MARCH 19th, The NINTH Day of GARIFUNA American Heritage Month in New York (Wanaragua — The Garifuna Masked Dance — a.k.a. / Jankunu / John Canoe in The Caribbean)

Theatrical Presentation of the Wanaragua Dance, a Masked Garifuna Dance.  It is also known as Jankunu or John Canoe Dance.  Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Theatrical Presentation of the Wanaragua Dance, a Masked Garifuna Dance. It is also known as Jankunu or John Canoe Dance. Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

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Central America — MARCH 19th is the NINTH Day of GARIFUNA American Heritage Month in New York.  In this posting, the Wanaragua Dance (and rhythm is explored). The Wanaragua dance is masked Caribbean processional ritual that takes place from Christmas through early January. In it, Wanaragua dancers go from house to house and perform this ritual.  Part street theater, the wanaragua ritual combines dance, song, music and costumes to not only celebrate Christmas, but is also an expression where British military might is mocked.

Theatrical Presentation of The Wanaragua (Masked Garifuna Dance). Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr.  All Rights Reserved.

Theatrical Presentation of The Wanaragua (Masked Garifuna Dance). Photo by Teofilo Colon Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Also known as the John Canoe or Jankunu dance, versions of this dance ritual is performed in some villages in Jamaica, or in Bermuda, where it is called Gombey.  In St. Kitts-Nevis, where it is also performed, it is called Masquerade.  It is also performed in Guyana.   1

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At it’s root, you usually find that two drums are used In the playing of Garifuna rhythms, The Primero drum and The Segundo drum.  The Primero drum has a lighter sound and usually accents, variations and improvisations are played on this drum.  The Primero sound it makes changes depending on the activity of the dancers and changes in the rhythms from fellow drummers.

The Segundo drum serves as a bass drum which has a heavier sound.  The Segundo drum also sets the tempo of the rhythm.  The segundo drum is often referred to as expressing the heartbeat of all the Garifuna rhythms.  Below is video from Ronald Raymond McDonald of the Warasa Garifuna Drum School demonstrating the Wanaragua Drum Rhythm.

One unique characteristic of many Garifuna dances is the relationship between the dancers and the drummers.  Marion Cayetano and Roy Cayetano explain, “The dancer dictates to the drummer whose task it is to anticipate the moves of the dancer and drum accordingly.  In these dances, the dancer take turns dancing one by one, while the drummer maintains a clear view of the dancer at all times, especially his/her feet.   With such a symbiotic interaction between the drummer and the dancer, the drummer could never be replaced by recorded music or electronic instruments.”   2

Below is video of Wanaragua dancers and musicians gathering and performing the ritual in Gusuna, Honduras.

Wanaragua, Gusuna, Honduras

Four Sections/Aspects of this Processional Masked Processional Ritual.

Warini — beginning, prelude of Wanaragua.

Wanaragua — dance itself

Charikanari — ritual featuring various stock characters like Two Foot Cow (a man wearing cow horns/a cardboard mask/a long trech coat/padded buttocks), Devil (usually with one or two hianro–men dressed as women) and others.

Pia Manadi — ritual that as played out, features the death and resurrection of a character.

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Below is video of the Wanaragua demonstration at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C.  The group performing are the Wanaragua Dance Company from Los Angeles.  Providing the vocals are Garifuna women (referred to as Gayusa).

Below is video of a panel discussion about the Wanaragua Dance at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C.

Three styles of dance in this ritual.

Gawachaü — characterized by “trembling” movements and steps caused by dancers bouncing rapidly on the balls of the feet.

Whopi Maladi — slower form of wanaragua that also features rapid shuffling of the feet.

Turiano — more acrobatic style of dancing.

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Below is video of Wanaragua Dancers Flavio ‘Paps’ Alvarez and Carlos Gonzalez talking about the Wanaragua dance.

Flavio Alvarez and Carlos Gonzalez

Below is VIDEO of the Jankunu World Dance Group of Boston (the group consists of Garifuna men from Honduras) performing the Wanaragua Dance at Best Party Place in the Bronx.

Below is VIDEO of the Jankunu World Dance Group of Boston performing the Wanaragua Dance at the Boston Premiere of the award-winning, independent film, GARIFUNA IN PERIL in 2013.

In 2014, I came across a short video about the Junkanoo Festival in the Bahamas, which takes place during Christmas time. This video is called “This Is Junkanoo!” and was produced for the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.   In any event, Arlene Nash Ferguson, the Director of Educulture Bahamas Ltd.; is interviewed and gives the historical background about the Junkanoo Festival in the Bahamas.  According to her, it is the centerpiece of the Christmas celebrations there and historically comes from Africa, slavery and the respite slaves had during the Christmas break, so to speak.

Looks like Carnival to me.  The costumes aren’t similar to the ones used in the Wanaragua Garifuna Masked Dance either.  Odd that it shares the same name–Junkanoo / John Canoe.  What do you think?

