Ukara cloth

Ukara cloth
Ukara cloth detail, Etara community, Cross River State, Nigeria

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

‘Voice of the turtle’, Èyòngó nèwèn

Turtle 'nèwèn' on the center post of the Ékpè (Mgbè) hall,
Mgbè Àfànghá, of Ègbékàw village, Mamfe, Cameroon
In the Kenyang language of the Bayangi people, Nèwèn ‘turtle’ is an instrument of the Mgbè society, related to the grade Békúndí. The role of Békúndí is to communicate between the living and dead members. Depending upon the context, the Békúndí communicates through these instruments: a drum ‘nkah’ or ‘ekpiri’ [derived from ekpri 'small' in Efik], a turtle shell ‘nèwèn’, iron gongs ‘èbòghò’, or ‘clappers’, called ‘mbíák’. In some lodges, ‘mbíák’ is the rhythmic engine for processions.
    When a chief initiated into Békúndí dies, the Békúndí goes to receive the corpse, evoking his spirit, communicating with him, because the belief is that he has not died, but merely transited to the spirit world.
    When the Békúndí plays the turtle shell, all are silent in the lodge. Only the Seseku responds to the tonal language of the Békúndí, even if others may understand the conversation.
    In the following videos, the Békúndí uses the nèwèn to evoke the ancestors, to alert them that the living members are thinking of them and sharing with them. The Békúndí calls on the spirits to enable the living to have prosperity, food, money, children and long life.

— Mr. Ebot Dickson Arrey, from Ègbékàw, of Mgbè Èchòkó, Ègbékàw village, Mamfe, plays the nèwèn ‘turtle’ in the hall. See video here!

— 'Seseku' Takor Zacheus Besong, of Mgbè Èchòkó, plays the nèwèn ‘turtle’ in the hall. See video here! See video here!
      (Profound thanks to Seseku Agbor Benson Besong of Mgbè Àfànghá, of Ègbékàw, the Secretary General of Mgbè Manyu, for sponsoring this event).

The turtle is a universal symbol of the Mgbè society, extending to the historically related Abakuá society of Cuba, where Lydia Cabrera reported that,
     "many lodges display turtle shells during celebrations or sometimes have a live turtle in their Fambá [lodge hall] with the sign of Mokongo. These turtles wander around all the corners of the Fambá, going out to the patio and returning to the Foekue [inner sanctum]. 'They know what they are doing and fulfill their mission like a person. I left one in the Iriongo, and saw it go out to the patio, arrive to where the music was playing and then return to the Iriongo. That turtle is returned alive to the river as well as part of the offerings'." (Cabrera, La lengua sagrada, 1988: 86).

In "Los Pocitos", an Abakuá stronghold in Havana, ‘Naldo’, holds an Abakuá ‘suit’ in process, including a ‘small hat’ with a turtle shell, 2017.
In Havana, the turtle shell continues as a symbol of the Abakuá society in the artistry of tailors such as Reinaldo Verrier Govín ‘Naldo’, who makes an Íreme 'body-suit' with a turtle shell on the back.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Èbòngó society initiation - South West Cameroon

Senator Agnes Mambe moves in procession with the Èbòngó leaders after her initiation in Ekondo Titi, 2009.
Èbòngó is a traditional society for royal women of the Bàlóndó-speaking area. Senator Agnes Mambe, President of the Cameroon Traditional Women’s Society, is an active civil society leader in the South West region. She was initiated by the members of the Èbòngó society in recognition of her lifetime achievement.

The Ékpè chiefs collectively select one elder woman from the Èbòngó society to receive the title of Manyang-Aro (in Éjághám) or Nyang’a Mboka (in Bàlóndó), or ‘Head of Women’s Traditional Leaders in the Community’ in English. The Manyang-Aro is the representative of women to the Ékpè society.

Senator Mambe with the certificate received from the Ekondo Titi Council Area Chiefs Conference, 2009.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Celebration of Cuban bàtá percussion: the 80th anniversary of an historic concert in Havana (English/ Español abajo)

(image courtesy of María Fernanda Ortiz)
“Object of veneration and worship by some, defiled and prohibited by others; considered as messenger of the gods and embodiment of the ancestors in the black religions of Cuba; victim of kidnapping and stabbings by reactionary and racist authorities, the fate of the drum has run parallel to that of blacks, their creators par excellence.” (Rogelio Martínez-Furé, 1979).

