Jonkonnu (called John Canoe by the British) is a band of masqueraders which usually perform in towns and villages at Christmas time. The Jonkonnu customs go as far back as the days of slavery, at that time the bands were very large and elaborate. Characters in the Johnkonnu Masquerade are quite frightening to onlookers. Masqueraders are normally dressed in costumes such as King and Queen, Cow Head, Horse Head, Devil, Pitchy Patchy, Red Indians and ‘Belly Woman’. Occasionally a mock policeman (masquerader) is added to the cast to keep onlookers in order. This practice dates back to a time when parades, including Jonkonnu, were outlawed. The policeman, in trying to enforce the law, was often overtaken by the rhythm of the drums, forgot his duties and joined in the merriment.
The Jonkonnu band is normally accompanied by musicians who would play tunes of well-known traditional folk songs on the fife,rattling drums, shakas and graters. The characters in the Jonkonnuu band were usually played by men. Their faces would be fully covered and when they spoke it would be in coarse whispers as it was a part of the tradition that no one should be able to identify them.
It is also believed that Jonkonnu became associated with Christmas because this was the only major holiday of the slaves. However, Jonkonnu also appeared at Easter, called ‘pickney Christmas” by the slaves. Johnkonnu became even more popular when slave masters began to encourage the festivities in their estates, thus showing their support. It was during this period that European and English elements were mixed with African tradition and gave Jonkonnu dance steps known as Jigs and Polkas, Open Cut Out, One Drop and Marching Tune among others.
The ancient art form declined rapidly in the mid 1800s when in 1841 the mayor of Kingston banned Jonkonnu Parades. This was a result of frequent clashes between revelers and the police and for a very long time Jonkonnu became almost non-existent, with the exception of the rural areas which were excluded from the ban.
However, Jonkonnu was revived around 1951 when the Daily Gleaner sponsored a Jonkonnu competition and the level of participation showed that the customs of Jonkonnu were still alive.
Unfortunately, with the birth of other popular dances, Jonkonnu gradually lost its popularity and the Jonkonnu of today is but a shadow of the original.