahamian personality,” says Burnside.

The traditional pastel hues of Bahamian clapboard houses are getting a new lick of paint nowadays. Compass Point, a boutique Island Outpost hotel, is painted in such vibrant colours that locals call it “Crayon Point”. Its rustic cottages on stilts have pitched roofs, shady verandas and louvred windows, reprising historical local architecture, with its attention to cooling elements.

Like many other hotels nowadays, the cottages are hung with Bahamian batiks. These are mostly created by an enterprising outfit called Androsia, based on Andros, one of the outer (known as ‘Out’) islands, now renamed by the tourist authorities as Family Islands. Originally inspired by Indonesian batik, they have become authentically Bahamian in their simple, colourful and beautiful designs. Democratically, their batik fabric and clothes are available not just in gallery shops and craft outlets, whose prices reflect their clientele – primarily tourists – but also in local outlets like Nassau Market.

There, Bahamians, mostly women, barter their crafts such as straw-work, plaited from the ‘silver-top’ of the thatch palm. They also sell other crafts, including jewellery made from local materials such as sea-glass, coconut and conch shell, casuarina cones, Poinciana pods, sisal, driftwood and even fish scales. Conch pearls, called the Gem of The Bahamas, have a deep lavender pink shade and can be very valuable.

The Bahamas’ equally colourful history is steeped in piracy – the ‘wrecking’ of passing ships for salvage, the slave trade, rum-running and all-round roguery. Charles Town, now Nassau, was established in 1666, and had unpaved streets lined with taverns and brothels. Way before that, Christopher Columbus, arriving in 1492, followed by greedy Spaniards, had wiped out the original inhabitants, the Lucayans – peaceful, generous Arawak people, who were potters, carvers, weavers and boat-builders, and who had welcomed and hosted the foreign invaders.

Tales of treasure lured pirates and other adventurers, including Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, operating under the sanction of Queen Elizabeth I. Other buccaneers rose to infamy, such as ‘Blackbeard’ Edward Teach, who proclaimed himself magistrate of Nassau in an attempt to maintain harmony among the rabble, and terrorised his victims by attaching flaming fuses to his matted beard and hair. ‘Calico Jack’ had two Amazonian cohorts – Mary Reed and Anne Bonney – who, if drawings of the day are accurate, fought topless.

All this is reflected in the lively visual arts scene of The Bahamas today, especially by the Andros island artist Sebastian Victor Curtis. Several blood-letting scoundrels became pillars of society, a metamorphosis honoured in Bahamian drama and literature, in which what’s left of the piratical past is explored, sometimes characterised as a willing forgetfulness, a feeling of ‘anything goes’, even ‘slackness’. On the other hand, Bahamians’ air of un-American casualness is not without purpose – they exude a benign, nonchalant calm. Bahamian women are fiercely independent, the legacy of survival of the hardships of a slave society. Both sexes exhibit an understated, yet sardonic, wit, preferably laced with sexual undertones, ‘enigmatik funkification’ has been proposed as a term to encompass this.

After ’emancipation’ from slavery, it was very hard for most Bahamians to scrape together a living. The US Civil War, and then later Prohibition, made Nassau into an entrepôt – a huge warehouse of kegs of rum and bales of cotton.

Today, Bahamian commentators suggest the islands’ entrepreneurial spirit is a heritage of piracy and later history, engendering considerable resentment of foreign investment. It’s still a society of two peoples in terms of class, wealth and colour – whites at the top of the pile for 400 years, always pulling the political strings.

The younger generation are influenced by the symbolism of US and Jamaican gangsta rappers, alcohol smuggling having morphed into drug selling for some. In essence, there are really two Bahamian cultures – that of Nassau and Freeport, which has absorbed half of all Bahamians, with a large professional class, compared with the more lackadaisical Family Islands, where there is plenty of poverty. But a dose of Goombay Smash, a killer drink concocted from coconut and dark rum with fruit punch, served in a pint-sized glass, at sunset by a sparkling Bahamian sea, helps the medicine go down.

About the author:

Juliet Highet is a writer, photographer, editor and curator who specializes in Middle Eastern heritage and contemporary culture


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