Sierra Leone masquerades

‘Bundu devils’ or Ndoli jowei masquerades of the women’s society, photographed in February 1915 by Northcote Thomas in Tormah (Tormabum), present-day Bonthe District, Sierra Leone. (NWT 6183-4; RAI 400.38125.)

Masquerade traditions are widespread across West Africa. Masked performers are earthly manifestations of spirits – whether of ancestors or forces of nature. They mediate between the visible world of humans and the invisible world of the spirits. They often play important roles in ceremonies marking key rites of passage, such as initiation into adulthood or passing to ancestorhood, and in ritual cycles, for instance those associated with farming, fertility and renewal.

Such spirits may be benevolent tutelary figures; some are fierce and forbidding; others may be clown-like and entertaining. Much has been written about their function in society, their iconography and symbolism, and the dramaturgy of their performances. Earlier European commentators often characterised these figures as ‘festishes’ or ‘juju’. Thomas was among the first to recognize their importance in the wider ‘magico-religious sphere’, and that this was not merely about ‘belief and worship’, but ‘inextricably mixed up with law, social organisation and other elements of human life’. He also acknowledged, however, that not enough was known about them to offer an adequate analysis, not least since this knowledge was largely restricted to initiates.

During his anthropological tours in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915, Northcote Thomas photographed and documented many different masquerades, from the Eliminia performed by senior age-grade members in Otuo or those associated with annual Ovia festivals around Benin City during his Edo tour, to the graceful maiden spirit (Agbogho mmuo) or aggressive Mgbedike of the Nri-Awka Igbo. Here we focus on Thomas’s photographic documentation of Sierra Leonean masquerades.

Ndoli jowei

‘Indigenous’ Sierra Leonean masquerade traditions are quite distinct from those found in Southern Nigeria and from the Igbo- and Yoruba-derived traditions introduced into Sierra Leone (especially Freetown) by the so-called ‘Liberated Africans’ in the 19th century. Of the indigenous types, only the Ndoli jowei (the ‘dancing sowei’) of the Mende female Sande society is well known. Its distinctive black helmet mask has become a national symbol of Sierra Leone, and examples are to be found in many museums.

As well as photographing Ndoli jowei masquerade figures in Tormah, Northcote Thomas also made sound recordings of women’s society songs. This phonograph recording was made on February 24, 1915. (NWT 720; BL C51/3154.)

Ndoli jowei is just one of a family of Mende spirit manifestations, although it is especially notable since it is one of the few female masquerades actually danced by women (in contrast to the Igbo Agbogho mmuo, for instance, which is a representation of a female spirit, but danced by men). Thomas photographed examples of the Ndoli jowei in Tormah (now known as Tormabum) in present-day Bonthe District, Southern Sierra Leone in 1915. He identified them in his photo register as ‘Bundu devils’, using the name given to them by Christian missionaries, who demonized such spirit manifestations.

A video installation that featured in the ‘Sowei: Spirit of Sierra Leone‘ exhibition at the British Museum in 2013, filmed by curator Paul Basu and The Light Surgeons. The film was shown as a continuous loop in the exhibition, which featured a sowei mask collected in Sierra Leone in 1886. The exhibition explored the sowei mask from different perspectives – anthropological, art historical, symbolically as a national symbol. The exhibition also considered the colonial entanglements of the mask displayed.

‘Bundu’ – or, more correctly, ‘Bondo’ – is the Temne name for the women’s society known as Sande in Mende-speaking areas of Sierra Leone. Although associated with the Mende, the society and its masquerade is in fact more widespread in Sierra Leone, and can be found in many Temne-speaking areas where the Ndoli jowei is known as Nöwo.

‘The Sowei Mask: Curator’s Notes with Bill Hart’. Bill Hart, a specialist on Sierra Leonean material culture, discusses the mask of the Ndoli jowei masquerade, using examples from the British Library collections. This short video was made as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project (www.sierraleoneheritage.org).

Samawa

Another photograph relating to the women’s society masquerades was published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, and is also captioned ‘Bundu “Devil”’. This is an altogether more intriguing figure insofar as the costume does not include the familiar black helmet mask. The photograph was taken in the Temne-speaking town of Magbeli (today spelled Magbile or Magbele) on the banks of the Rokel River. In his photographic register, Thomas also provides the name ‘Pa Fore Salia’, and indicates that the photograph is of a woman. It is interesting to note that the woman carries a man’s name and title.

'Bondo devil' photographed by Northcote Thomas in Magbile, Sierra Leone in 1914
The Samawa-like figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in December 1914 in Magbile, present-day Bombali District, Sierra Leone. In his photo register book, Thomas provides the caption, ‘Bundu “devil”, Pa Fore Salia, woman’. Note the two large sacks on the front of the figure’s costume, probably representing elephantiasis of the scrotum – an affliction said to befall men who pry into the secrets of the women’s society. (NWT 5924 & 5925-6; MAA P.33579 & 33580.)

In contrast to the finely carved helmet mask and dyed raffia costume of the Nöwo or Ndoli jowei, this masquerade costume might be best described as an accretion of beads, coiled basket roundels, bones, bells, shells and animal hair attached to sack cloth. The face of the dancer – presumably Pa Fore – is only partially obscured by the headpiece. This corresponds most closely to the Samawa masquerade described by Ruth Phillips in her book Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. (If you know the equivalent Temne name for this figure, we would welcome your advice.)

