Ukara cloth

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

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.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this report do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Sunday 11 September 2016

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

Ùkwà 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 Ùkwà play as performed today offers remarkable examples of images and practices that were part of trans-Atlantic cultural history centuries ago. Ùkwà 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 person. In the following image from Calabar, a sword fighter holding a rapier moves to percussion during an Ùkwà procession, supported by machete wielding members, with women and children in the rear.

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

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

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

The Ùkwà masquerade in the above photograph is called M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́, meaning “skull” in Èfịk (Goldie 1874: 598). The name refers to the top half of a human skull crowning 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 Ùkwà 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 Ùkwà (“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 Ùkwà play including an M̀kpọ́kpọ́rọ́ costume: Ukwa Play, Calabar South, Part 1

Other masquerades used in Ùkwà 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 Ùkwà play, Efut Ibonda community.
Nicklin & Salmons (1988)

Ùkwà play is undoubtedly a centuries-old 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 Ùkwà play, evident from the sword-bearing dancers at lower left. Also seen at center-right is an Okpon ibot “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 Ǹgbè (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 Okpon ibot “big head” helmet masks during Ùkwà 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 Okpon ibot "big head helmet masks": Ukwa Play, Calabar South, Part 2

In addition to Ùkwà play by the Èfịk 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 Ùkwà 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 Ùkwà 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 hand, 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 Ùkwà 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 Ùkwà 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 Ùkwà 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 Cuban Folklore), one can observe cultural history in action by studying ritual performance. In the case of Ùkwà 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.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

The Globalization of Calabar drums

Drums with antelope skin used during a meeting of the Ékpè society, Bechei-Umon community, Middle-Cross River region, Cross River State, Nigeria. Ivor Miller photograph, March 2010.

The indigenous drums of the Cross River region of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon are distinctive for their "wedge and ring" method of tightening the skin. These drums are a regional phenomenon; they are not identified with any particular ethnic community, nor with any specific cultural group or initiation club. They are historically found from southeastern Nigeria to Gabon. Whereas most communities in the vast region used this type of drum, some initiation societies have also used additional and distinctive drums exclusively for their club.

Meyer (1997) map of "wedge and ring" style drums in the center of the Gulf of Guinea

Through the centuries-long trans-Atlantic slave trade into the Caribbean (1500s-1800s), people from this African region forcibly arrived in the hundreds of thousands. Their cultural influence is evident in many ways, among them the persistent use of drums with "wedge and ring" tightening methods. These are found on the island of Cuba, in Panamá and Colombia, Suriname, and recently, wherever members of their communities have migrated.

Identifying a common morphology in these drums is merely the first step in understanding their cultural history. The selection of materials is also important, because in many cases symbolic skins and wood are used depending on the ritual or leisure context they are used in. Also, the function of the drum must be studied, because this determines the spectrum of sounds produced through the drums. For example, preliminary research has found completely different contexts for the use of "wedge and ring" drums in western Cuba and in Panamá. In western Cuba, these drums are used exclusively by initiated members of the Abakuá mutual-aid society, who use the lead drum to communicate to other sacred instruments inside a temple, as well as to instruct the movements of an "Íreme" masked dancer representing a "bush spirit ancestor" of the group. In Panamá, drums with the same morphology are used to enliven public festivals like carnivals, cultural gatherings, as well as annual processions to celebrate the patron saint of a particular city.

Used in quite different contexts, the sounds produced by the Cuban "Bonkó" and by the Panamanian "Tamborito" are quite different, as are the rhythms played on them. In Suriname, where I don't have any recorded examples, the "wedge and ring" drum is used in a spiritual context, according to Gilbert (1940), who wrote:

"The religious life of the Surinam Negro is called ‘Winti’ and is like 'Voodoo', a belief full of spirits, respect for elders, an extensive cosmology, and an African pantheon; a religion with ritual dances, sacred drums and dance songs. The Surinam Negroes accompany their songs almost exclusively with percussion instruments. The ritual Winti-drums have a tri-fold ability: they evoke the deities and the spirits of the ancestors; they interpret the messages of these supernatural beings; finally they send these gods back to their abode when the ceremony has ended" (Gilbert 1940, translated by Elsio Jansen).

The following is a visual comparison of West and Central African "wedge and ring" drums on the African continent and Bioko island, then in Cuba, Colombia, Panama, Suriname and most recently in Paris and New York City. This story is another example of the heroic efforts of enslaved Africans and their descendants in preserving their cultural heritage and therefore their identify as people from a known source that continues to give them sustenance. These introductory sketches are presented as a guide for future scholars to study this unexplored history

1) Statue in honor of a traditional drummer. Akparabong community, Íkóm Local Government Area, Cross River State, Nigeria. This is an Éjághám-speaking community.
Ivor Miller photograph, 2010.

