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Home | Research Library | ABACUA/ABAKUA


Abakua or Abakuá (various spellings are used) 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, Ngbe, or Ugbe among the multi-lingual groups in the region, these closed groups all used the leopard as a symbol of masculine prowess in war and political authority in their various communities. Ekpe and related organizations in the Calabar region were heavily invested in the slave trade emanating from the Bight of Biafra, though high-ranking officials were themselves ultimately captured and sold into slavery in Cuba, where the society re-emerged. The term Ñáñigo has also been used for the organization's members.

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 are thought to have arisen around the port of Havana in the early part of the 19th century, and 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. While Abakuá eventually came to include members of European descent, this was not accomplished without conflict. Abakuá is sometimes regarded as evil malevolent sorcery.

Abakuá members derive their belief systems and traditional practices from the Igbo, Efik, Efut, Ibibio, spirts that lived in the ditey forest . Ekpe and synonymous terms like Egbo, Ngbe, and Ugbe were names of both a forest deity and a leopard related secret society. Robert Farris Thompson, an art historian and African Diaspora scholar, detailed the transformation and reemergence of this fraternal order in his classic Flash of the Spirit.

The rhythmic dance music of the Abakuá combined with Bantu traditions of the Congo contributed to one of Cuba's musical traditions, the rumba. The Calle family of Efo origin supposedly invented the guaguanco, a type of rumba.

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 both a broom and a staff. The broom serves to cleanse faithful members of the fraternity, while the stick chastises both enemies and traitors to the Abakuá traditions. Thus, during initiation ceremonies it is called the Erí nBan nDó, while during mournings and wakes it is called AlanManguín Besuá.

Abacuá also describes a group of Afro-Cuban people of the carabalí as well as their style of music and their percussion instruments. Luciano "Chano" Pozo, conga drummer for Dizzy Gillespie, was a member of the Abakwa secret society.

It is said that Arsenio Rodriguez, a famous Cuban blind tres player, built Mambo from the "Diablo Rhythm" of the Congolese ABAKUÁ religion - taught to him by his grandfather, a former slave. He was one of the three pillars of Cuban music (the other two are Beny Moré and Miguel Matamoros). Rodriguez was the architect of the Cuban sound as we know it today. He added drums and more brass to enrich the classic conjunto style in the 40s. After decades of fame, Rodriguez died in obscurity in Los Angeles in 1972.

Frankie Martinez explains his company's name, ABAKUÁ Afro-Latin Dance Company, as used with respect for the living tradition of Abakúa societies and their music in Cuba.

Sources: Wikipedia; batadrums;; Abakuadancers; Sloat, Susanna (Editor): Caribbean Dance from Abakua to Zouk: How Movement Shapes Identity (University Press of Florida); Fauley Emery, Lynne (Author); Katherine Dunham (Foreword) Black Dance: From 1619 to Today (Princeton Book)

Bolding added by BAILA Society

·  Eddie Palmieri