Samawa is a satirist, and her use of humour can be light and playful, but can also border on the menacing and frightening. Phillips’ description of a Samawa she witnessed during her research in Southern Sierra Leone in the 1970s, shares many features of the character photographed by Thomas in Magbile:

The costume and performance of samawa change depending on the specific object of her satire. She wears no headpiece, but rather face paint, exaggerated clothing, and the appropriate appended objects. In one performance of samawa that I saw, the impersonator’s face was painted with black and white spots to represent leprosy, a strip of fur was tied around her chin as a beard, and she was dressed in dirty rags. A big bulge under the front of her costume represented a swelling of the scrotum, and she hobbled about leaning on a stick like a cripple. All these deformities, she sang, would afflict any man who disobeys Sande rules, and she interrupted her song with bursts of loud, raucous laughter. (Phillips 1995: 90)

Sure enough, on the front of the costume of the ‘Bundu devil’ photographed by Thomas in Magbile, one can see two bulging sacks, probably representing elephantiasis of the scrotum, which is indeed a condition that men who dare to intrude on the secret practices of the women’s society are said to contract.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this is one of the few facts about the Bondo society that Thomas records in his Anthropological Report. The threat of scrotal elephantiasis was perhaps sufficient to deter him from pursuing his inquiries further!

Pa Kasi

In contrast to his limited investigations of women’s initiation societies, Thomas conducted extensive research into men’s societies such as Poro and Ragbenle. Thomas attempted to be initiated into Poro at Yonibana, but was prevented as a result of the intervention of a junior colonial administrator by the name of W. Y. Lyons. When Thomas complained about this interference, it was claimed that Lyons acted in the interests of the local population. It is more likely, however, that the idea of a European acting on behalf of the colonial government being initiated into a West African ‘secret society’ was seen as a transgression of a racialised boundary, which could not be tolerated by the colonial authorities.

When Thomas submitted the initial draft of his Report to the Colonial Office at the conclusion of his Sierra Leonean tour, he requested that many details of the Poro society and its connection with chieftaincy be withheld from publication because they would cause embarrassment to his informants. Due to these ethical concerns, the section on Poro in the published report is quite cursory.

There are many masquerades associated with Poro in the south of Sierra Leone, some of which had been previously photographed and published by the colonial administrator T. J. Alldridge. Thomas’s anthropological survey was focused in the north and central Sierra Leone, and he took relatively few photographs during his travels in the south, none of which include male masquerades. (The relative sparsity of photographs from the latter period of Thomas’s Sierra Leone tour was probably due to difficulties obtaining new glass plate negatives as the First World War intensified and affected shipping to West Africa.)

'Pa Kashe' photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Pa Kasi’ photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mabonto in present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. (NWT 5843-4; MAA P.33510.)

One Poro figure that Thomas did photograph, however, was ‘Pa Kasi’. Pa Kasi is not, strictly-speaking, a masquerade. He is, rather, a senior official of the men’s Poro society. Due to the remarkable nature of his costume, however, we include him here. The photograph was taken in Mabonto in present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. Pa Kasi plays important roles in the initiation of new members into Poro and also the crowning of paramount chiefs. The same figures is known as ‘Tasso’ in Mende-speaking areas. Thomas describes him as a ‘doctor’, adept at controlling the powers of magico-herbal ‘medicines’ which have the ability to both cure and kill.

Representations of Pa Kasi or Tasso over 200 years. Clockwise from top left: (1) ‘Gregree of Ma Yerma and Gregree of Ba Simera’, published in 1825 in Alexander Gordon Laing’s Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko and Soolima Countries in Western Africa. (2) ‘The Poro Secret Society – Group of Tasso Man, Imperri Country’, photographed in 1895 and published in 1901 in T. J. Alldridge’s The Sherbro and Its Hinterland. (3) Tasso photographed by Gary Schulze at the Durbar for Paramount Chiefs held in Bo, 2011, during Sierra Leone’s 50th anniversary of independence celebrations (reproduced with permission).

The most remarkable aspect of Pa Kasi’s costume is his headdress of ambong. This takes the form of an inverted cone with, according to Thomas, the ‘feathers of the greater plantain-eater in it’. Around its rim are arranged skulls and thigh bones. In Thomas’s account, ‘the skulls are said to be those of people who have infringed Poro law’. This accords with the account of the American anthropologist Vernon Dorjahn who conducted research on the Temne Ragbenle and Poro societies in the 1950s and who states that the ‘skeletal material’ on Pa Kasi’s crown was ‘obtained from those executed for breaches of Poro discipline’ (Dorjahn 1961). In his description of the Tassos in Southern Sierra Leone, Alldridge (1901: 131), however, notes that the bones are those of ‘defunct Tassos’, whom the wearer has succeeded in office.

a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra

Whereas the Pa Kasi/Tasso figure has been documented by European travellers in Sierra Leone since the 1750s, Thomas was the first outsider to record the a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra masquerades of the Temne Ragbènle society. It has been suggested that these spirits – krifi, or kärfi, in Temne – are found exclusively in Yele in Gbonkolenken chiefdom, in Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone, and that they travel to other chiefdoms in the region to perform at the crowning of chiefs. Thomas makes no reference to a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèrabeing exclusive to Yele, however, and, indeed, he photographed examples in Matotaka and Mamaka, in present-day Tane and Yoni cheifdoms respectively, which neighbour Gbonkolenken in Tonkolili District. Our own research also suggests that they continue to exist outside of Yele in other chiefdoms where the Ragbènle society is found.

'Arong Athoma' and 'Namenkara' masquerades photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Aron-athoma’ and ‘Namankara’ masks photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mamaka, present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. (NWT 5847-8; RAI 400.37943.)

Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone contains just a few notes on a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra. Thomas documented, for example, the Ragbènle society’s role at the death of a chief and the initiation of a new chief. At each of these occasions, and also on the death of a member of the society, the a-Ròng-a-Thoma comes out to perform. a-Ròng may be glossed as meaning ‘mask’, and, according to Thomas, Thoma or Toma means ‘forbidden’, but is also the name of a particular tree. The wood of this tree, he notes, cannot be placed on a fire by a member of Ragbènle or he will burn himself. a-Ròng-a-Thoma generally dance in pairs and are accompanied by Namangkèra, who is a messenger figure.

'Arong Athoma' and 'Nemankera' masquerades photographed by Northcote Thomas in Matotoka and Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
Left: ‘Arronna Toma’ mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in Matotaka, 1914. (NWT 5493-4; MAA P.33202.) Right: Sequence of photographs by Northcote Thomas of a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra dancing in Mamaka, 1914. (NWT 5847-8, 5849-50, 5851-2, 5853-4; MAA P.33512, P.33513, P.33514, P.33515.)

Although there are a number of a-Ròng-a-Thoma headdresses in museum collections, until recently Thomas’s photographs were until recently the only documentation of the spirits in their complete costumes. The art historian, Fred Lamp, made a study of the figures during his fieldwork in Yele in 1979-80, during which he interviewed the paramount chief, officials of Ragbènle and former dancers of a-Ròng-a-Thoma. Lamp records that è-Ròng-è-Thoma are said to be the ‘chiefs’ of all the Ragbènle spirits, while Namangkèra is their brother. Both are regarded as water spirits. The wooden a-Ròng-a-Thoma mask is zoomorphic in form, with wide, flaring nostrils, a grid of teeth, and a pair of horns that curve around the crown of the head. It is worn with a costume of dyed raffia. According to Lamp, they are considered responsible for the general welfare and safety of the community and the growth of crops. Namangkèra’s mask has a conical, funnel-like opening, which Thomas describes as a ‘long wooden beard’ (the example photographed by Thomas has more anthromorphic facial features). Lamp notes that unlike a-Ròng-a-Thoma, ‘Namangkèra makes sounds and is very talkative, argumentative to the point that people describe him as a “lawyer”’.

‘Arong Athoma: Curator’s Notes with Bill Hart’. Bill Hart, a specialist on Sierra Leonean material culture, discusses a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra, including footage of the masquerades filmed at the installation of Bai Sunthuba Osara at Matamp in Gbonkolenken chiefdom in 2010 by Nuala McAllister Hart. This short video was made as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project (www.sierraleoneheritage.org).

Sankoh

A particularly unusual type of masquerade figure that Thomas photographed, and which is unique in Sierra Leone in having a brass face, is the a-Ròng-a-Rabai – the ‘mask of chieftaincy’ – or what Thomas refers to as the ‘cheifship krifi’. These are found exclusively in Temne areas of Sierra Leone, and have very rarely been documented. In an article on such masks, Bill Hart states that these are usually bear the name of the chiefly clan, often in archaic form. In his Anthropological Report, Thomas provides a more detailed account of the ‘cheifship krifi’ that he encountered at Mamaka. He writes,

At Mamaka he is called Sanko; Sanko and the chief, Satimaka, must be in separate houses; like the chief, he may not go where bundu [i.e. the women’s society] implements are kept, nor where there is a new-born child. It is significant that at the chief’s death his Sanko retires and is replaced by another man after offering a sacrifice.

Sanko wears a helmet of leather surmounted by a tuft; the face is of brass and there is a brass plate behind; strips of leopard skin are attached to the base, and over the skin is fibre that reaches to the waist. He has fibre ruffles round his wrists and net anklets with fibre tops. Four sticks tied together (bonkoloma) are in his hand; they are the chief’s staff; in point of fact the staff actually used by the chief is quite different, long and forked at the top.

The chiefship mask of Magbile is known as aron arabai; like Sanko the wearer cannot come out when the chief is dead; the mask is kept in the chief’s house. The dress is formed of skins, and he has palm-fibre trousers.

When he goes for a walk through the land he carries a broom and whips to flog people who do not come out when he dances. He can judge cases and pay the money received to the chief.

'Sanko' masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
Front and rear view of Pa Sanko, the ‘mask of chieftaincy’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mamaka in present-day Yoni chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. (NWT 5856, 5855; MAA P.33518, P.33517.)

When we did fieldwork in Mamaka as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we were careful to discuss with the senior men the fact that we had photographs of things that perhaps not everyone was permitted to see. Among the elders we met was Pa Amadu Kamara, the grandson of Chief Satimaka, whom Thomas photographed. We learned Pa Amadu’s grandfather’s full name was Satimaka Memneh Sankoh, and that Sankoh is the name of the ‘devil’ (i.e. spirit) that dwells in the hill above the town. The devil of the hill, we were told, has someone in the town who is called Pa Sankoh. Pa Amadu expressed surprise that Thomas was able to photograph Sankoh; neither did he know whether the spirit still dwelled in the hill. There seemed to be a distinction made between the spirit or krifi, Sankoh, after whom the hill was named, and Pa Sankoh, who alone could communicate between krifi and the people of the town.

Left: Chief Satimaka of Mamaka, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 (detail of NWT 5854; RAI 400.38198). Right: Pa Amadu Kamara holding Northcote Thomas’s photograph of his grandfather, Chief Satimaka, photographed by Paul Basu, 2019. There was a striking family resemblance between grandfather and grandson.

Ayuke or Kabemba

Boys and young men must be circumcised before they can be initiated into the Poro or Ragbènle societies. At the time of the circumcision ceremonies, the initiands withdraw into a circumcision bush, which is forbidden to women and where various prohibitions pertain. According to Thomas’s account of the process, while undergoing the ordeal, those being circumcised are under the guardianship of an old man, and also an old widow who is known as Yabemba. Yabemba must be past child-bearing age, and is the only woman permitted to enter the circumcision bush.

