Of Jonkunnu, drillin’ boys and fairs

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday December 17 2014 in Opinion
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My mother worked for an Englishwoman, Ileene Clayton, who owned a large estate in Catadupa, Jamaica. Mrs. Clayton’s stature in this village, as can be expected, was quite high. She was also, at times, a councillor on the St. James Parish Council and a member of the House of Representatives (MHR) before Jamaica became an independent nation.


It was in this context that I spent my early years.


As Catadupa warmed up to Christmas, the expectations were that there would be a fair on Christmas Day in the “common”, an open land space on Clayton’s estate. The centerpiece was a merry-go-round. Of course there were games of chances – grab bags, crown and anchor boards and other dice games – and, of course, food, lots of food and candies.


Leading up to the opening of the fair, usually early afternoon, there would be a parade. There were two main components of the parade that I remember clearly – the Jonkunnu players and the “drillin’ boys”. There were other representations, like nurses. Interestingly, all the representatives were uniformed persons. None of them was real – soldiers, nurses, etc. But they looked smart and professional. Their uniforms were starched, well-ironed and spotless.


Of course, no parade would be complete without a marching band. A full complement of drummers, including a big bass drum, fife players – hand-made from bamboo. I cannot remember if there were any trumpets or other brass instruments.


The “drillin’ boys” were well practiced. Everyone was obeying orders crisply and amazingly synchronized. Their rifles, hand-carved wooden stocks with a painted lead pipe as the barrel. I remember one year they surprised everyone. They had, in fact, given their “rifles” the ability to fire a cork shot which they did as a salute to Clayton in her role as a key representative.


The “drillin’ boys” would go through a number of drilled exercises, military style, which demonstrated that they had spent a lot of time practicing as a group just for this event. It was remarkable.


As a kid, the Jonkunnu (John Canoe) players were terrifying. I would love to watch them – from afar. Dressed in their raggedy outfits, with painted masks, and wielding makeshift swords – some like pirates, others in other monstrous outfits that brought to life the ghost stories that you hear around a cooking fire after dark.


As a kid, you don’t want to be up front when they go prancing and dancing by. They had this love of terrifying kids, and the more reaction they get, the more terrifying they became. If you did not drop some money in the bag, or whatever was proffered, you can be sure you would be ridiculed in some way. It was all great fun – yeah, from afar.


Another part of their performance was a mock battle-cum-dance, armed with their handmade swords – more dance than fight – with the drummers keeping high energy tempo. This would go on for a while and the more money they collected, the more the dance would continue.


Much of these latter activities would continue as the fair gets into gear. The performances often shifted to the fairground. The accompanying drummers, when not with the Jonkunnus, would be keeping tempo for the merry-go-round.


Remembering the make-up of the merry-go-round even now brings on a smile. A solid wooden pole was the centerpiece, set on ball bearings. Several smaller poles were attached or intersected to hold the seated swings. In the middle of all this, two men would share the spinning of the pole, obtaining some high speeds that won wild squeals from the girls. (The boys were too manly to squeal).


And so the day would go into the evening and, as darkness fell, firecrackers would be lit.


The “sound system” would crank up and dancing would begin. This was where things began to get serious.


It has been a very long time since I have been back to Catadupa at Christmas. I don’t know if the practice of the “drillin’ boys”, the Jonkunnu and the fairs still continue. Most of these happened before the community was electrified, long before television, and long before independence. I am sure versions of this continue today, likely in other parts of Jamaica and, with the Jonkunnu connection to our African heritage, it no doubt has been given added importance.


To this day, I have no idea how all of this was organized but it all came together, and there is no question that it was anticipated and entertaining.


Of course, I have not done justice to the full ambience, leading up to Christmas Day. These included the blooming of the beautiful red Poinciana trees; the white-washing of the tree trunks and fence posts, the sugar cane blossoms, the rich smells of baking, particularly cakes, the visitors who drop by unannounced for a goodwill drink and old story-telling; the urgency to get cleaning done so that the place was spotless on Christmas Day, and – oh yes – the anticipation of a unique toy.


Email: patrick.hunter11@gmail.com /Twitter: @pghntr

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