On May 30, 1937, musicians Pablo Roche “Akilakua,” Águedo Morales, and Jesús Pérez “Oba Ilú,” appeared on stage in Havana, presented by scholar Fernando Ortiz. Being the first time Lukumí initiates performed bàtá percussion outside a ritual context, this event set the course for the integration of this West African cultural form into Cuban national identity, in a process that Fernando Ortiz called ‘transculturation’.

In West Africa, bi-membraned bàtá drums were traditionally played for both the Òrìà àngó, deity of thunder and justice, and the Egungun ‘ancestor’ masquerades in the city-state of Ọ̀yọ́-Ilé. In the 1830s, with the collapse of Old-Ọ̀yọ́, thousands of Yorùbá-speaking culture bearers were forcibly migrated to the Caribbean. In Cuba, the bàtá drummer’s guild was established and passed on by Yorùbá-speaking migrants like Àtàndá, Añabí and Adéínà in the early 1800s, developing exclusively in the port cities of Havana and Matanzas. An integral part of communal ceremonial life, the bàtá drum ensemble was kept hidden because of colonial repression until the 1937 concert. From then onwards, the bàtá drum entered national consciousness through radio programs, fusion with popular music and theatrical folklore performances. About bàtá performance, Ortiz wrote:

“The soloist (called akpuón) begins the song . . . and the choir (called ankorí) responds in the same tone. But the drumming does not accompany the songs. One could say that the drums sing on their own and the choir interweaves with them. In reality the drums, above all the iyá, ‘talk’, order and guide the singers, who only support them with their voices.” (Fernando Ortiz 1954).

In 2017, on the 80th anniversary of the foundational event in Havana, we celebrate the cultural victory of prestigious African-descendants whose efforts over several generations have resulted in the globalization of this tradition.

L-R: Michele, Yunior, Yosvany, Sandy, Román, Mauricio.           I. Miller photo

Bàtá drums: From Cuba - ‘Román’ Díaz, Olúbàtá, of Havana; ‘Sandy’ Pérez, Omóañá, of Matanzas; Mauricio Herrera, Omóañá, of Holguin. 
Piano:  Michele Rosewoman, of New York City.
Voice: Vanessa ‘Ayaba’ Lindberg, of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Bass: Yunior Terry, of Camagüey, Cuba.
Saxophone and chekeré: Yosvany Terry, of Camagüey, Cuba.
Original idea, research and writing: Dr. Ivor L. Miller, of Amherst, MA.

Thanks to Deena Anderson, Professor Alejandro De La Fuente, Cary García, Ivor Miller, Eva Rosenberg, and Yosvany Terry for helping to organize this event. Sponsored at Harvard University by the Cuba Studies Program, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies; The Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center; The Center for African Studies; El Observatorio de Cervantes at Harvard University; El Instituto Cervantes.

Celebración de la percusión del bàtá cubano: El octogésimo aniversario de un concierto histórico en La Habana

“Objeto de veneración y culto por unos, profanado y prohibido por otros; considerado como mensajero de los dioses y encarnación de los antepasados en las religiones negras de Cuba; víctima de secuestros y acuchillamientos por autoridades reaccionarias y racistas, la suerte del tambor ha corrido paralela a la del negro, su creador por excelencia.” (Rogelio Martínez-Furé, 1979).

El 30 de mayo de 1937, los músicos Pablo Roche “Akilakua,” Águedo Morales, y Jesús Pérez “Oba Ilú,” fueron presentados en La Habana por el erudito Fernando Ortiz. Fue la primera vez que iniciados Lukumí tocaron percusión bàtá fuera del contexto ritual, este evento marcó el proceso de la integración de esta forma de cultura de África occidental en la identidad nacional cubana, el proceso que Fernando Ortiz llamó ‘transculturación’.