'Kabamba' circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Kabamba’ circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Mamaka, present-day Yoni chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone (NWT 5895, 5896; RAI 400.38234, MAA P.33552.)
Circumcision masks photographed by Northcote Thomas in Sierra Leone in 1914
Left: Circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Matotaka, present-day Tane chiefdom, Tonkolili District (NWT 5495; RAI 400.37821). Right ‘Kabamba’ circumcision mask photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914 in Robinkie, Mayoso, present-day Kholifa Rowala chiefdom, Tonkolili District (NWT 5514; MAA P.33234).

Once the initiands’ wounds have healed, they follow a masked figure – known as Bemba, Kabemba or Ayuke – back into the town, where they dance all night wearing long gowns (runku). Thomas records that in some towns the mask is worn by the man who conducts the circumcision operation (ayunkoli).

Following the ceremonies, Thomas states that the circumcision mask and its raffia costume are generally kept; although he notes that in some places they are thrown into the bush, presumably to decay. Thomas photographed examples of the Kabemba mask in Mamaka, Matotaka and Mayoso, and he also collected one in Mapori (Mafori?), with its fibre and palm-leaf dress, which he notes in his Report is ‘now in the Cambridge Museum of Ethnology’. We were able to identify and photograph this mask during our research with the Thomas collections at the museum, now called the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.

Kabimba circumcision mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Mapori, Sierra Leone in 1914
‘Yuke’or Kabimba circumcision mask, worn at dance in town’, collected by Northcote Thomas in Mapori near Kamalo in present-day Sanda Loko chiefdom, Bombali District, Northern Sierra Leone. (NWT 49; MAA Z 14480.1.)
‘The Kabemba Mask: Curator’s Notes with Bill Hart’. Bill Hart, a specialist on Sierra Leonean material culture, discusses the mask of the Kabemba masquerade, using examples from the British Library collections. This short video was made as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project (www.sierraleoneheritage.org).

Further reading

  • Alldridge, T. J. (1901) The Sherbro and Its Hinterland. London: Macmillan.
  • Dorjahn, V. R. (1961) ‘The Initiation of Temne Poro Officials’, Man 61: 36-40.
  • Hart, W. A. (1986) ‘Aron Aarabai: The Temne Mask of Chieftaincy’, African Arts 19(2): 41-45+91.
  • Lamp, F. J. (2005) ‘The Royal Horned Hippopotamus of the Keita of Temne: “A-Rong-a-Thoma”‘, Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin: 36-53.
  • Phillips, R. B. (1995) Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
  • Thomas, N. W. (1916) Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, Part 1: Law and Custom. London: Harrison & Sons.

Musical returns and revivals

Ikenna Onwuegbuna reworking Igbo sound archive

One of the archival legacies of N. W. Thomas‘ anthropological surveys of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone is a unique collection of around 750 wax cylinder sound recordings. Since they were recorded using a long-obsolete technology, it had been virtually impossible to listen to the recordings until the British Library Sound Archive digitized them a few years ago. It is only now, however, through the [Re:]Entanglements project that we are beginning to appreciate their remarkable value.

The recordings, which include stories, songs, music, conversations and ‘samples of language‘, constitute an important primary source concerning the histories of the various locations and communities included in Thomas’ itineraries. Due to the poor quality of the recordings and linguistic changes in the areas in which they were made, the recordings are challenging to work with. In an earlier article, Revisiting some Awka folksongs, ethnomusicologist Samson Uchenna Eze discusses some of the difficulties transcribing a selection of the recordings.

As part of our collaboration with colleagues at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna of the Department of Music has analysed and reworked a further selection of Thomas’ recordings made in the Igbo-speaking towns of Awka and Agulu in 1911. Onwuegbuna’s grandmother was a well-known singer, and, as an indigene of the Awka region himself, Onwuegbuna is able to provide invaluable insight into the cultural and musical context of the recordings, able to discern nuances and idioms particular to that context. In what follows he provides a kind of masterclass on each of the recordings, before reflecting on their broader significance today.

Ikenna Onwuegbuna [Re:]Entangled Traditions exhibition University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna introducing the traditional music ensemble at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which he directs, at the opening of the [Re:]Entangled Traditions exhibition, February 2020. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Reworking archival sound

As an ethnomusicologist, music performer and studio producer, Onwuegbuna carefully selected, scrutinized and creatively reworked five of the audio tracks recorded by Thomas. These include three vocal songs, a song performed by a Mmọ̄nwụ̄ (a ‘spirit manifest’ or, less correctly, masquerade), and an instrumental track.

As Onwuegbuna noted in conversation, the limitations of the phonograph sound recording equipment that was available to Thomas are very evident in the recordings. In addition to the high levels of noise, the wax cylinders have an extremely limited dynamic range, and reproduce only a narrow frequency spectrum. The duration of the recordings was limited to about 2½ minutes. Another significant limitation was the fact that recording was made not electronically, through a microphone, but via a horn, which funnelled sound waves onto a membrane upon which a cutting needle was attached. The mouth of the horn had to be placed close to the sound source – thus a soloist singing directly into the horn would produce a good recording, while members of a chorus or instrumentalists positioned further away might not register well.

The only photograph from N. W. Thomas’ anthropological surveys showing his wax cylinder phonograph recorder. Photograph by N. W. Thomas, Agila, present-day Benue State, Nigeria, 1913. See Sound recording in the field article. (NWT 4885; MAA P.32756.)
Group of children from Hula singing into an Edison phonograph during the 1898-99 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait. One gets a better sense of the limitations of the phonograph and its recording horn in this photograph. (MAA
N.34988.ACH2.)

