Abakuá

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Abakuá is an Afro-Cuban men's initiatory fraternity, or secret society, which originated from fraternal associations in the Cross River region of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon. Known generally as Ekpe, Egbo, Ngbe, or Ugbe among the multi-lingual groups in the region. It was believed that Ñáñigos, as the members are known, could be transformed into leopards to stalk their enemies. In contemporary Haiti, where secret societies have remained strong, an elite branch of the army that was set up to instill fear in the restless masses was named The Leopards. Among the less mystical Ñáñigo revenges was the ability to turn people over to slavers. In Africa they were notorious operators who had made regular deals for profit with slavers.[1]

Abakuá has been described as "an Afro-Cuban version of Freemasonry".[2]

Origin[edit]

The creolized Cuban term Abakuá is thought to refer to the Abakpa area in southeast Nigeria, where the society was active. The first such societies were established by Africans in the town of Regla, Havana, in 1836.[3] This remains the main area of Abakuá implantation, especially the district of Guanabacoa in eastern Havana, and in Matanzas where Afro-Cuban culture is vibrant.

Abakuá members derive their belief systems and traditional practices from the Igbo, Efik, Efut, and Ibibio spirits that lived in the forest. Ekpe and synonymous terms were names of both a forest spirit and a leopard related secret society.[4]

Members[edit]

Members of this society came to be known as ñañigos, a word used to designate the street dancers of the society. The ñañigos, who were also called diablitos, were well known by the general population in Cuba through their participation in the Carnival on the Day of the Three Kings, when they danced through the streets wearing their ceremonial outfit, a multicolored checkerboard dress with a conical headpiece topped with tassels.[5]

The oaths of loyalty to the Abakuá society’s sacred objects, members, and secret knowledge taken by initiates are a lifelong pact which creates a sacred kinship among the members. The duties of an Abakuá member to his ritual brothers at times surpass even the responsibilities of friendship, and the phrase "Friendship is one thing, and the Abakuá another" is often heard.[6] One of the oaths made during initiation is that one will not reveal the secrets of the Abakuá to non-members, which is why the Abakuá have remained hermetic for over 160 years.[7]

Culture and practices[edit]

Besides acting as a mutual aid society, the Abakuá performs rituals and ceremonies, called plantes, full of theatricality and drama which consists of drumming, dancing, and chanting in the secret Abakuá language. Knowledge of the chants is restricted to Abakuá members, but Cuban scholars have long thought that the ceremonies express Abakuá cultural history.[8] Other ceremonies such as initiations and funerals, are secret and occur in the sacred room of the Abakuá temple, called the famba.[9]

Music[edit]

The rhythmic dance music of the Abakuá combined with Bantu traditions of the Congo contributed to the musical tradition of the rumba.

Although hermetic and little known even within Cuba, an analysis of Cuban popular music recorded from the 1920s until the present reveals Abakuá influence in nearly every genre of Cuban popular music. Cuban musicians who are members of the Abakuá have continually documented key aspects of their society’s history in commercial recordings, usually in their secret Abakuá language. The Abakuá have commercially recorded actual chants of the society, believing that outsiders cannot interpret them. Because Abakuá represented a rebellious, even anti-colonial, aspect of Cuban culture, these secret recordings have been very popular.[10]

Practices[edit]

Ireme is the Cuban term for the masked Abakuá dancer known as Idem or Ndem in the Cross River region. The masquerade dancer is carefully covered in a tight-fitting suit and hood, and dances with a broom and a staff. The broom serves to cleanse faithful members, while the staff chastises enemies and Abakuá traitors. During initiation ceremonies, the staff is called the Erí nBan nDó, while during mournings and wakes it is called AlanManguín Besuá.

Language[edit]

Due to the secrecy of the society, little is known of the Abakuá language. It is assumed to be a creolized version of Efik or Ibibio, both closely related languages or dialects from the Cross River region of Nigeria, because this is the cultural region and ethnic groups where the society originated.

If it is indeed a creolized version of either Efik or Ibibio, it could be compared in purpose and in its formation and origins to other African languages, or specialized vocabularies derived from African languages, used in other Afro-American religions, such as:

Disambiguation[edit]

Abacuá also describes a group of Afro-Cuban people of the carabalí as well as their style of music and their percussion instruments.

The Abakuá Afro-Latin Dance Company, a dance company based in New York City, draws its namesake from this origin. The purpose for selecting this name was to recognize the company's link to the origins of the type of music the company performs to. The company does not claim to be an authentic representation of the specific style native to Abakuá but rather, an amalgamation of movements native to Afro-Cuban/Caribbean culture and the development of the company's own unique style entitled Afro-Latin Funk. The selection of the name "Afro-Latin" was done in order to identify the company's presence within Latin and Hispanic culture as a whole.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Sosa, Enrique (1982). Los Ñáñigos. Havana: Ediciones Casa de las Américas. 
  2. ^ "Religion in Cuba: Chango unchained". The Economist. 18 April 2015. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  3. ^ Miller, Ivor. “A Secret Society Goes Public: The Relationship Between Abakua and Cuban Popular Culture.” African Studies Review 43.1 (2000): 161.
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Velez, Teresa Maria. Drumming for the Gods: The Life and Times of Felipe Garcia Villamil, Santero, Palero, and Abakua. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000: 17.
  6. ^ Miller, Ivor. “A Secret Society Goes Public: The Relationship Between Abakua and Cuban Popular Culture.” African Studies Review 43.1 (2000): 164.
  7. ^ Velez, Teresa Maria. Drumming for the Gods: The Life and Times of Felipe Garcia Villamil, Santero, Palero, and Abakua. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000: 23.
  8. ^ Miller, Ivor. “Cuban Abakuá Chants: Examining New Linguistic and Historical Evidence for the African Diaspora.” African Studies Review 48.1 (2005): 27.
  9. ^ Velez, Teresa Maria. Drumming for the Gods: The Life and Times of Felipe Garcia Villamil, Santero, Palero, and Abakua. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000: 18.
  10. ^ Miller, Ivor. “A Secret Society Goes Public: The Relationship Between Abakua and Cuban Popular Culture.” African Studies Review 43.1 (2000): 161.

Further reading[edit]