Ukara cloth

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

Wednesday 30 August 2017

‘Voice of the tortoise’, Èyòngó nèwèn

Tortoise 'nèwèn' on the center post of the Ékpè (Mgbè) hall,
Mgbè Àfànghá, of Ègbékàw village, Mamfe, Cameroon. I. Miller photo
In the Kenyang language of the Bayangi people, Nèwèn ‘tortoise’ 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 Èfịk], a tortoise 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 tortoise 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 ‘tortoise’ in the hall. See video here!

— 'Seseku' Takor Zacheus Besong, of Mgbè Èchòkó, plays the nèwèn ‘tortoise’ 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 tortoise is a universal symbol of the Mgbè society, extending to the historically related Abakuá society of Cuba, where turtles are used because they are more prevalent. The tortoise is a forest reptile, while the turtle dwells in the water. The tortoise has a life-span of 80-150 years, much longer than the turtle, making it a symbol of wisdom. In Cuba, 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. I. Miller photo
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