Mindful of these limitations, which convey a distorted impression of this sonic heritage, Onwuegbuna has recorded a new version of each of the historical recordings using modern studio techniques, including sampling of the traditional instruments that would have been used, but which are barely audible in the originals. This has provided an opportunity of imagining how the original performances may have sounded, with a much broader tonal and dynamic range, and complete with choruses and full instrumentation.

As well as recording them, Northcote Thomas also collected examples of musical instruments during his anthropological surveys. Pictured is a selection of instruments collected from the Awka region in 1910-11 that feature in Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s reworkings of the historical recordings. Clockwise from bottom left: Ékwé (wooden slit-drum) (MAA Z 14218); Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattle) (MAA Z 14061); Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattle) (MAA Z 14223.1); Ōgénè (clapperless bells) (MAA Z 14236); Ọ̀jà (notched end-blown flute) (MAA Z 14046); Ị̀gbà (membrane drum) (MAA Z 14200).

For each of the recordings we include the original (digitized) wax cylinder recording made by Thomas, Onwuegbuna’s re-recording of the track, a short video in which Onwuegbuna discusses the original track and how he has reworked it, as well as additional musicological notes.

Kwà-àjáyámmá – vocal group, Agulu, 1911 (#449)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of vocal group, Agulu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, February 1911. (NWT 449; BL C51/2334.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.449 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

This is a women’s dance song recorded by N. W. Thomas in Agulu, Awka area, in 1911. In reinterpreting the song, I was guided by the thematic contents to supply instrumental accompaniments and vocal harmony to the original. I also enriched the lyrical content by adding some new materials while retaining some of the original contents.

Kwà-àjáyámmá, an onomatopoeic sound and chorused response to the melodic calls of the soloist, is a non-lexical text used in describing the syncopated rhythmic movements of the dancers. As the soloist sings about the innovations that the group has introduced courtesy of their travels to near and far places, this newness is celebrated in chorused response and dance.

Since Igbo musical instruments have gender inscriptions and gender restrictions, I carefully selected the accompanying instruments along the lines of such bounds.

Álō (metal gong)obbligato
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic

Àrụ̀kụ̀ Gbá Ngwā – vocal group, Awka, 1911 (#435)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of female vocal group, Awka, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 25 January 1911. (NWT 435; BL C51/2675.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.435 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

Àrụ̀kụ̀ gbá ngwā (meaning ‘Àrụ̀kụ̀, hasten up’) was recorded by N. W. Thomas in Awka in 1911, as a female duet. In my reinterpretation, I treated the so-called female duet (which is actually two female voices singing in unison) as a vocal introduction to a mixed-gender dance song. The introduction, in irregular rhythm, is preceded with a horn sound, which warns the listener to expect more in the music than merely a female music ensemble. As the music modulates metrically from irregular to regular rhythm, a dance mode is ignited, accompanied by a dense instrumental texture. This dense texture is further deepened by the vocal harmony of the chorused responses. The lyrics chronicle the history of the group – their collective and individual achievements, and their popularity – and, at the same time, highlights the norms and values of the land. While the onomatopoeic sounds in the chorus are used for exclamations, the chanted words that interject occasionally are declamations – a common practice in a male or mixed gender ensemble.

 The instruments deployed in the ensemble include:

Álō (metal gong)obbligato
Òpù (animal horn)speech surrogate
Ọ̀jà (notched end-blown flute)instrumental melody
Ị̀gbà (membrane drum)melo-rhythmic
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic

Íyó-ólòlólō – vocal group, Awka, 1911 (#436)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of female vocal group, Awka, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 25 January 1911. (NWT 436; BL C51/2676.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.436 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

This song, by a vocal group recorded by N. W. Thomas in Awka in 1911, celebrates music, the talent of music-making, and the musicians. In the lyrics, music is metaphorical alluded to as the drum (Ị̀gbà), thereby implying that the group is a mixed ensemble of melodic and rhythmic (melo-rhythmic) instruments. In my reinterpretation, I introduced vocal harmony and instrumental accompaniment.

Ị̀gbà (membrane drum)melo-rhythmic
Ékpílí (pod rattles)time referent
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic

Égwú Mmọ̄nwụ̄ – vocal group, Agulu, 1911 (#442)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of male vocal group, Agulu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 12 February 1911. (NWT 442; BL C51/2686.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.442 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

Égwú mmọ̄nwụ̄ (music of the spirit) captures the reality of the union between the living and the ancestors in Igbo cosmology. Here, two masked singers in muffled voices (ónú mmọ̄nwụ̄) were captured in a vocal performance by N. W. Thomas in 1911 in Agulu. In the call and response vocal interchange, the ‘spirit-manifest’ (Mmọ̄nwụ̄) passes coded information in a simple melody, without any instrumental accompaniment. What I have done, in reinterpretation, is to introduce three instruments while retaining the original vocal melody as recorded by Thomas. In my creative rationalization, a terse texture will still clear the path for the logogenic melody, without masking the message.