2) Long drum from South West Cameroon (Mansfeld 1927)

3) Drums in southwest Cameroon (Mansfeld 1908).
4) Long drum from Malabo, Bioko (formerly Fernando Po), an island off the coast of the Cross River region; a 'war drum' according to Bravo Carbonell (1917: 112)

5) "El tambor Alegre" played by Sr. Leonel Torres,
 Palenque de San Basilio, Colombia. Thanks to Jesús Natividad Pérez .
Ivor Miller photograph, 2012

6) "Tamboritos" Carabalí in Panamá. The tall drum on right is equivalent to the Cuban Abakuá "Bonkó." Cross River region migrants were known as ‘Carabalí’ in the Americas. Collection of Dr. Marcos Ostrander. Panama City, Panama.
Ivor Miller photograph, 2012.

7) Tamboritos Carabalí in El Valle market, Cocle province, Panama, 2012
Venta de tambores de cuña en el mercado de El Valle de Antón, Provincia de Coclé, Panamá.
Ayaita photograph (
8) "Wedge and ring" drums in Suriname (Gilbert 1940)
Describing the above illustrated drums of Suriname, Gilbert wrote:
"The 'mandrom' is of medium size. The 'langa drom' is a long drum with a diameter of hardly a hand’s-breadth. The 'agida' is used for the ground and base rhythms. The Surinam 'agida' finds her equivalent in the 'mama' drum from the Haitian drum-family mentioned earlier. Both are the biggest in the whole battery and both give the ground-rhythm, the basis of the songs. Further, according to the Surinam Negroes, the 'agida' is the drum that calls up the earth gods, among them the 'gron mama', the earth mother who is so important. When we combine all these things, the association of the concepts — 'mama' drum, 'earth-mother' drum, biggest measurements, the basis of the life-rhythm, — points to the continuation of ancient mother relations in Afro-American life in spite of all contact with the world of the white people" (Gilbert 1940, translated by Elsio Jansen).

9) Map of Suriname within the circum-Caribbean (Gilbert 1940)

10) “Moruá guides an Íreme” (Trujillo 1882). Carabalí drum in Ceuta, a Spanish penal colony northern Africa. This drum arrived with Cuban Carabalí during the Cuban Wars of Independence. In Cuba, Carabalí people recreated the Ékpè "leopard" society, the traditional government of most communities in the Cross River region. The masquerade is an emblematic part of Ékpè culture, in Cuba known as Abakuá.

11) Sign for the Cabildo de Congos Reales San Antonio ("Royal Kongos of Saint Anthony"), founded 1856 in the city of Trinidad, Cuba. The flags represent loyalty to Cuba (left) and to the Cabildo (right). The ship in center represents a British ship captured by Spain in the colonial era. Rolando Pérez photograph, 2016.

12) A "wedge and ring" Carabalí drum of the Cabildo de Congos Reales, at the altar for the Cabildo during annual festivities, June 13. Rolando Pérez (2009) documented the influence of Carabalí people on the Congo Cabildo.
Rolando Pérez photograph, 2016.
13) "A Bonkó in the old style" (Ortiz 1954 vol. 4). Compare with following image.

14) Cuban stamp with “Bonkó Enchemiyá” drum. This is the same "Bonkó" in Ortiz's collection, a sign that Ortiz's scholarship led to the promotion of "Carabalí" culture as a national symbol in the twentieth century.

15) “Homage to Ignacio Piñeiro in the barrio of Jesus Maria, Havana.” Piñeiro was an Abakuá member and a prolific song composer who founded the Septeto Nacional de Cuba in 1927, and the Septeto still exists. These Abakuá drums were played in his honor during the creation of a documentary film by an Italian company in 2009. All present are Abakuá musicians. Left to right: "El Goyo" Hernandez, Pedrito "El Yuma," Frank Oropesa, bongó player for el Septeto Nacional de Cuba, "El Negro," "Palillo," Ismael (thanks to

16) Abakuá ceremony with "wedge and ring" drums, el barrio de "La cuevita," San Miguel de Padrón, temple of the Uriabon Efí lodge, 25 May, 2013. Thanks to Ernesto Soto "El Sambo." Ivor Miller photograph, 2013.

17) Irakere Group LP cover. Havana, Areito label, 1978. Irakere was Cuba’s foremost Jazz band of the era. In the right-center background, in front of three musicians are three Cross River region-style drums. Thanks to David Cantrell.

18) David Virelle’s Gnosis project in Toronto, with Cuban Abakuá drums played by "Román" Díaz and company in concert, November 28, 2015. Danilo Navas photograph.


19) Photo by Keith Nicklin & Jill Salmons, 1977. National Museum, Oron, Nigeria.


Bravo Carbonell, Juan. 1917. Fernando Póo y el Muni. Sus misterios y riquezas. Prólogo de D. Tomás Maestre. Madrid: Imprenta de “Alrededor del Mundo”.

Gilbert, Will G. 1940. "Een en ander over de Negriode muziek van Suriname." Koninklijke Vereeniging, Koloniaal Instituut. Mededeeling, No. LV,  Afd, Volkendkune No. 17. Amsterdam, pps. 1-20.