En África occidental, los bàtá bimembranófonos se tocaban tradicionalmente para el Òrìà àngó, deidad del trueno y la justicia, y las mascaradas Egungun ‘ancestros’ en la ciudad-estado de Ọ̀yọ́-Ilé. En 1830, con el derrumbe del Viejo-Ọ̀yọ́, miles de portadores de la cultura Yorùbá fueron llevados a la fuerza al Caribe. En Cuba, el gremio bàtá fue establecido y trasmitido por Yorùbá natales como Àtàndá, Añabí y Adéínà a comienzo de 1800, desarrollándose exclusivamente en las ciudades portuarias de La Habana y Matanzas. Siendo una parte integral de la vida comunitaria, la orquesta del tambor bàtá se mantenía escondida frente a la represión colonial hasta el concierto en 1937. Desde entonces, los tambores bàtá entraron a la conciencia nacional a través de programas de radio, la fusión con la música popular y espectáculos folklóricos en teatros. Ortiz escribió sobre el toque de los bàtá lo siguiente:

 “El solista antifonero (denominado akpuón) inicia o ‘levanta’ el canto . . . y el coro (denominado ankorí) le responde en el mismo tono de aquél. Pero los tamboreos no son acompañamiento de cantos. Diríase que los ‘tambores’ cantan por sí y que con ellos se entreteje el coral. Son en realidad los ‘tambores’, sobre todo el ‘iyá’, los que ‘hablan’, ordenan y dirigen a los cantadores, quienes no hacen sino secundarlos con sus voces.” (Fernando Ortiz 1954).

En 2017, en el octogésimo aniversario de este evento fundacional en La Habana, celebramos la victoria cultural de los prestigiosos descendientes de africanos cuyos esfuerzos por varias generaciones han resultado en la globalización de esta tradición.
Vanessa 'Ayaba', lead voice.          I. Miller photo

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Masked Theater of Cuban Abakuá: Communication by Gestures, Costumes and Chants

Cubans and Cameroonians share Ékpè-Abakuá heritage at Smith College. Patricia González photo
Link to video of the Ekpe-Abakua-Piano performance

This was a very productive first year for our NEH funded translation project, “Lydia Cabrera’s ‘The Sacred Language of the Abakua’ and its West African Sources.” We created a draft translation, we identified cultural experts in Nigeria and Cameroon to help with interpretation of Cabrera’s text, and we traveled to Nigeria, Cameroon and Cuba for research. In Calabar, Ivor Miller identified several Nigerian consultants who could help in the interpretation of Abakuá terms, then audio recorded their utterances so that Victor Manfredi could began etymological analysis. Patricia González and Miller presented on the Cabrera project to the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calabar, where the faculty and students seemed to be in awe of the survival of Cross River region linguistic and cultural heritage in Cuba. We also traveled to the University of Buea in southwest Cameroon to present the Cabrera project to colleagues, because this is part of the cultural area shared with Calabar. Present at our lecture was the University Vice-Chancellor, the Registrar, the Head of the Department of History, and many students, whom we thank profusely. The travel to Nigeria and Cameroon has proven invaluable to understand the underlying cultural context of the Cuban Abakuá material.

To celebrate and disseminate our achievements, we organized a public presentation of this project at Smith College, where on 22 September, 2016, we presented Cabrera’s Abakuá text as a living language:

Photographs and Research by Ivor Miller; design by Julian Lustig-González

At Smith College, González discussed Lydia Cabrera and the translation process, Miller discussed Abakuá history and its West African sources, while Manfredi presented the results of his linguistic analysis.

Victor Manfredi presents an analysis of an Abakuá phrase in Cabrera's book

The highlight was surely the six Cuban participants who came from Miami, New York City, and Boston, as well as two Cameroonian Ékpè chiefs from Washington D.C., who discussed and performed several examples of texts documented by Cabrera. The Cuban and Cameroonian participants demonstrated easy recognition of shared cultural traits and language in their performance of song, percussion and dance. Another highlight was Vanessa Lindberg's performance of the Bríkamo songs of Matanzas, illustrating the presence of women in Cuban “Carabalí” culture.