The instruments:

Óké ōgénè mkpị̀ n’ábọ̀ (male twin clapperless bells)melo-rhythmic
Nwúnyè ōgénè mkpị̀ n’ábọ̀ (female twin clapperless bells)time referent
Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattles)rhythmic

Égwú – percussion and flute instrumental, Agulu, 1911 (#448)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of percussion and flute instrumental, Agulu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 14 February 1911. (NWT 448; BL C51/2697.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.448 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

In titling this instrumental dance music, I settled for the generic term, Égwú, which not only could translate to music, but also means song, dance, drama, banter, festival, and games. Since it is an instrumental style, I could not think of a better title. As the rhythmic complexity can be felt in a consortium of percussion instruments, the resultant groove provides a soundscape to support and project the emotional dynamics of the melodic instruments. To further deepen the already dense texture of the original recording by Thomas, I introduced a pentatonic-tuned xylophone that occasionally breaks the dominance of the flute melody.

The featured instruments in my edition include:

Ọ̀jà (notched end-blown flute)instrumental melody
Ngédégwū (xylophone)instrumental melody
Ọ́kwá (double-slab xylophone)melo-rhythmic
Ị̀gbà (membrane drum)melo-rhythmic
Ékpílí (pod rattles)time referent/rhythmic
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic
Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattles)rhythmic
Wooden clappersrhythmic

Cultural loss and revival

by Ikenna Onwuegbuna

This ethnomusicological re-engagement with the sound archive has provided an opportunity to peep into the history of the Awka people, with a view to ascertaining the nature and features of their music, including their compositional practices and performance techniques. It enables us to reflect on continuities and changes in the phenomenon of folk artistry.

Reflecting on the historical recordings, it is clear that the only phenomenon that is permanent is change. Igbo society is undergoing rapid changes due to the influence of globalization on its cultural institutions and practices. This is a consequence of the history of European colonialism in the region and especially the incursion of foreign religion that caused a great change from Igbo traditional religion to Christianity.

For a few decades now, there has been growing consciousness of the importance of cultural revival. Against the background of massive loss of cultural heritage, this cultural revivalist movement has been making slow but steady progress. The effort to conserve what can be conserved, to resuscitate what is almost dead, and to change the mentality of the people about their culture is an ongoing process in Nigeria.

In order to rework the historical sound recordings made by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys one must couple a forensic approach to analysing the originals with an in-depth knowledge of the cultural, linguistic and musicological context. Recreating the full sonic experience using modern studio techniques allows us to recover a musical heritage, which the limitations of Thomas’s wax cylinder phonograph could not capture.

This becomes a significant service to the survival of cultural diversity and to the cultural identity of the Igbo people. This is not merely a matter of historical interest. The musical performances that Thomas recorded in the Awka District in 1910-11 are full of inspirational materials that can be adapted by composers of African popular and art music for their original compositions. They provide resource materials for creative artists in humanities, social sciences and beyond. All these could be harnessed for cultural diversity, advancement and socio-economic development.


Thank you Ikenna for your inspirational work with a small selection of Thomas’s recordings, pointing towards the huge potential of the wider collection. Thanks also to British Library Sounds for providing access to the digitized recordings and a small grant to help facilitate this re-engagement work.

The Eliminya Festival masquerades ‘in detail’, Guest blog by Jean Borgatti

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Left: Otuoyema Group masquerades of the type referred to as Osa. Photographed by Jean Borgatti at the final performance of Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, 1973. The performance was held in honor of Samuel Ogbemudia who served as military governor of what was then Midwest State. Right: Otuoyema Group masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas (NWT 839) in Emafu (Imafun) Quarter, Otuo, in 1909.

In an earlier guest blog, the art historian Professor Jean Borgatti described her first encounter with the photographic archives of Northcote Thomas in the early 1970s. She recounted how she was able to track the changes and continuities in the masquerade traditions associated with the Eliminya Festival in Otuo from Thomas’s photographs from 1909 to her own documentation of the festival in 1973, 2003 and 2016. In this second guest blog, Jean discusses the Eliminya masquerade costumes themselves in greater detail.

Otuo community life is based on the principle of age-grading. Community member and teacher, I. Igbafe, described a series of 13 grades through which passed age sets formed every 5 years. (The anthropologist, R. E. Bradbury, described 11 such grades). Each grade bears a name and has specific tasks associated with it as well as specific ritual duties and roles. Masquerade and dance regalia characterize each group through the Otuoyema, or first title grade – the group moving upward in the Eliminya/Igugu festival. Igugu is a cognate with the Yoruba language term Egungun that refers to ancestors and ancestral masquerades, and was the name used by my informants in 1972-3. (Yoruba is spoken widely in Otuo as well as throughout northwest Edo communities.) Eliminya is cognate with the Edo term Erivi meaning the world of the dead and unborn, residence of the gods, the ancestors and masquerade-dancers (Melzian 1937: 55-6).

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Osa type masquerades photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

In Otuo, men between the ages of 45 and 50 both sponsor and wear masks and headdresses in festivals held to mark their entry into the group of community leaders. The sponsoring age group wears only two of the seven or eight mask types that appear, the others being worn by the age company above them. These masks are used for a season lasting 5-7 years and are thereafter destroyed. Consequently, they are almost unknown to the outside world. The masks incorporate a vast array of images that refer to ideas of power and leadership: leopards, equestrian figures, colonial officers, the Nigerian Army, heraldic angels and airplanes. The names of the masquerades belong to the esoteric lore associated with each age company, although the masks I refer to as ‘bowler hats’ are called by the popular names ‘umbrella’ or ‘helmet’ – names that suggest kingship or the military but in either case, authority.  These and the ‘whipping masquerades’ are those costumes carried by the sponsoring age company [see illustrations in Jean’s previous guest blog]. The symbolism and significance of these masks also belongs to the esoteric lore of the association. However it is said that while the activity of whipping masquerades purifies the community, the ‘umbrella’ masquerades are enjoyed for their dancing.