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In Early March 2015, I discovered that St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat, and that there’s a unique Afro-Irish (!!!) culture there.  Who knew?  I didn’t.  3

During St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.  Men go about doing a dance wearing outfits / costumes VERY similar to the costumes worn by Wanaragua dancers.  When I asked about this on Facebook, someone shared a link to the St. Patrick’s Festival in Montserrat where dancers are displayed.  After looking, I didn’t see any similarities to what I am accustomed to when I see Wanaragua dancing–other than the costumes, which aren’t exactly the same, but are sort of similar.

Below is video of Jamaican Jankunu Dancing I

Jamaican Jankunu Dancing II

More Jamaican JonKounnu Dancing

About Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York

Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York (March 11th through April 12th) is designed to reflect on and observe the occasion of the Garifuna people (then known as Black Caribs) being kicked out of their ancestral land of St. Vincent Island on March 11th 1797 to their arrival in Central America on April 12th 1797.  The dates reference the period of time where the Garifuna voyage took place between their ancestral land and their new place of residence, where a new life was forced upon them.

According to a press release from the non-profit organization the Garifuna Coalition USA Inc, Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York also,

“celebrates the great contributions of Garífuna-Americans to the fabric of New York City and New York State, and pays tribute to the common culture and bonds of friendship that unite the United States and the Garífuna’s countries of origin (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras Nicaragua and St Vincent and the Grenadines.)”.

The Garifuna Coalition adds, “New York City is home to the largest Garífuna Community outside of Central America!  However, although Garífunas have been migrating here in search of a better life since the 1930s; the community was virtually obscured until the Happy Land Social Club fire on March 25th, 1990.”  Most of the victims of that tragedy were Honduran, many were of Garifuna descent 4.

Logo for 2014 Garifuna American Heritage Month.  Logo by Ivan Moreira.

Logo for 2014 Garifuna American Heritage Month. Logo by Ivan Moreira.

Overall, the idea is to pay tribute to the survival and resiliency of the Garifuna people and also highlight the contributions made by Garifunas to the state of New York and the United States of America.  Also, this as well as other activities taking place in New York during Garifuna American Heritage Month in New York are designed to further visibility of the Garifuna ethnic group to the general populace of New York City.

ABOUT The Garifuna People

The Garifuna people are people of African descent (in other words, Black people) whose ancestry can be traced to Africans mixing with Carib Indians and Arawak Indians on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent. From this fusion of race and ethnicities in St. Vincent Island, a distinct culture and language arose.  They are noted for being one of the few (only?) peoples of African descent (again, in other words, Black people) in the Americas to have maintained aspects of their ancestral culture and full use of their ancestral language for everyday use over the course of hundreds of years.

After being defeated in war with the British on St. Vincent in 1796; 1004 men, 1779 women and 1,555 children for a total of 4,338 people (mostly Black Caribs, as the Garifuna people were then known) were captured and taken to Baliceaux, a small island, a rock, basically, off the coast of St. Vincent.  This took place from July 1796 through February/March 1797.  About 2,000 Garifunas died of a mysterious and very infectious fever while living on Baliceaux awaiting their fate.  5

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In early March 1797, the remaining Garifunas were loaded onto the HMS Experiment and other ships.  Once they were rounded up, the convoy were taken to a Bequia, which is another island off the coast of St. Vincent. They proceeded to go to Grenada to get water, then Jamaica for refueling, then finally Roatan, Honduras, arriving on April 12th 1797.

Finding much of Roatan unliveable, the Garifuna people petitioned officials representing Spain and it’s government (which controlled much of Central America at the time) to be allowed to move to the Honduran mainland.  Upon being allowed to move to the Honduran mainland, namely the port town of Trujillo, Honduras in May 1797; the Garifunas settled many towns and villages along the Caribbean coast of Honduras.  They also migrated to the neighboring countries of Guatemala, Belize (then known as British Honduras) and Nicaragua over the years.

Finally, Garifuna People have also migrated to the United States of America where generations have settled in cities like New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.  It’s important to also keep in mind that despite their mainly Spanish surnames, the culture and history of the Garifuna people are distinct from other Afro-American and Latino ethnic groups.  Due to their skin color and the fact that many Garifuna people live in Central American countries, there’s much confusion and anxiety over pinning down who and what the Garifuna are–leading to much debate.

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Notes:

  1. Oliver N. Greene Jr., “Music behind the mask: men, social commentary, and identity in wanaragua (John Canoe).” pg. 199 from book, “The Garifuna A Nation Across Borders–Essays in Social Anthropology” Edited by Joseph Palacio.
  2. Marion Cayetano, Roy Cayetano, “Garifuna Language, Dance and Music: A Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. How Did It Happen?” pg 239 from book, “The Garifuna: A Nation Across Borders–Essays in Social Anthropology” edited by Joseph O. Palacio (2006).
  3. http://gocaribbean.about.com/od/specialinteresttravel/a/StPatricksCarib.htm
  4. Edna Negron, “Club Tragedy an Awakening for Garifuna”, New York Newsday, Sunday, August 18th 1991.
  5. Nancie L Gonzalez, “Sojourners of The Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garifuna” pgs 21-23

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