Cuban Íreme "purifies" the communal space at Smith College (Carroll Room, Campus Center). Patricia González photo

Our distinguished participants were:
Mr. Mforkem M. Asam-Eyong of Fumbe community, Manyu Division, S.W. Cameroon (Bayang-speaking people). In Ékpè, his title is Etem Etem Ntui in the Bero-Nteng Ékpè lodge (Etem Etem Nuti is the second in command after the Seseku of the lodge). He currently lives in Washington, D.C.

‘Román’ Díaz of Havana. Formerly of Yoruba Andabo in Havana, ‘Román’ is one of the most sought after percussionists in New York City today. Moní Bonkó of the lodge Ápapa Umóni Ekueritonkó of Havana.

Angel Guerrero, of el barrio de Pogolotti, Havana. Aberiñán of the lodge Itia Mukandá Efó. In 2000, he was lead chanter on Ibiono, the first full Abakuá CD in Havana. He currently lives in Miami, where he founded of the annual Abakuá Festival.

Vanessa Lindberg of Gloucester, Mass. She studied for many years with the leaders of the Bríkamo tradition in Matanzas city, Cuba, and is the mother of Divina Ayé.

Clemente Medina, from Havana. Currently living in New York City, as a professional percussionist.

Sandy Pérez of el barrio de la Marina, Matanzas city. From the Villamil family that founded the Cabido de Sta. Teresa in the 1800s. Eribangandó of the lodge Efí Kunanbére.

Sandy Pérez plays Bonkó to communicate with the Íreme, accompanied by (L to R) 'Román', Mbe Tazi, and Asam-Eyong. Ivor Miller photo.

Diosdado Rodríguez of Guanabacoa, Havana. Nkóboro of the lodge Eklé Ntáti (1840). He is the son of singer Adriano Rodríguez, and nephew of Giraldo Rodríguez, Olú Añá (leader of sacred Batá drums).

Philip Mbe Tazi IX of Fontem, Cameroon. He is the traditional ruler of Njeh-Mveh village in Fontem. His father Mbe Tazi Ate'awung VIII was an important informant for Robert Brain, who wrote important books on Bangwa cultural heritage, such as Bangwa funerary sculpture, Robert Brain & Adam Pollock, University of Toronto Press, 1971.

David Virelles of Santiago de Cuba. Currently working in New York City as a professional pianist, his album Mboko won many awards in the jazz competitions of USA and Europe.

After the Cuban-Cameroon presentation, we were happily surprised with a spontaneous performance on piano by maestro David Virelles, dialoging with the African and Cuban percussionists. Truly, this inherited trans-Atlantic culture is not a thing of the past, but of the future!

David Virelles, piano, with the Cuban-Cameroon team. Ivor Miller photo.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Trans-Atlantic Folklore from Nigeria and Cuba: Defense of Community and Historical Memory

Ukwa play during the traditional rites for Etubom Ekeng Abia Ewa, Calabar South, Cross River State. I. Miller photograph, 2016

In the port city of Calabar in southeastern Nigeria, the Ukwa play as performed today offers remarkable examples of images and practices that were part of trans-Atlantic cultural history centuries ago. Ukwa play includes several types of masquerades, percussion, warriors with machetes, as well as mock sword fights with hilted backswords (using a straight single blade) styled after those brought from the 1500s onwards by Portuguese traders in the Gulf of Guinea. Portuguese also imported such swords into India, where they became known as “Firangi,” an Arabic term for a western European. In the following image from Calabar, a sword fighter holding a rapier moves to percussion during an Ukwa procession, supported by machete wielding members, with women and children in the rear.

Ukwa procession, Urua Etak Ùyó village, Odukpani L.G.A. I. Miller photograph 2009

Ukwa is an initiation club, meaning that aspirants must pass through a ritualized process to join. Ukwa performance includes both danger and jesting, and is usually displayed at the chieftaincy ceremonies or the funerary rites of Ukwa members, or during annual community celebrations.

M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ masquerade during Ukwa play, Calabar South. I. Miller photograph 2016

The Ukwa masquerade in the above photograph is called M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́, meaning “skull” in Èfịk (Goldie 1864: 598). The name derived from the top half of the human skull that crowns the masquerader’s head, covered in red camwood chalk to evoke energy and vitality.