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
From left to right: Obagege, crested, and Ogbigbia type masquerades photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

All the masquerade headdresses are worn with a costume of woven raffia covering the performer’s head and torso, following the shape of his body. A fringed panel falls over his chest and shoulders. The section covering his head is embellished with a nose-like tassel. The lower hem of the costume terminates in long strands of fiber. The performer’s arms and legs, painted with linear designs, are partially visible through the fringe as is his cloth applique apron. (Today, shorts are worn rather than the backless apron worn in the past that left the buttocks exposed and visible as the fringe swayed.) Each headdress appears to give a distinctive name to the masquerade. In the parade of masked figures I witnessed in 1973, where the photographs that accompany this blog were taken, costumes worn with a towering feather headdress (Obagege), a central crest of straws bound together, and small wooden caps resembling women’s plaited hairstyles (Ogbigbia) precede the whipping masquerades (Olu), a type far outnumbering the rest since each member of the age group moving upward must wear this one. The wooden capped masqueraders are said to be for maintaining order during the public displays.

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Left: Olu, ‘whipping masquerades’, whose role is to disperse malevolent spirits; right: Ogbogbomudu masquerade types, which perform humorous skits in the playing ground. Photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

The ‘whipping masqueraders’ perform to disperse malevolent spiritual forces, each cracking  his whip in an attempt to achieve a sound approximating a gunshot. (Those who succeeded were greeted with a resounding cheer.) These are followed by the ‘umbrellas’ (Ugbokpa) and the wooden helmet masks (Ogbogbomudu). These characters are said to be linked to the rains, and perform humorous skits in the playing ground. The most elaborate masks and headdresses featuring figural superstructures (Osa) come a stately last.

Eliminya Festival masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas in Otuo in 1909
Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the Osa masquerade type in Otuo in 1909. NWT 837.

That each company moving upwards in the system must provide a new set of headdresses provides for the incorporation of new motifs into the compositions and new materials into their construction. Northcote Thomas photographed only three of these masquerade types in Otuo: the whipping masquerade (Olu) and the umbrella masquerade (Ugbokpa), whose later 20th- and 21st-century counterparts are dramatically similar, and one towering Osa masquerade that appears to have a canework superstructure into which are pegged multiple small figures. The final two types of masquerade I witnessed in the 1973 parade consisted of a helmet, usually janus-faced, surmounted by a superstructure containing multiple figures or simply a multi-tiered headdress with carved figures and animals attached to the basic structure, evoking the complex example photographed by Thomas.

My research in Nigeria was carried out between 1971 and 1974 under the auspices of the Federal Department of Antiquities and was partially funded by the following: UCLA Museum of Cultural History-Ralph Altman Fund and NDEA Title VI fellowships via the African Studies Center, UCLA.  Research in 2002-04 and in 2014-16 was carried out under a Fulbright-Hays teaching and research fellowship at the University of Benin in Benin City. I would like to thank the people of Otuo for sharing information and experiences with me, particularly Chief Erukpe Omokhudu, Mr Isaac Adokhai Afekhai, and Teacher Igbafe of Otuo for their personal assistance in 1973. In 2003, his Highness, Julius Elugbe, the Ovie of Otuo, was instrumental in facilitating my documentation of the festival. In 2016, his nephew, Professor Ben Elugbe, was my host during the masquerades’ morning walk-about.

Further reading:

Borgatti, J. M. 1982. ‘Age Grades, Masquerades, and Leadership among the Northern Edo’, African Arts 16 (1): 36-51+96.
Bradbury, R. 1957. The Benin Kingdom and the Edo-Speaking Peoples of Southwestern Nigeria. London: International African Institute.
Igbafe, I. n.d. ‘Age Group Organization in Otuo’. Unpublished manuscript given to the author, and subsequently deposited in the Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.
Melzian, H. 1937. A Concise History of the Bini Language of Southern Nigeria. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

The Eliminya Festival, Otuo, Guest blog by Jean Borgatti

Northcote Thomas's photograph of Eliminya masquerade costumes, Otuo as published in Peoples of All Nations in 1922.
N. W. Thomas’s photograph of Eliminya masquerade costumes as published and captioned in Peoples of All Nations in 1922, and The Secret Museum of Mankind in 1935.

This is the first in an occasional series of guest blogs for the [Re:]Entanglements project by Jean Borgatti. Jean received a PhD in Art History from UCLA in 1976. She has carried out research in Nigeria among Edo-speaking people north of Benin for over 40 years, beginning in the 1970s, returning in 2003-04 and 2014-16 on Fulbright-Hays teaching/research fellowships with a base at the University of Benin, Benin City. She has carried out research among a number of small ethnic groups with which N. W. Thomas interacted, notably the Okpella (Ukpila), Ekperi, Weppa-Wano, Avianwu, Uzairue, Otuo (Otwa), Ogbe and Ibillo, publishing on the Okpella, Ekperi and Otuo masquerade complexes in the journal African Arts. In this blog, Jean recalls her encounter with a photograph by Northcote Thomas reproduced uncredited in a 1935 publication entitled The Secret Museum of Mankind, and how this led to her own documentation of the same remarkable Otuo masquerade in the early 1970s.

‘Awe-inspiring ceremonial attends the most important event in tribal life — the admission of the young men into the full rights of manhood. In South Kukuruku the initiation is performed once every three years by members of the Eliminya Society. They wear uncanny, somewhat insect-like masks with pendant tassels — always jealously concealed from the uninitiated and from women — a kind of tunic of loose cords, and crested helmets of palm-fibre.’

