Music of the Bahamas


Map of Country




The Bahamas , which compose an archipelago of about 700 islands, have a unique history. The numerous groups of people who have traveled to, and stayed on the islands have all played a role in creating the complex culture of the Bahamas . Junkanoo, a type of music that celebrates life on the islands has existed since the seventeenth century and has both affected and been affected by the happenings on the islands ever since. The connection this music has to the people of the Bahamas and to their past makes learning about it significant in learning about the people of the country.




The white sand, clear water and undisturbed nature of its islands have long made the Bahamas a major destination for anyone in search a tropical vacation. In the Bahamas you can visit an island occupied solely by giant iguanas, snorkel with Parrotfish, catch Dolphin fish for dinner or just lounge on the sand all day, but the experience is richest if you have taken in some of the culture and history of country. The history of Junkanoo, a type of Bahamian music, is intertwined with the history of the island's people. The origin of this music and its impact on the Bahamian people reveals much about the country's culture and heritage.



Location, Geography, and Climate of the Bahamas


Found in the Atlantic Ocean about fifty miles away from Florida, this country is considered part of the Caribbean despite its location. The Bahamas are a coral archipelago, or island chain, that consists of approximately 2,500 islets and 700 islands. The Bahamas-On-Line website describes the square mileage of the country, 13,940, as being “slightly smaller than that of Connecticut”. Most of the islands are less than forty-five feet in elevation with the highest point above sea level in the country, 206 feet, being found on Cat Island. The stretch of the islands is about 650 miles and includes land on either side of the Tropic of Cancer.

Created from limestone, the islands are the result of the sea level lowering and exposing what was once a massive coral reef. These islands are home to beaches, famous for their fine white sand, but to little vegetation. Henderson (1994: 708) notes that there are some “scrub and wispy casuarina pine trees”.

This country is marked by the seasons of winter and summer only. The former of which falls between October and April. At this time the average temperature is about 75 degrees. The later of these seasons averages a temperature of about 84 degrees and is notably humid. With a tropical maritime climate, the islands of the Bahamas enjoy over 300 days of sun a year on average and extremely consistent weather conditions. (The Bahamas Guide)


Brief History of the Bahamas

According to Soul of America , Siboney Indians are the first people known to have inhabited the islands of the Bahamas . It is believed that they resided there until about 7,000 years ago when evidence of their existence ceases. The Lucayan Indians, called Arawaks, were the next known inhabitants of the islands. They migrated to the Bahamas from the Amazon around 500 AD and numbered approximately 40,000 in the year 1492 when Christopher Columbus discovered the Bahamian island Guanahani. Columbus , upon finding the ‘New World' and claiming it for Spain, renamed the island San Salvador and left it in search of the source of the Lucayans' ornamental gold. In the following four decades all of the Lucayans were shipped out of the Bahamas to work in Spanish gold mines. The islands, called shallow seas or Baja Mar by the Spanish, were in large part ignored for the next century as they were surrounded by turbulent water which made traveling there dangerous.

  Henderson (1994:711) goes on to explain that in 1629, Charles I gave the Bahamas and the American Carolinas to Sir Robert Heath, but the land was not settled until 1648 when the New Providence harbor was first utilized. In the late eighteenth century West Africans were shipped to the islands by the British colonists to work on the islands' plantations where they worked as slaves until their emancipation in 1833. Since 1973, when the Bahamas gained independence from the British and exited their Colonial period, tourism has had rapid expansion and has become the major force of their economy.



Distinctive Features of the Bahamas

Officially called the Commonwealth of The Bahamas , the islands make sixty percent of their GDP through tourism. According to The Bahamas Guide , a lesser-known economic drive in the country is international banking, which accounts for another eight percent of their GDP. Although there are taxes on imported goods, inheritance and income are left alone by the parliamentary government.

Currently, Bahamas Gateway reports that about eighty-five percent of Bahamians are of West African decent. The other fifteen are mainly relatives of the first English settlers. According to data in The Caribbean Basin to Year 2000 (1984:25), these numbers are almost equal to the data that described the Bahamas twenty years ago. Christianity is the most common religion of Bahamians who speak their own variation of English. (Harman, 111) About sixty percent of the population lives on New Providence Island and the rest is scattered among twenty-nine other islands. Visitors often note the laid-back lifestyles of the Bahamians, which is perfectly suited for the tropical getaway.



Origins of Junkanoo

Originating in the seventeenth century, Junkanoo is the name of both a Bahamian style of music and of the traditional Bahamian festival with which it is associated. There is ambiguity surrounding the exact origins of the term ‘Junkanoo' as two prominent explanations still exist today.

The most widely accepted of these is tied to ethologist, E. Clement Bethel. Famous for having studied the beginnings of Junkanoo, he understood that the festival, which began before the country's emancipation, was a celebration that took place in connection with Christmas and the three days the slaves had off a year. Bethel believed the term that named the festival and its music was a derivation of the name John Canoe, a slave trader and headsman. It was understood by Bethel that the slaves adored Canoe, in part because the English and Dutch feared him. This festival is believed by the ethologist to have been a form of worshiping the local hero as well as a celebration of the holiday around which Junkanoo is based. (Broughton, 318-319)

Another theory described in Junkanoo the Official Website , is that the term Junkanoo came from the dress of the performers. The decorative costumes and masks they wore when they celebrated were described by some as looking like “junk”, offering the second and less accepted explanation for the term.



The Cultural Significance of Junkanoo

Sample Song: This link will take you to a website that offers two samples of Junkanoo.  

Original Lyrics of Song and Translation

Interpretation of Song


Prognosis for this Musical Genre

Junkanoo has an enduring power in the Bahamas . Its popularity has wavered over the years, but there has never been a time in which Bahamians did not embrace it as a symbol of celebration and pride. One of many signs that junkanoo has a permanent place in the islands is that as pointed out in Olsen and Sheeny (1998:808) it has, and will in all likelihood, continue to influence new forms of music in the islands for years to come.




The Bahamas are a beautiful land rich in culture and in history. Anyone interested in learning more about both of these can do so and make their understanding of the islands more complete by examining and appreciating the beauty of junkanoo and its connection with the Bahamian people.



Internet References Cited

  • 2004. The Bahamas Guide - Bahamas 2000.

    This site will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the Bahamas .

    2003. Bahamas Gateway -

    If you plan on traveling to the Bahamas and would like an overview of the history and environment there this site is perfect.

    Soul of America : Grand Bahamas Islands .

    This site offers information about the history of the islands' people.

    2003. Junkanoo the Offical Website – Tajiz Ltd.

    An excellent source of information regarding junkanoo.

    2004. Bahamas-On-Line - Caribbean-On-Line LLC.

    A general source for information about the Bahamas .


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Broughton, S, & Ellingham, M. (2000). World Music Volume 2: Latin & North America,

    Caribbean, India , Asia and Pacific. New York , NY : Penguin Putnam, Inc.

    Graham, N, & Edwards, L. (1984). The Caribbean Basin to the Year 2000 . London :

    Westfield Press.

    Harman, H, & Harman, J. (1969). Fielding's Guide to the Caribbean . New York ; NY:

    Fielding Publications, Inc.

    Henderson, J. (1994). Cadogan Guides: The Caribbean and the Bahamas . London : London House.

    Olsen, D, & Sheeny, D. (1998). The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: South America , Mexico ,

    Central America, and the Caribbean . New York , NY : Garland Publishing, Inc.



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