Bird’s eye view of the M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ “skull” with red camwood that crowns the masker. Urua Etak Ùyó village, Odukpani L.G.A. I. Miller photograph 2009

In the National Museum, Lagos, an M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ costume had the following information: 

Caption for the M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ masquerade, National Museum, Lagos. I. Miller photograph 2009

The above caption reports a spiritual aspect to Ukwa play (not “Nquai” as written), in addition to its reputation as a “war dance,” related to community defense. The reference to a person captured under the abundant cloth of the body-mask implies that bystanders should keep a respectful distance from the mask.

The M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ masker greets the Obong Ukwa (“Chief Priest”) during a procession.
Urua Etak Ùyó village, Odukpani L.G.A. I. Miller photograph 2009

Click on this link to see an unedited eight minute video an Ukwa play including an M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ costume: Ukwa Play, Calabar South, Part 1

Other masquerades used in Ukwa play are the “skin-covered helmet masks” documented in the 1980s by Keith Nicklin and Jill Salmons outside Calabar. They reported seeing a “skin-covered helmet mask . . . together with a male janus-faced helmet mask, and a human skull, Nkpokporo, with nya ekpo [garden egg] seeds inserted in the eye sockets. These masks were used during the funerals of members of the Ukwa society, and also at the installation of a chief. . . . Nkpokporo was said always to precede the male helmet mask, which in turn goes before the female one, during these performances” (1988: 131).

Skin-covered helmet mask during Ukwa play, Efut Ibonda community.
Nicklin & Salmons (1988)

Ukwa play is undoubtedly an ancient practice, but it seems to have been first documented by early British colonists in Calabar. The following postcard from Calabar, early 1900s, is a photograph of Ukwa play, as is evident from the sword bearing dancers at lower left. Also seen at center-right is a “big head” masquerade, whose neck is wrapped with palm fronds, body covered in cloth, surrounded by attendants. In the background at center-left is another masquerade that seems to be M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ with a human skull on its crown.

Postcard from Calabar, posted 1915. Holly Ross Postcard Collection

In 1912, British District Officer A. Talbot reported a “skin-covered helmet mask”— such as those reported by Nicklin and Salmons 75 years later — in the Ngbè (Ékpè) “leopard” society performance of the Éjághám-speakers of Oban:

“The so-called ‘image’ is a figure robed from crown to heel in a long garment, of the colour proper to the grade, and pierced with eyeholes. It usually bears on its head a wooden framework covered with skin and shaped like a human head, often with two faces, one male and the other female.” (Talbot 1912: 44).

The following example of a skin-covered helmet mask is from the archives of the National Museum, Lagos. In performance, it would have had plumed-rods to represent the coiffure as in the previous Efut Ibonda example.

Skin-covered helmet mask, National Museum, Lagos. I. Miller photograph, 2009

Keith Nicklin wrote: “Skin-covered masks are restricted in distribution to the Cross River region of Nigeria and Cameroun, and are believed to have originated among the Ejagham forest people” (Nicklin 1977: 22). Whatever their ethnic precedence, skin-covered masks seem to be a lost art, examples of which are found mostly in western museums, with a few remaining relics still found in Cross River region hinterland communities. Today, while the helmet masks are still performed, they are no longer covered in skin, as in the following two examples:

Male and female “big head” helmet masks during Ukwa play, Calabar South. I. Miller photograph 2016

“Big head” helmet mask performed during Calabar Carnival. I. Miller photograph 2009

Click on this link to see an unedited 6:41 minute video an Ukwa play including an M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ costume and the male and female "big head helmet masks": Ukwa Play, Calabar South, Part 2

In addition to Ukwa play by the Efịk of Calabar, the “Qua” communities (= colonial spelling of Kúọ̀) have a variation of the M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ “skull” body-mask that is played during community-wide events such as the coronation of a traditional leaders. In 2008 during the coronation of the Ntoe (Village Head) of Ikot Ansa (a.k.a Nkonib by the Kúọ̀), the M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ body-mask represented the “first born son” of the former Ntoe, while the fern leaf covered Nsibidi masks represented the “second born sons”; both groups stage mock battles over inheritance rights.

