Many of the people who live in The Bahamas are of West African descent, a result of the slave trade that sourced cotton plantations in America and the Caribbean. Others are descendants of the English Puritans who immigrated to Bermuda in search of religious freedom and settled on Eleuthera Island. This provides a melting pot of customs of West African, English and other cultures over several centuries. Those cultures developed into a unique and colourful style of self-expression and have shaped the culture in The Bahamas today.
In 2014, The Bahamas was recognized as a Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art by the United Nations of Educational, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The petition was made by Creative Nassau, a group of passionate Bahamians who wished to showcase the unique Bahamian culture to the world and develop a creative tourism model.
The UNESCO designation brought attention to the distinctiveness to Bahamian crafts, such as Junkanoo and straw work, and it’s deep connection to the culture and society of The Bahamas.
The development of the craft industry supports SDGs focused on sustainability, economic growth, inclusion, and industrial production.
In addition to crafts, The Bahamas has a thriving fine arts community. Bahamian artists have achieved commercial and critical success, exhibiting work around the world in both private galleries and public art spaces. Many of the artists produce contemporary works, including ceramics, wood, and glass pieces.
Credit: Harl Taylor Bags
Straw work is a uniquely Bahamian craft, incorporating the techniques of the Black Seminoles of Red Bays, Andros, and European-Bahamian influences from people like Ivy Simms of Long Island, Bahamas. The craft came to The Bahamas via the enslaved African people who came with their Loyalist owners from the Carolinas in the United States. These enslaved people used straw to craft baskets and other vessels for utilitarian purposes.
The term ‘straw’ refers to narrow strips of the fibrous dried leaves of several varieties of palms and plants that grow wild in The Bahamas such as the coconut palm, the sisal plant, and the silver palm, which is found in the Bahamian pine forests. The straw becomes ‘straw work’ when it is woven or plaited, using various patterns, to create utilitarian or decorative products.
There are more than 60 straw weave styles, reflecting the diversity of the islands on which the craft evolved in The Bahamas. Growing the plants and weaving the straw that becomes the final straw product is a vital part of the economies in many of the towns, called settlements, in the Family Islands of The Bahamas.
Junkanoo is a festival celebrated in The Bahamas on Boxing Day (December 26), New Years Day, Independence Day and during smaller summer festivals. The festival’s exact origins are unclear but is thought to be named after John Canoe, a West African prince who outwitted the English and established started in the 18th century when enslaved African people in The Bahamas celebrated Boxing Day, one of three days during the holiday season that they were not required to work. During the festival, revelers would celebrate by singing and dancing in colourful masks, travelling from house to house, often on stilts.
Today, the Junkanoo industry has an estimated value of over USD $18 million. The festival has evolved into a parade format, comparable to Brazil’s carnival celebration, featuring organized groups of up to 1,000 people, costumes and floats made from crepe paper and cardboard, musical instruments such as horns, goatskin drums, whistles and cowbells. Junkanoo progresses in a low, rhythmic dance called ‘rushing’. The paraders ‘rush’ in organised groups and are judged on costume theme, music, and performance in a keen competition which captures the spirit of all Bahamians at this very special time of the year.
Preparation for the Junkanoo parade starts approximately six months before the event and requires hours of costume design and construction work in a Junkanoo “shack”.
The Bahamas has three indigenous forms of music and dance: Goombay, Rake ‘n’ Scrape, and Junkanoo.
‘Goombay’ music can be considered to be among the earliest indigenous forms of Bahamian music that originated with its Afro-descendant population in the form of a drumbeat rhythm and was the style used by many early Bahamian musicians and composers like Blind Blake, George Symonette and Eloise Lewis.
‘Rake and Scrape’ has its origins in the family island of Cat Island where it developed as a hybrid form from European and African music cultures. It is a popular folk music form among Bahamians and has been used as a classical folk form for various traditional folk musicals, folk plays, and folk operas by various Bahamian composers. It is also used as an accompaniment for the ‘quadrille, plaiting of the maypole and other folk dance forms’.
Credit: NAGB 10th Year Survey Son of The Soil, Lavar Munroe
Art is also an important part of Bahamian cultural life. The vibrant colours and dramatic themes of Junkanoo form the basis of this artistic expression but the lifestyle, social struggles, strong religious influences and the breathtaking beauty of the natural surroundings have a clear influence as well. The work of several Bahamian artists has attracted international attention.
The Bahamas has also been extremely successful in the international sporting world, winning medals/awards at the Olympics and other international sporting events, in athletics, yachting, boxing, tennis and swimming.
Olympic Gold Medalist, Shaunae Miller-Uibo