Though loved by many, Jonkonnu in Jamaica is only practised by a few bands that still get fired up at the thought of costumed characters parading through the streets, scaring or entertaining onlookers. But this is about to change.
The Institute of Creative Training and Development (ICTD), with assistance from the Culture, Health, Arts, Sports and Education (CHASE) Fund, is breathing new life into the traditional art form.
Recently, CHASE pledged $1 million to the institute, honouring a long-held commitment to provide strong financial support for cultural events that highlight the nation’s heritage.
The donation went towards the staging of the February 2023 Jonkonnu Road March and Competition in Kingston, which also received backing from the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) and 24/7 Productions Limited.
Kenny Salmon, ICTD chairman, shared that the CHASE grant has helped to push the organisation forward in its mission to revive Jonkonnu.
“We want to thank CHASE. We used the funds that they gave us and ensured that it worked, and I think they will support us in the future,” Salmon said in an interview with JIS News.
He is supported by Yasmin Salmon Russell, a director at the ICTD, who is hopeful that others may see what CHASE has done and follow suit.
“I think what we are doing aligns very well with their mandate. And I think that other persons will come on board because of CHASE. They know that CHASE chooses very carefully who it affiliates with and who they sponsor,” she said.
Jonkonnu is one of Jamaica’s oldest dance forms, dating back to hundreds of years. It is infused with European and African elements and was performed by enslaved Africans in Jamaica on the three holidays that were allowed to them – Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Day.
The tradition continued after Emancipation, however, interest in the art form has been waning.
Consequently, Salmon and his team are working to re-establish the cultural form through creating avenues for exposure and retention of the art form.
“Jonkonnu is an extremely beautiful part of our culture. In every dance in Jamaica, you can find a move that came from the Jonkonnu. Sometimes it is a bit faster, sometimes a bit slower, but it is the same move … so we must revive Jonkonnu,” he said.
Popular steps include jigs and polkas, open cut-out, one drop and marching tune. A typical band includes characters such as the King and Queen, Cow Head, and Horse Head.
Culture Minister Olivia Grange, speaking at the launch of the Jonkonnu Road March and Competition back in December, expressed appreciation for the contribution provided by CHASE.
She also committed to the revival of the art form.
“The seniors are passing on, and as they pass, the culture disappears. So, what we are ensuring is that it is passed on to the younger generation and it does not disappear. It is an important area of how we have evolved coming out of enslavement into now being a country where our culture is at the centre of brand Jamaica,” she explained.
Minister Grange expressed the hope that with the support of the ICTD, at least 300 masqueraders from Jonkonnu bands can be present at the next Independence Grand Gala at the National Stadium in Kingston, this coming August.
For his part, CHASE Fund CEO Billy Heaven informed that the organisation will continue to support cultural activities that unify Jamaicans through the many avenues of creative expression.
Part of the mandate of the CHASE Fund is to provide opportunities for more people to attend and participate in artistic activities, including cultural displays that showcase Jamaican culture.