M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ body-mask at the Osam Mgbe, Ikot Ansa (Nkonib), Calabar Municipality. I. Miller photograph 2008.

Community Defense

Every community in the Cross River region has a method of defense against invasion. Most communities have age-grades that are assigned to work duties and defense. If Ukwa play is a “war dance” for the lower Cross River region, the middle Cross River region has analogous initiation clubs for defense, namely the Obam play practiced in the Yakurr region. Like the Ukwa M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ masquerade, the Obam masquerade is crowned with a human skull. It also has an iron chain around its waist that is held by one or two attendants to control its movements. The Obam mask holds a shield in the left, and a sharp double-edge machete in the right. During research in Yakurr (Yakö) in the 1930s, British anthropologist Daryll Forde experienced the difficulties in learning about initiation clubs:

"Another independent ward-organized association known as Obam has existed in most, if not all, the villages, but I was unable to observe its activities while I was among the Yakö in the thirties and members would give little information. . . . Its ceremonies included performances by two dancers wearing masks in which skulls were incorporated" (Forde 1964: 160).

Obam mask with attendant, Ugep. Archives of Chief James Archibong Omini, Ketabebe Ijom Ward, Ugep community, Yakurr, L.G.A.

Cross River Region Diaspora

Both Ukwa and Obam plays become relevant while contemplating the West African sources of the Cuban Abakuá, whose tradition includes an Íreme (body-mask) called Nkóboro who is the protector of Ékue, the “heart” of the Abakuá society. Lydia Cabrera wrote two phrases in this regard: “Nkóboro officiates in the consecration . . . making sure that the rites are adhered to” (Cabrera 1975: 22); “Ireme Nkóboro is the Íreme who must accompany the Eribó and Ekue” (Cabrera 1988: 239). Additionally, the classic Abakua-rumba composition “Protesta Carabalí” by Reinaldo Brito del Valle (recorded by Yoruba Andabo, 1993), evokes the presence of Abakuá in the context of the revolutionary wars against Spain. It contains the phrase “Ekue Nkóboro” to evoke Nkóboro’s role as the protector of Ékue. In the Cuban colonial period, Nkóboro would carry a machete in processions, acting as defender. Today, the Nkóboro performer carries a wooden representation of a metal machete to symbolize its role.
    The following image shows a rare Cuban document with a drawing of a body-mask used in Abakuá practice during the colonial period, crowned with a human skull as in the West African Ukwa and Obam plays.

Drawing of an Abakuá body-mask in Cuba, 1900s. Manuscript from an anonymous archive. I. Miller photograph

Finally, the Cuban Abakuá drum called the Sése Eribó has several characteristics that align it to the “big head” masquerades of the Ukwa play, as well as to other Cross River region displays where women are represented. The plumed rods around its rim represent the coiffure of a royal lady, while the drum body — which represents the head of the mythic woman who participated in the founding of Abakuá — is typically covered in skin, either real or symbolic. The following image shows a Sése Eribó drum made by Abakuá leader Felipe García Villamil of Matanzas, Cuba. The drum body is covered with cloth patterned after leopard skin.

Sése Eribó drum made by Felipe García Villamil, Bronx, New York, 1990s. I. Miller photograph

The idea of a symbolic head created as a drum is common in the Cross River region, for example this skin-covered helmet mask, which would have had plumed-rods rising from its crown during performance:

Side and top views of a “helmet mask” with drum head, Calabar. Archives of the National Museum, Lagos. I. Miller photograph 2009

To conclude, as Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz argued in his classic study in 1951, Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba (The Dances and Theater of the Blacks in the Folklore of Cuba), one can observe cultural history in action by studying ritual performance. In the case of Ukwa play, we find swords styled on those brought by early Portuguese traders to the West African coast; we also find ritual objects and performance styles in Cuba that derived from the port city of Calabar, from where many forced migrants departed in the 1700-1800s. Such evidence is relevant towards understanding the recreation of African-based institutions in Caribbean history, created by organized migrants who sought to defend their historical memory and transmit it to their children.

