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Culture Club

Culture Club

From Junkanoo to regattas, The Bahamas has a wealth of cultural festivals for locals and visitors to enjoy

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
August 21, 2017
August 21, 2017
Tosheena Robinson-Blair

There is no shortage of reasons why foreign investors choose The Bahamas. It is a leading offshore financial centre, offering gorgeous beaches and a superb standard of living and a sunny tropical climate. But at the heart of The Bahamas allure is its bustling cultural scene.

At any time of year, Bahamian creativity is on display, whether it is blood-pumping Junkanoo rush-outs, thrilling regattas, or signature festivals featuring cultural performances and indigenous arts and crafts.

“We are becoming more aware of our cultural differences and those things that make us unique. Visitors want the true, true experience. They want to feel like they are off the beaten track, so that’s what we are about creating these experiences,” says Arlene Nash-Ferguson, director of cultural and heritage tourism in the Ministry of Tourism.

Ferguson says that she wants to help put culture at the heart of the tourist experience, so that it becomes one of the reasons why people come to the islands. A tiny nation brimming with heritage, cultural events are lively cross-generational social gatherings that help keep traditions alive and introduce them to visitors.

“Our cultural events are so much more than just food and music,” says Charity Armbrister, the Ministry of Tourism’s director of events. “We engage the kids in old time games and for adults there are demonstrations in such traditional skills as cooking and straw plaiting. We really want to immerse them in Bahamian culture, whether that is learning how to make conch salad, catch crabs, or participate in a pineapple eating contest.”

A rush to remember
The Bahamas’ most pre-eminent cultural expression is Junkanoo, a spectacular street festival renowned for its kaleidoscope of sights and sounds. Junkanoo has almost 200 years of documented history and over the years it has evolved in music, costume and dance. Christmas in The Bahamas is incomplete without hundreds of revellers dressed in colourful, fringed crepe paper costumes “rushing” through the streets of downtown Nassau to the sounds of cowbells, whistles, horns, goatskin drums and brass instruments.

Individual costumes, choreographed dance, large Junkanoo pieces and even musical selections are designed to bring each group’s chosen theme to life during their two laps around downtown Nassau. For those on the parade, Junkanoo is a fierce competition with a year’s worth of bragging rights at stake.

Once confined to the winter months, Junkanoo fever now rages again during the summer with the advent of Goombay and Junkanoo Summer Festivals. Arawak Cay hosts one of the more boisterous events, featuring not only Junkanoo parades, but also fire dances and musical performances. Bahamians and tourists take part in fun cultural competitions such as watermelon, corn and pineapple eating contests.

Commitment to culture
Government officials say there is an unflinching commitment to preserving all local traditions and it injects over $250,000 annually into homecomings and festivals celebrating significant local symbols–from coconut and crabs, to rum and rake n’ scrape music.

“Festivals create energy, excitement and anticipation. They add new value to our tourism campaign,” says Armbrister. “Festivals exemplify a sense of pride and spirit of our people as they share our culture with guests.”

Weekend-long, Family Islands’ events showcasing Bahamian culture at its best include Andros’s Crab Fest, Eleuthera’s Pineapple Fest, Exuma’s Bahamian Music and Heritage Festival and Cat Island’s Rake n’ Scrape Festival.

The key to the success of these festivals is that they remain true to their roots while differentiating themselves from other cultural events.

For example, at Crab Fest hundreds of crabs are released and revellers try to catch them. Festival highlights include a myriad of crab-centric culinary competitions and an all-Bahamian music concert. There is also an effort to educate festival-goers about the island, which has the highest concentration of blue holes found anywhere in the world, in addition to being home to The Bahamas’ largest national park system.

Similarly, Eleuthera’s Pineapple Fest pays homage to the island’s farming heritage. Pineapple-themed activities range from eating and cooking ompetitions to a triathlon and a Little Miss Pineapple Pageant.

Exuma’s Bahamian Music and Heritage Festival and Cat Island’s Rake n’ Scrape Festival continue to draw crowds. Both events celebrate native music providing an avenue where established musicians and up-and-coming bands can showcase their talents.

Not only do they keep skills and traditions alive, cultural events, particularly those on Family Islands, pack economic benefits as well, officials say, injecting new money into the economy, boosting businesses, creating new jobs and ultimately helping to diversify the economy.

“Domestic and international travellers spend money on accommodations, meals, transportation and purchasing arts and crafts,” says Armbrister. “Our festivals and regattas are intended to create that year-round buzz and increase visitors to the island.”

Nautical adventures
One of the oldest sports in The Bahamas, competitive sailing, or regattas, deliver high-octane racing while showcasing The Bahamas’ maritime heritage. The history of formal regattas dates back to 1831. Regattas, however, originated not as a sport, but as a means of inter-island transportation within this chain of 700 islands and cays.

Today, there are around 25 regattas held annually, according to Cindy Gay, manager of the Regatta Desk, a government-funded department whose job is to promote, sustain and develop sloop sailing to the degree that it may one day become the national sport.

Historically speaking, regattas and homecomings go hand-in-hand, each helping to sustain the other. “A festive atmosphere developed [at regattas] which united the crowd in a sense of celebration; and to sustain the celebrants, food and drinks were supplied to fortify the faithful through the long hours of sailing,” says Gay about the Bahamian regatta tradition. “The festive atmosphere became an integral part of the regatta races and evolved into homecoming festivals.”

The most popular regattas are the Best of the Best, the National Family Island Regatta and Long Island Regatta. The Best of the Best is held the first week of December in Nassau on Montagu Bay.

“It is the culmination of all regattas held throughout the family of islands during the year, where the top finalists compete for bragging rights, a big purse and a floating trophy,” says Gay.

The National Family Island Regatta is held on Exuma on the third weekend in April. The largest open regatta, nearly 80 boats of varying sizes participate. It is also a time when families gather for reunions, homecoming and land-based festivities.

“Our nation is proud of its rich cultural heritage, a country that is eager to show off those things that make us different from the rest of the world,” says Ferguson. “Certainly that is how we feel. All of these festivals highlight unique aspects of Bahamian culture.”

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