The John Canoe Festival

john canoe festival
Jankunu Dancer prepares to enter the competition arena.

The  Habinahan Wanaragua Jankunu Festival (also known as the John Canoe) is one of those undiscovered secrets of Belize that is at once spectacular,  colorful and so embodying of local culture that it makes one feel it should be reserved only for locals – sort of like that special dish that is only shared with family or close friends at Christmas.  The date, usually the last Sunday of the year following Christmas Day makes this almost a practical reality. Most folks, including visitors, are hung over or busy returning home from their holiday travels so it is mostly all Belizean, and residents of southern Belize at that, that attend this crowning Jankunu, encounter. The event has its roots in in Africa and Belize’s experience with slavery from its days as a British colony.

Research  shows that the Jankunu  has its roots in male secret societies of West Africa, Poro and Egungun, source of the bulk of slaves uprooted by the British and forcibly transported to British Honduras to fuel their exploitation of the country’s vast natural resources. The name itself is believed to derive from ‘Njoku Ji’, the name of a yam Alusi (deity) of the Igbo people, of which Okonko, an Igbo secret society parade wearing masks bearing striking resemblance to the Jankunu masquerades. Also known in English as the John Canoe dance, the art form links music, dance, mime and powerful sociocultural symbols in an exotic display of male supremacy on the dance floor. The Jankunu dance is exclusively for males who are the dancers and musicians on the  African drums. Females are allowed as singers but that is the limit of their participation. The dance has been traditionally held on the slave off days of Christmas Night and New Year’s day.

The Jankunu is part of the Creole and Garifuna cultures. The Creoles are direct descendants of British slaves. The Garifuna who were never enslaved and resisted British domination to the bitter end are a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture. They have been the most successful at preserving and taking this cultural expression to where it is today. The Garifuna nation of Belize originates from an amalgamation of indigenous warriors from Brazil’s Orinoco Basin and Central America, and ancestors from West Africa.

primero garifuna drummer
Garifuna drummers at John Canoe Festival

The Jankunu Festival originated at the scenic Y Not Island in North Dangriga Town, capital of the Stann Creek District. The island is on the north bank of the Stann Creek River surrounded on two sides by beautiful white sandy beach and on the other by a canal that runs out to the sea. Since 2013, the festival has changed venue to the Ecumenical High School auditorium at the entrance to Dangriga. The event is more commercialized now and entrance fees as at December 2014 are $10. for bleachers and $15. for “Reserved”. Come very early if you want anything near the front as the reserved section merely means chairs that stretch almost 200 feet to the rear. Showtime is 3 p.m. but runs on Belize time, 4 p.m. is when things actually get underway.

The festival is actually a competition between the senior Jankunu groups in southern Belize – but the  traditional rivalry is between two powerhouses – Dangriga and the village of Seine Bight. Although a village, Seine Bighters take their Jankunu seriously and it is a matter of pride that they are the perennial champions.

smallest john canoe dancer
The smallest Jankunu Dancer in Belize steps into the limelight and wows the ladies.

The costumes are colorful and gorgeous to an extreme. Pants are dark colored and the shirts white or light colored adorned with cross ribbons reminiscent of the cross gun belts of British military uniforms. All dancers wear pink masks, and this is believed to have been a way for the dancers to mock the British slave masters. The entire head of each dancer is concealed in an African Arab Bedouin style wrap.

The head dress consists of a royal crown festooned with multi-colored rosettes offset by small round mirrors and gaily colored feathers. The dancers wear leggings with bands of hundreds of small sea shells. The shells  shake and rattle to accent the call and thunder and call of the Primero and Segundo drums that blend with the almost hypnotic singing of the Garifuna women.

Competitors in the John Canoe Festival at Dangriga, Belize, do their walk in to the show at the Ecumenical Auditorium 2014.

Each group is allowed 10 minutes to do their thing. The drummers enter first, followed by the dancers with the women bringing up the rear. Practice and discipline is evident as the drummers quickly take up position, the women behind them, and the dancers line up facing the music. The Jankunu Chief does a preliminary short dance and approaches the drummers, twirls around and returns to his group and with body language indicates to a dancer to take the center stage and show his stuff.

Each dancer in turn does a dance that is an exhibition of male prowess on the dance floor. This dance is one of the most demanding I have seen and must be excruciating on the knees and ankles. There is not much hip movement – that is the provenance of the women in their own dance form but that is another story. The Jankunu is a satirical dance where individuals dress like English colonial slave masters with a pink face mask, and dance off-beat to a fast tempo drum 4/4 beat.

The Wanaragua is one of the few dances where the Primero  (lead) drummer follows the dancer’s movements, and not the dancer dancing to the beat of the drum. If you look keenly you can observe the Primero drummer watching intently the dancer’s feet, while he drums in order to keep his rhythm. This inversion is against all normal dance practice where the dancer follows the tempo of the music and  not the other way around. It is believed to be another subtle mocking  of the slave master by doing the opposite of what should be done. The Segundo drummer keeps a basic rhythm going on bass and does not need to observe the dancers feet.

The Primero provides the intricate and fast pace that are necessary to follow the dancer who with hands outstretched and palms out travels as if on rapidly recoiling spring legs, almost levitating in a circular pattern to the drummers and around the arena before returning to his group. You may also enjoy this short video clip of the Jankunu Festival.