For help during research, thanks to Mayo Adediran, Inyang Effiong Akpan, Chief Eyoma Edet, Dr. Ako Essien-Eyo, ‘Ndabo’ Etim Ika, Victor Manfredi, T.J. Obi-Desch, Holly Ross, Robert Farris Thompson, Bassey Bassey Umo, the family of H.R.H. Etubom Ekeng Abia Ewa, as well as Professor James Epoke and Professor Zana I. Akpagu, the former and present Vice-Chancellors of the University of Calabar.

Cabrera, Lydia. 1975. Anaforuana: Ritual y símbolos de la iniciación en la sociedad secreta Abakuá. Madrid: Ediciones Madrid.

Cabrera, Lydia. 1988. La Lengua Sagrada de los Ñañigos. Miami: Colección del Chicherekú en el exilio.

Forde, Daryll. 1964. Yakö Studies. London: Oxford University Press.

Goldie, Hugh. 1874/1964. A Dictionary of the Efik Language, in Two Parts. 1. Efïk and English. 2. English and Efik. Reprint. Westmead, England: Gregg Press (Original 1862).

Nicklin, Keith. 1974. “Nigerian Skin Covered Masks.” African Arts. November. vol. 7, no. 3.

Nicklin, Keith. 1977. Guide to the National Museum, Oron. Oron: National Museum.

Nicklin, Keith & Jill Salmons. 1988. “Ikem: the History of a Masquerade in Southeast Nigeria.” West African masks and cultural systems. Ed., Sidney Littlefield Kasfir. Tervuren, Belgique: Musée Royal d’Afrique Centrale. Pages 123-149.

Ortiz, Fernando. 1951/1981. Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba. La Habana: Letras Cubanas.

Röschenthaler, Ute M. 2011. Purchasing Culture: The Dissemination of Associations in the Cross River Region of Cameroon and Nigeria. Trenton, NJ: African World Press.

Talbot, Percy Amaury. 1912. In the Shadow of the Bush. London: William Heinemann.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Transition of a Calabar Traditional Leader

Poster announcing the calendar of events required to mark the demise of a Calabar Traditional Leader.
According to indigenous tradition in the Cross River region of Nigeria and Cameroon, when a traditional community leader dies, his body is quickly dressed in Mgbè traditional attire and buried in a secret location in his compound, while the community is informed that he is 'traditionally ill'. The physical death is not announced until much later, when the community is prepared for the full schedule of 'traditional rites' to honor their leader's legacy, to guide his spirit to the realm of the ancestors, and to invest the next leader of the community to the royal throne.

As seen in the above announcement, 'traditional rites' comprise a series of events in which the fundamental cultural displays of the royal families are performed; this is to ensure the continuity of the community's cultural heritage, and also to inform the ancestors that an important person is joining them. Also seen in the announcement is the term 'Qua' for the 'Kúọ̀' communities of Calabar, who are ancestrally and culturally related to the Éjághám-speaking groups of the borderlands of Nigeria and Cameroon. While 'Qua' is the colonial spelling, 'Kúọ̀' is the phonetic spelling (the dot under the 'o' denotes it as an open vowel, or 'aw').

In the current case of H.R.H. 'Ntoe' Lawrence Ekong Etagbo IV of the Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan of Calabar, his physical death occurred on February 8, 2015, but was not announced to the public officially until April 16, 2016, through the "Iyuk" wooden gong played with two sticks to reproduce human speech. At dawn, the gong was placed on the roof of the Osam Mgbè (Ékpè hall) of the Akim 'Kúọ̀' community  to awaken the community to the news. Immediately after this began the "Eku Otung" (Public Cry), a procession of the Daughters and Sons of the Royal Families. The Daughters move in a procession through the town carrying staffs of office; when they reach the home of a deceased Royal Father or Mother, they will stop, point their staffs to the compound in memory of the ancestors of that family, and sing songs of praise to them.

A procession of Royal Daughters during the 'traditional rites' for the late Ntoe of Nkonib (Ikot Ansa), Calabar, April 2008. At left, the First Daughter of the Ntoe leads them, shaking a rattle, with a necklace of palm frond, to which is tied a small chick, a symbol of rebirth. I. Miller photo.

