Jonkunnu(John Caoe) Jamaican Traditional Dances and videos


Jonkunnu (John Canoe) a Jamaican traditional dance of African origin. It is performed mainly at Christmas time and a strong feature of the dance is the characters, all males whose movements match their roles. Some of these characters are Pitchy Patchy, Devil, Horsehead, Cowhead, Actor Boy, Belly Woman, Warrior, Wild Indian, to name a few. The rhythm of the Jonkunnu Music is quite distinct from other ritual folk music with its fife and "rattling drum"- carried on the shoulders and played with sticks.


Jonkunnu Characters

An examination of Jonkunnu's evolution has led to the discovery of several characters, some of which are no longer in existence today. Jonkunnu characters vary from one part of the island to another. The origin of many of these Post Emancipation figures emerged from the local environment that included both African and Caribbean influences. These characters are as dynamic and diverse as the Jamaican people and our cultural heritage


Set Girls

specifically Red Set and Blue Set Girls, wear full-skirted costumes with puffed sleeves, large hats, and sophisticated jewellery. They carry their parasols day and night. Set Girl's attire speaks to the influence of the Plantocracy in promoting European finery. As their names imply, they usually pair off in contrasting colours. The name "Set" seems to come from the use of that term in Quadrille or Square Dancing



Sailor is clad in white shirt and trousers, a black tie and gold-trimmed hat. His shirtsleeves are also gold rimmed. This character reminds us of a past era when men in uniform appeared on the ports of Jamaica.



represents legal authority and wears a uniform that consists of a back hat with a red band. A red cloth hangs from the crown of the head down to the neck. He waers a black and white striped shirt and trousers with red stripes. Policeman represents legal authority and wears a uniform that consists of a back hat with a red band. A red cloth hangs from the crown of the head down to the neck. He waers a black and white striped shirt and trousers with red stripes.


Belly Woman

the character, is a pregnant woman primarily played by a male, whose antics and ability to make her belly move to the rhythm of the music is designed to amuse the audience.


Wild Indian

carries a tall cane and crossbow. He wears a black braid and a headdress with feathers arranged vertically. Playing cards, Christmas ornaments, newspaper clippings of food advertisements, pieces of glass and mirrors cover the headdress. He also wears a foil-covered heart on his chest and strands of beads. The presence of Wild Indian in Jonkunnu masquerade may be symbolic of homage to the lost Indian population in many Caribbean countries.



is usually clothed in full black, carries a trident and wears a cowbell attached to his backside. His headdress is made of cardboard in the shape of a cone and bears mirrors throughout. This character seeks to remind society of the need to resist the influence of this malevolent force



the character, is usually presented with a mule's skull fitted with an articulated jaw, which is attached to a pole. The skull is painted and eyes are added to give a real life appearance. American researcher, Martha W. Beckwith's account of the Horsehead at a Jonkunnu parade in Lacovia, St. Elizabeth states that he carried a horse's skull affixed to a wooden frame that was built to allow the jaws to open and shut in a lifelike fashion. His body is covered by a long cotton drape. It is believed that this character represents the overseer of the plantation era, who usually appeared mounted on a horse and clutching a whip.



costume consists of a calico cloth tied tightly around the head. Half a coconut shell is worn on the head to which real cow horns are attached. A wire mesh mask on which facial features are painted covers the face. Cowhead charges into spectators to keep them back, waving his head from side to side, displaying the notion of power surrounding tales of horned animals transmitted by our African ancestors. In the African tradition horned figures symbolize strength and power of important individuals in society who display superior physical, supernatural and political attributes. Horned figures have also been known to be associated with funerals, warriors, initiation and circumcision ceremonies and secret societies.

According to this tradition, the adornment of (real) horns and sometimes a tail refers specifically to circumcision ceremonies and subsequent adulthood.



is totally covered with leaves of the coconut palm making it impossible for onlookers to know in which direction he is looking. Some Jonkunnu groups include characters that represent every profession found in society. They wear the appropriate mask that reflects these professions. Some scholars believe that Jack-In-The-Green belongs to the gardener's group. His mask depicts the apst and future, death and life, in male-female terms, one with the eyes closed and the other open.  Because this figure is representative of vegetal matter, he can be easily camouflaged in his environment. This ability affords him the privilege of becoming an effective guard of the 'Set Girls


The House Jonkunnu

of the past wore a frightful mask and carried on his head a huge, elaborate house filled with puppets. The specific nature of the house carried by this figure attests to the origin of Jonkunnu

The house was a replica of the architecture of the Great Houses, found in the Pre-emancipation era, which were symbolic of power, privilege and on the other hand, oppression - all plantation-Creole characteristics. This character is also called Jawbone Jonkunnu, which referred to an instrument accompanying him that consisted of the dried lower jaw of a horse. The teeth were made to produce a rattling sound by passing a piece of wood up and down its surface. Today, this character is known as Houseboat but his facemask is not as ghastly as it was in times past.



Perhaps the most popular Jonkunnu character today is Pitchy-Patchy. He is dressed in shredded strips of cloth bearing bright colours. He appears in a square hat or a feathered cap adorned with tinsel and mirrors. Cultural Consultant, Cheryl Ryman describes this figure as "a ghost from the past" - becoming all things to all people - ever changing, ever constant - wearing multi coloured attire yet changing his headdress on different occasions.

He often runs in and out of the crowd of  spectators sometimes confronting them with a loud growl. According to oral tradition, Pitchy-Patchy's costume is the same vegetal type that was used by the Maroons as camouflage during warfare.


Koo-Koo or Actor Boy

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Another central player in Jonkunnu parades is Koo-Koo or Actor Boy. This figure appears as a remnant of the selfstyled actor groups, who appeared in 1825. He is flamboyantly dressed in silk, satin and lace frills and finery, and with a long, loose jacket falling over a huge skirt. He wears long curls, which fall over a small facemask and a headdress comprising mirrors, feathers, jewels and coloured beads. Actor Boy has a majestic gait and usually swings his whip as he goes along. This character tends to emphasize pantomime, music and  dance and represents the long history of Jamaican theatre and our love for the theatrical.

Both our African and British traditions associate Actor Boy with the theme of death and resurrection





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