Mansfeld, Alfred. 1927. Westafrika, aus Urwald und Steppe zwischen Crossfluss und Benue.
Munich: Georg Müller.
Mansfeld, Alfred. 1908. Urwald-dokumente: vier Jahre unter den Crossflussnegern Kameruns. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer (Ernst Vohsen).

Meyer, Andreas. 1997. Afrikanische Trommeln: West- und Zentralafrika. Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde.

Ortiz, Fernando. 1954. Los instrumentos de la música afrocubana. vol 4. La Habana: Ministerio de Educación.

Pérez-Fernández, Rolando. 1986. “Un caso de transculturación Bantú-Carabalí en Cuba.” Del Caribe. No. 6. pp. 20-27.

Pérez-Fernández, Rolando. 2009. “Wedge-bracing (Keilringspannung) Drums among Bakongo Descendants in Cuba.” Studia Instrumentorum Musicae Popularis I. (New Series) Ed., G. Jähnichen. Druck und Bindung: MV-Verlag. pp. 233-260.

Trujillo y Monagas, D. José. 1882. Los criminales de Cuba y D. José Trujillo: narración de los servicios prestados en el cuerpo de policía de La Habana. Barcelona: Establecimiento Tipográfico de Fidel Giro.

Professor Eskor Toyo (1929-2015)

Professor Eskor Toyo in Agoi-Ibami community with members of the Ǹsìbìdì grade of the Ékpè ‘leopard’ society, after Toyo’s initiation into Nsìbìdì, 2011. Second to left in white shirt is Honorable Akpama Arekam Andong (the Vice Chair of Yakurr L.G.A. 2004-2007), our host in the community), Prof. Toyo with a red cap, and Ivor Miller with a white cap. The board in the center has Nsìbìdì coded signs used to test the knowledge of initiates.

Professor Eskor Toyo was a Nigerian Labor Organizer and a Professor of Economics at the University of Calabar. I learned about him while conducting research on Ékpè songs, which he loved to sing and interpret. From 2010-2012 I recorded a series of interviews with Toyo, whose knowledge of economic history was remarkable. Toyo helped me understand the development of a merchant class in Calabar through the trans-Atlantic trade, and how they transformed the traditional hierarchies and institutions like the Ékpè ‘leopard’ society. Among his memorable quotes are this one:

“I have met people who are not inquisitive at all! They just accept what ever they are told and ask no questions! But I have tendency to query everything until I’ve satisfied myself, I won’t accept anything at face value! Thank God that we have the inquisitive ones; but I’ve found that it’s dangerous in society to be inquisitive; whichever society it is, either the traditional one, or the so-called modern one. If they don’t kill you, they leave you alone to die poor. I have survived by avoiding them and doing my thing, I’m not ambitious to be anything in their society, so they leave me alone!”

Professor Toyo was interested in the Cross River region phenomenon called Ǹsìbìdì, a communication through codes unique to the area. Here are his thoughts on its development:

“After some reflection, I have come to believe that the Ǹsìbìdì sign language was created through the process of group hunting. I have seen it when I was young. It’s not one hunter that goes out to hunt. Hunters in a community can go together. Well, you don’t go and make noise while hunting. So if they are hunting any kind of animal, they need to do it quietly, and they will make signs to communicate with one another. And if they expect some hunters to arrive late, they will make signs on the ground, or on a tree, to guide them. I think that this is a reasonable way to think that Ǹsìbìdì arose. And since they have some symbols for things of the forest in the Ǹsìbìdì branch of Ékpè in Agoi-Ibami, it must be that they were trying to guide one another in the forest.
This Ǹsìbìdì, people regard it as a secret, something mystical. Well, that’s what pre-literate people do. In that way they are not different from any other people. Writing just started as a way of communicating, and people made it secret, made it special. In China for centuries, only a few people knew how to write. The same for the traders in the Mediterranean. People try to mystify writing to maintain privilege and attach mystique and high respect.”

Because of his curiosity, and because he was a title-holder in the Ékpè society of Órón community, when Toyo learned of the Ǹsìbìdì club within the Ékpè society of the Agoi-Ibami community in the forest region to the north, he followed me there to be initiated. At 82 years of age, with failing eyesight, Toyo ignored the perils of driving two hours from Calabar north towards Ikom, and then riding a motorcycle two more hours into the hills on a rocky pathway. Agoi-Ibami is a rural community in the Middle Cross River region, in Yakurr Local Government Area, Cross River State, Nigeria.
           Once amongst the Agoi-Ibami community, he spoke to the Ékpè members, who are elder males, and the Idut ‘rainbow’ society members, who are elder females, about the importance of these traditional organizations for the defense of justice in the community.

Here are three video clips from Eskor Toyo’s conversations with the Agoi-Ibami community in 2011 (thanks to Camille Park).