Ukara cloth

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

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.