Ukara cloth

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

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 arrived in the hundreds of thousands. Their cultural influence is evident in many ways, among them being 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 context of drumming activity. 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 "Ireme" 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 history of West and Central African "wedge and ring" drums in Africa, 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, Ikom Local Government Area, Cross River State, Nigeria. This is an Éjághám-speaking community.
Ivor Miller photograph, 2010.

2) Drums in southwest Cameroon (Mansfeld 1908).

3) Drums from an Ìgbò-speaking community at the Berlin Museum (Meyer 1997).

4) "Tamboritos" Carabalí in Panamá. The tall drum on right is equivalent to the Cuban Abakuá "Bonkó." Collection of Dr. Marcos Ostrander. Panama City, Panama. Ivor Miller photograph, 2012. Cross River region migrants were known as ‘Carabalí’ in the Americas.
5) "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).

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

7) “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.

8) 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.

9) One of two "wedge and ring" Carabalí drums of the Cabildo de Congos Reales, placed at the altar for the Cabildo during annual festivities, June 13. Rolando Pérez (2009) has documented how the influence of Carabalí people on the Congo Cabildo led to this example of "trans-culturation." Rolando Pérez photograph, 2016.
"A Bonkó in the old style" (Ortiz 1954 vol. 4). Compare with following image.

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

11) “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 Cross River style 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

12) Abakuá ceremony with Cross River region drums, 25 May, 2013. El barrio de "La cuevita," San Miguel de Padrón, temple of the Uriabon Efí lodge. Thanks to Ernesto Soto "El Sambo." Ivor Miller photograph, 2013.

13) 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.

14) Cuban Abakuá drums in Toronto, played by "Román" Díaz during a concert of David Virelle’s Gnosis project. November 28, 2015. Danilo Navas photograph.


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. 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 member 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).