TCI Junkanoo Museum

Preserving island culture in the 21st century.

By Abigail Parnell

Besides founding the TCI Junkanoo Museum, Kitchner “Kitch” Penn (at right) is leader of the We Funk Junkanoo Band.

If you have ever attended the Turks & Caicos’ Island Fish Fry (now held in The Bight on Thursday evenings) or post-Christmas Maskanoo event, you’ve probably reveled in the irresistible rhythm of the drums, whistles, horns, and cow bells of Junkanoo. This festival of intoxicating sound and colorful costumes is a celebration of culture not to be missed. Fortunately, Junkanoo is still alive and kicking and the TCI Junkanoo Museum is one place you can learn more about it. 

In the Turks & Caicos Islands, Junkanoo started as the tradition of “massing,” a masquerade event held at Christmas consisting of a street procession of characters in traditional costumes dancing to drums, bells, and whistles. Its roots lie in the Islands’ period of slavery­—the New Year and Christmas holidays were a break for the enslaved people, a time to celebrate! They used all they had to construct vibrant clothes and instruments to create a sound that realised their surging spirits of joy. 

The backstory

TCI’s Junkanoo Museum is the result of the creative efforts of its owner and coordinator Kitchener “Kitch” Penn. The museum is located on Old Airport Road in Providenciales, (to the right of The Snack Spot) and you can’t miss it! It makes itself known with a striking, colourful outside display. 

Kitch Penn is also the head of the “We Funk” Junkanoo band, which regularly performs at the Island Fish Fry, Maskanoo, and other events across the country. He’s been a fixture of the Junkanoo culture on these Islands since the 1980s when he was hired to put on the first Junkanoo festival. 

After Penn’s Junkanoo events, he says, many partakers wanted to “put that costume on, even though it was sweaty! They wanted to beat the drum and feel the instrument.” An idea flared to life inside him. A way for people to experience Junkanoo outside of being observers. They could have fun putting the costume on, playing the instruments, and learning more about the history.

The TCI Junkanoo Museum is located in a colorful building on Airport Road in Providenciales.

But these were not the only motivating factors in creating a Junkanoo museum. The other factor? “A lot of people don’t understand my passion and why I do what I do, but it is principally because of the pledge I made to my dad,” Penn says. “He challenged me to help the youth of the Turks & Caicos Islands.” To learn more about their roots, island youth can take advantage of the museum, which also focuses on the entirety of TCI. 

Penn’s father-—Simpson Calfred Penn MBE—also helped youth, but he did so in the Bahamas as captain of the Boys Brigade there. Simpson moved to the Bahamas from Lorimers, Middle Caicos, when he was 17.

While Penn has lived here in the TCI, he has used his love for basketball and Junkanoo to fulfill his pledge. One way is by making basketball courts available on Providenciales so the youth could further their skills. “I took my life savings (to build that court),” Penn says. It furthermore gave police a facility to play basketball and volleyball. He also helped develop the Provo Basketball Association as well as associations in Grand Turk and South Caicos. “I will proudly say that through our program emphasizing discipline, self-respect, and true Christian manliness I have accomplished my goal and pledge to my dad.”

Inside the museum

Kitch Penn displays one of the costumes that visitors to the TCI Junkanoo Museum can try on.

The first steps inside the Junkanoo Museum open to its entrance room where photographs of people participating in Junkanoo line the colorful walls. You will also see real-life Junkanoo costumes made out of strips of cardboard, toilet paper, and newspaper. 

On a tour of the museum, guests can expect to be able to try on the Junkanoo costumes, beat on the goat- or cow-skin drums, and take pictures—it’s all about enjoying and experiencing the culture. As you’re having fun, you also get to learn about the history behind these creations. For example, the conch shell horn’s purpose lies in its ability to communicate with others instead of the bass it adds to the percussion of Junkanoo. Fishermen relied on their “shell-phone number” to let their families know they had returned home.

The second room is home to the “Under the Sea” aquarium. This detailed mural pays homage to the Islands’ world-renowned turquoise waters, featuring sea fans, coral, rays, dolphins, and more. 

The third and final room of the museum is even more colorful and vibrant than the first! More instruments and full-body Junkanoo costumes are designed to express different themes such as Carnival and the coconut leaf. It is also home to the workstation for these handmade arts and crafts. It reflects what the enslaved people had to do: improvise. Nothing could go to waste. “Recycle, reuse, reinvent! They had to use everything they had!” Penn explains. Cardboard packing barrels were not thrown away, but instead made excellent drums (different animal skins over the tops made a variety of sounds) that were lightweight and perfect for parading all night long. Used cans and bottles were transformed into shakers or maracas by way of dried peas or pebbles.

Today, the sound of Junkanoo is preserved by creating the instruments with the same principle. Pulsating percussion merges together—the chiming of a cowbell, ripping of the saw, shaking of the maraca, and squeals of a whistle. The whole body vibrates in tandem to the vigor of the drums, and its symphony and rhythm are definitely dance-inducing. 

More about the museum

The Junkanoo Museum opened in December 2016 to finally allow people “the full experience” of one of the TCI’s favorite celebrations. It’s been quite successful (receiving about 100 visitors a week as of August 2022) as it satisfies the aim of an enjoyable experience of TCI history and culture.

The Junkanoo Museum is open Monday through Saturday, starting with tours at 11 AM and closing at 4 PM. An admission fee of $10 per person is required to support the museum’s continued operation. 

 After the museum

Once the hunger for more island history and culture is ignited after touring the museum, visitors will see there is much more of Turks & Caicos to discover and explore beyond Grace Bay Beach and its luxurious resorts. 

Junkanoo in Turks & Caicos is possible year-round if hired to perform at a special event. Or, on the island of Providenciales, the weekly Thursday night Fish Fry (at Stubbs Diamond Plaza) is the place to go. The Junkanoo parade takes center stage (We Funk Junkanoo included) with dancers and a packed crowd. 

David Bowen wears a costume reflective of the local tradition of “massing,” which preceded Junkanoo in the Islands.

The annual Boxing Day Maskanoo parade remains the most anticipated event of the year. And post-Boxing Day is the most promising time for new recruits to the We Funk Junkanoo Band, as they can prepare for a whole year before the next Maskanoo, or practice their skills at Fish Fry. 

Kitchener Penn’s hope for the future of Junkanoo is for “the appreciation level to increase” and to erase any stigmas associated with the event. Junkanoo is a critical part of Turks & Caicos history because it remembers and honors generations past and their struggles. These are the real sounds of Junkanoo—freedom.

Abigail Parnell is an A-Level student at the British West Indies Collegiate. She is an avid reader of all things fiction and spends most of her time with her nose in a book. She has recently found it important to be more appreciative of the world around her, including her lovely TCI culture, history, and “Beautiful by Nature” waters.

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