Nigerian Efiks and Cuban Abakua re-unite
"Okobio Enyenisón, Awanabekura Mendo/ Núnkue Itia Ororo Kánde Efík Ebutón/ Oo Ékue"
(Our African brothers from the sacred place came to Cuba, and in Regla founded Efík Ebutón [the first Abakuá group] and its sacred drum).
-- Yoruba Andabo, 1997
The Abakuá society was founded in Havana, Cuba in the 1830s by leaders of Cross River local governments who had been captured as slaves. In the ensuing 170 years, the society - derived from the Efik people’s Ekpe society as well as the Efut people’s Ngbe society - has grown in importance to become a distinguishing feature of Cuban cultural identity. A year ago I published an article about the influence of the Abakuá society on popular music, in which I translated key phrases from esoteric chants documenting the actions of Efik leaders who helped found the society.
Meanwhile Mr. Orok Edem, an Efik scholar in the USA seeking information about the Cuban Abakuá society, contacted me via the AfrocubaWeb page and read my paper. Not only did he recognize many terms used today by the Abakuá, but also some Efik place names mentioned in the songs. The key term was “Efí Kebutón,” name of the first Abakua group in Cuba, likely named after “Obutong,” an Efik town in Calabar. This was the place where, according to local Cross River histories, an Efik leader and his entire retinue were captured by British ships; the information contained in the Cuban chants documents their final destination in Havana. This information gave rational to the seemingly fablulous story of a complex secret society being recreated under conditions of slavery; it was possible because the leaders and their intimate circle were brought into the context of Havana, a cosmopolitan city with a large free black population, among which were already many Cross River people. Our project of piecing together a continuous narrative across what scholars once considered the dividing line (or “blank slate effect”) of the Middle Passage was only possible through years of field work on both sides of the Atlantic, and subsequent collaboration between scholars and practitioners.
Orok Edem suggested that I facilitate an exchange between a group of Cuban Abakuá and Nigerian Efik at the Efik National Association meeting on July 28, in Brooklyn, NY. After President Samuel Eyo contacted me, and I began working with Asuquo Ukpong, an Ekpe initiate and the director of information of the Efik Association. Mr. Ukpong helped organized a program (on July 1 on with Diabel Faye, host of the “Rhythm and News” show (formerly radio Kankan) at WBAI, Pacifica radio in New York, about the Efik meeting and the Cuban cultural connection. On it, Chief Joseph Edem, an Efut Ngbe (Ekpe) leader, Mr. Ukpong, C. Daniel Dawson (an African Diaspora specialist), Diabel Faye, and I spoke about issues regarding Ekpe/Ngbe culture and its Diaspora. On the program, a recording of Abakua music was played, the very one I had used to transcribe the Abakuá phrase about Efík Ebúton. Serendipitously, the knowledgeable singer on this recording, Mr. Román Diaz, whose words I had translated in my article, was then living in New York. Realizing the enormity of the meeting, he agreed to participate in a performance with the Efik Ekpe masquerades.
The recording was by the rumba group “Yoruba Andabo.” Pancho Quinto, a founder of this group told me that the name “Andabo” is Efik, and means “amigo” (friend). Pancho’s elders taught him that Yoruba Andabo means “territorio de amigos” (place of friendship). The group’s title refers to the comprehension between the Yoruba and Abakua traditions within the group, as well as in Cuban history. Many Cubans practice both traditions personally, as well as within their families, viewing them each as complimentary, not conflicting.
The next Sunday (July 22), Mr. Ukpong, Mr. Dawson, Jabel and I went to meet Román Diaz and several other Abakuá who perform in what is considered the best rumba in the USA, at Esquina Habanera in Union City, New Jersey.
The Cubans immediately recognized the importance of this visit. We invited all to the Efik meeting, and there was real interest among the musicians. Minutes later, the musicians opened their show with chants and dance to Eleguá. Then they played Yambu (rumba), and then several Guaguancó (rumbas). Asuquo Ukpong enthusiatically noticed many possible relationships to his homeland Efik culture. For example, he perceived the womans’ steps in the Yambu to be straight out of an Efik women’s society dance. He noticed that the metal bell they played sounded just like the Ekpe ekon bell. When one of the guaguancós transitioned into an Abakuá chant, Asuquo leaned over and told me, “I must get up and dance!” And he did. Having heard this group play often, I felt the emotion behind the performance tonight: they were stimulated that an Ekpe elder was there to meet and invite them to participate in his cultural event. When Asuquo danced up to the musicians, Román immediately came to center stage, placing his conga drum on the edge of the elevated floor, lifting his gaze skyward, and playing rhythms to Asuquo’s movements. Legs keeping time to the pulse, Asuquo was gesturing symbolically with his eyes, and his hands, communicating in sign language. Then Pedrito Martínez, also a master musician and dancer, came out with handkerchief in hand, iton (short staff) in the other, and accompanied Asuquo by dancing using gestures dense with symbolism. Whereas Asuquo kept his arms near his body, Pedrito reach out, twirlying his handkerchief, cleansing Asuquo with it; making the sign of the cross with the staff in his hand. This was the first-ever time that members of these long separated groups had met. Their ability to communicate through rhythm and movement spoke much for their shared cultural sensibilities, in spite of the Spanish and English colonial languages which hindered their verbal communication.
On July 28, I drove with three Abakua members and two Cuban supporting musicians to the Efik National Association at the Pratt Institute. An Ekpe Idem masquerade danced for 20 minutes to the great enthusiasm of the all. Its face was all black netting, except for a white feather where the eyes should be, giving it a mysterious feel. The Cubans, after seeing this, then went to prepare.They asked me to present them as representatives of Cuban Efik in the following manner.
Vicente Sánchez, Obonékue of Apapa Umon Efik
Román Díaz, Moní Bonkó of Apapa Umon Efik
José “Pepe” Hernández, Ísue of Efori Nandibá Mosongo
As Frank Bell perpared to in an Íreme costume (derived from the Efik term Idem), he realised that it lacked a special cloth for the waist, as well as lacked kaniká bells (also for the waist). As the Efik Idem masquerade is nearly identical to the Cuban Ireme costume, these items were borrowed from the Efik Idem.
The set of four biankomo drums from Cuba were clearly designed in the same style as the Efik drums. The Cubans performed for 20 minutes, going in procession up to the table of elders. The Cuban Ireme greatly impressed the Efik by greeting ritually the elders present, cleansing them with a branch of herbs and gesturing symbolically. Once in front of the elders, Roman had all kneel while he performed a long enkame (chant) in Cuban Efik; he was powerful and inspired. The Efik reacted with great enthusiasm , the women ululating with hand over mouth.
The immediate and mutual recognition of the Efik and Cuban Abakuá provokes basic questions about West African cultural continuities in the Caribbean, as well as the impact of these Caribbean continuities in West Africa, where people are reconstructing their local histories, and forging their traditional practices to grapple with contemporary issues of the nation state, education, and economic globalization. The fact that both Efik Ekpe members and Cuban Abakua members recognize themselves in the other’s language and ritual practice suggests the importance of ancestral memory and tradition in creating local ethnic identities that resist alienation by maintaining social cohesiveness.
-- Ivor Miller