Meanwhile the leaders of the Mgbè 'leopard' society gather at the Osam Mgbè (Ékpè hall/ Town Hall) to prepare for the afternoon Mgbè displays. Suddenly, the Mystical Mgbè disappears from the Town Hall in reaction to the gunshot that announces of the loss of the Ntoe 'Clan Head'. In response to the loss of the Mystical Mgbè, the primary symbol of authority of the community's independence, the town's people must remain quiet, in mourning, and on guard. Spontaneous drumming or quarreling in the township is taboo; transgressors will be fined.

The next major event occurs Friday night, April 22, when the Mgbè members of the community begin to search for the Mystical Mgbè in order to capture and return it to the Osam Mgbè. Once it is finally caged in the Ètím Mgbè (sacred Ékpè bush), the next day all the Ntoes of the 'Kúọ̀' Clans of Calabar prepare their musicians, dancers, masquerades and chiefs in their Osam Mgbè. Pictured below is the team at Ikpai Ohom 'Kúọ̀' Clan Town Hall.

The Ntoe of Ikpai Ohom 'Kúọ̀' Clan (Ntoe Ito Nyong Orok) raises his staff in the center, while Okom Mgbè masquerades and an Iké Mgbè dancer (with bow and arrow) surround him. I. Miller photo.

Once each team is gathered and libations are poured, they move in procession to towards Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan area to show their support. Below, the Ikpai Ohom 'Kúọ̀' Clan team begins to move out to the accompaniment of percussion and song.

The Mgbè group of the Ikpai Ohom 'Kúọ̀' Clan moves in procession towards the Akim Clan area. I. Miller photo.

As the Mgbè group of each 'Kúọ̀' Clan enters the Ètím Mgbè (sacred Ékpè bush) of the Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan community, they assemble as a coordinated 'Kúọ̀' nation group. Below, one of the young Iké dancer arrives.

A young boy dressed as Iké Mgbè (Ékpè tail) enters the path to the sacred Ékpè bush of Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan. The red parrot feather in his mouth symbolizes the discretion required of Mgbè members when involved in the spiritual aspects of Mgbè. One does not talk. I. Miller photo.
The Mgbè delegations of each Clan leave the main road for the Ètím Mgbè (sacred Ékpè bush). I. Miller photo.

Once all the Clan representatives are gathered, they leave in a coordinated procession from the bush to the Osam Mgbè of Akim Clan.

The participants of each Clan gathered, they move along the main road to the Akim 'Kúọ̀' Clan Osam Mgbè. The front of the procession has the masquerade dancers: Okom Mgbè, Ebongo Mgbè, and Iké Mgbè. These symbolize the presence of the community ancestors and pave the way for the cage of Mystic Mgbè to carry on towards the Mgbè hall. I. Miller photo.

A 'bush spirit' masquerade moves in the procession, wearing dried plantain leaves with a civet cat skin (representing a leopard skin) attached to its back. I. Miller photo.
After the masquerades, the highest traditional authority of each Clan moves with staffs raised. The man with the black bowler, a red parrot feather in his mouth, carries the 'mmonyo', the staff of highest Mgbè authority, to which is tied a live rooster, a 'traditional fee' for the privilege of carrying the staff. I. Miller photo.
After the chiefs come the community youths, who surround the Mystic Mgbè in its cage, protecting it from all harm. It is covered with Ùkárá cloth and a leopard-skin. After them come the percussionists and singers who keep the procession moving at a lively pace. I. Miller photo.
Once the Mystic Leopard is inside the Osam Mgbè (Ékpè hall), the members gather there to enjoy feasting and entertainment with Mgbè dance and songs.  Six pieces of Ùkárá cloth are sewn together to signal the presence of Mgbè, and to stop non-initiates from entering the hall while Mgbè is in session. Once the Mystyic Mgbè is returned to the hall, the community can return to its normal life. I. Miller photo.

Thanks to Dr. Abu Edet of Ikpai 'Kuọ̀' Clan, and the Department of History and International Studies, University of Calabar.