Jonkonnu in Dangriga Belize
The drummers form a semicircle and settle into their chairs; the rhythm thunders to life. Street dogs scatter like bullets. A dancer jumps at the drummers like a mad strutting bird; jackhammers the ground with his feet. His tall, feathered headdress spins with his turns; his white shirt goes translucent with sweat, cowrie shell knee bands rattle and shake. His mask is pink wire mesh, red-lipped, with a pencil mustache and doll eyes.
I’m in Dangriga, Belize, for Jonkonnu, a masquerade celebrated in parts of the English-speaking Caribbean during the Christmas season. Unlike Carnival, its roots are secular; the formal cross- ribboned shirts, European-featured masks, feathered headdress and frenzied marching steps evoke and mock an old nemesis, the English military.
In the 17th century, shipwrecked West Africans and aboriginal Arawaks found one another on St. Vincent and intermarried; the Garinagu genesis. Although Spain was the ruler of record, the British arrived with ambitions to farm cotton and sugar, with the unconsenting labor of island inhabitants.
The Garinagu (known by their language, Garifuna) fought off the British until 1797, when they were forced into exile; set adrift with loss of thousands of lives. The survivors landed first on Becquia and Roatán and, in 1823, migrated to the mainland, settling in pockets of Honduras, Guatemala and the southern coast of Belize. In 2001, UNESCO declared the Garifuna language, music and dance invaluable contributions to the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. There’s both joy and catharsis, as the diaspora returns to Dangriga, Hopkins, Seine Bight and Punta Gorda, to celebrate.
During my stay, I visited the local drumming school, mask maker, and museum and cultural center. When Jonkonnu began, I attached myself to the drummers as they moved from station to station.
Then, following different sounds, I discover a grassy common, where two strapping, cross-dressed gents gyrated in a sensuous do-si-do. Cow-horned, cardboard-faced creatures, with rumpled overcoats, pillow-padded posteriors, and a sinister limping gate, charged the crowd with canes.
“It’s Two-Foot Cow!”
I’d found Charikinari, another seasonal ritual, whose characters can be traced to West Africa.