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.