So reads the caption to this heavily modified photograph, published in 1935 in The Secret Museum of Mankind – a work described on the website at which it has been digitized, as a ‘mystery book’, with ‘no author or credits, no copyright, no date, no page numbers, [and] no index’ (http://ian.macky.net/secretmuseum/). Advertised as ‘World’s Greatest Collection of Strange & Secret Photographs’, its accompanying texts ‘read like the patter of a carnival sideshow barker’, racist and sensational (ibid.).

Northcote Thomas's photograph of the Eliminya masquerade costumes, Otuo, July 1909. NWT 840. RAI 400.19717.
N. W. Thomas’s original photograph of the Eliminya masquerade costumes, taken in Otuo in July 1909 (NWT 840). Scanned from glass plate negative in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s collections (RAI 400.19717).

Like other images in the book, the photograph is not attributed in The Secret Museum of Mankind. We know, however, that it is one of Northcote W. Thomas’s photographs taken in Otuo (Otwa) in July 1909, in the north of Nigeria’s Edo State, of a festival he records as being called ‘Eliminya’. The photograph and the caption had previously been published in 1922 in a serialized illustrated encyclopaedia entitled Peoples of All Nations edited by J. A. Hammerton. N. W. Thomas provided numerous photographs to sections on the ‘British Empire in Africa’ and contributed an article on the ‘manners and customs of its native races’.

Both Peoples of All Nations and The Secret Museum of Mankind were published at a time described by Annie Coombes in her book Reinventing Africa (1997) when Africa was a concept as much as a geographical destination. She notes that the Africa that existed in the popular European imagination was an ideological space, at once savage, threatening, exotic and productive. These ideas are reinforced by the images and captions published in popular works such as Peoples of All Nations and The Secret Museum of Mankind.

At this time two particular cultural arenas effectively disseminated knowledge of Africa to the European public: the displayed classification of material culture from Africa in ethnographic collections in local and national museums (such as the collections made by Northcote Thomas and now in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), and the spectacle of Africans themselves in a variety of large-scale national and regional exhibitions. The popular illustrated press and serialized encyclopaedias such as Peoples of All Nations were also part  of this dissemination, and, as mentioned above, this material was later republished in works such as The Secret Museum of Mankind.

I recognized the photographs when I obtained a second-hand copy of The Secret Museum of Mankind in the early 1970s, having earlier seen copies of some of Northcote Thomas’s photographs. These had been made from the album lodged in the National Museum in Lagos and provided by a colleague, since at that time I was considering whether to make an art historical field study in the Edo North area (known in Thomas’s time as Kukuruku). I spent some time in the UK at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where I was given access to Thomas’s collection – although it was not well catalogued, stored or described at that time. I pursued a field enquiry in Edo North between 1971 and 1974, witnessing the festival described by Thomas as Eliminya in Otuo (Otwa) in 1973. (When I visited the festival was called Igugu.) Although this was not my primary research, after witnessing this extraordinary masquerade spectacle I did some follow up work and wrote an article on Otuo’s age grade masquerades, published in African Arts (Borgatti 1982).

Jean Borgatti's photograph of Eliminya or Igugu festival, 1973.
Otuoyema group masqueraders in fibre costumes, Otuo, 1973. Photograph by Jean Borgatti.

I had been fortunate in 1973 to document a particularly important group of men who served as sponsors for the masquerades as they moved into what was described as the lower levels of leadership. They were men between 40 and 50 years of age in the Otuoyema age group. Otuo requires that its citizens participate in the age-grade system, even if that participation is by proxy, moving up systematically through the ranks. If a man does not participate, he may never become a chief in Otuo – no matter how successful he has been in the outside world. This seems to have provided considerable incentive for people to support the age-grade institution.

Jean Borgatti's photograph of Eliminya or Igugu festival, 1973.
Otuoyema group masqueraders wearing headdresses of raffia velvet, Otuo, 1973. Photograph by Jean Borgatti.

I returned to Nigeria in 2002-03 on a Fulbright-Hays Research and Teaching fellowship that enabled me to follow up on the Otuo (and neigbouring Ikao) festival. During the festival, I was the guest of the paramount chief of Otuo, Ovie Julius Elugbe, who had been one of the initiates in 1973. 2003 was a year during which age sets moved up, so new masquerades had to be made and the displays were elaborate, though not as elaborate as in 1973.

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2003
Large masquerade (Ugbokpa), sometimes called ‘umbrella’, followed by a smaller, flat ‘whipping’ masquerade (Olu) moving from playing ground to playing ground at the beginning of the festival. Igugu/Eliminya Festival, Imakhize Village, Otuo, January 12, 2003.

 

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2003
Ugbokpa and Olu masquerades in Uzawa Village playing ground with age company member. Igugu/Eliminya Festival, Otuo, January 12, 2003.

Subsequently, in 2016, I photographed the festival again, this time in the company of the linguist, Professor Ben Elugbe, the late Ovie’s nephew. 2016 was not a year for age-grade formation, since this occurs only once every five years when the new masquerades are introduced (in contrast to Thomas’s assertion that it occurred every three years). In between times, the fibre masquerades, if not those with carved wooden headdresses, come out annually in their respective quarters, going to each village square or playing ground to dance. According to Professor Elugbe, there are eighteen distinct playing grounds today. If no one is there to beat the drums for the masquerades when the arrive, they may just walk around and go on to the next playing ground.

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2016
Large masquerade (Ugbokpa) arriving at playing ground in Oluma Village. Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, January 1, 2016.

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2016
Small masquerade (Olu) performing to the beat of the drum (odoka) in Oluma Village. Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, January 1, 2016.

Even though Thomas’s photographs provide an important visual baseline for Otuo’s cultural practices, much work remains to be done in these northern Edo communities that are struggling to conserve their remarkable heritage.