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MASQUERADE: the spirit of the Carnaval
continent of expressions - AFRICA
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afro style mag | Masquerade



mn the countries of the Atlantic rim region, there is a long-standing tradition of communal celebration and festivity featuring masquerades that can be traced back to the spiritual traditions of sub-Saharan West African countries, whose people were transplanted to the New World during the dark centuries of slave trading. The West African countries (such as Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Senegal) still have their annual harvest and religious celebrations; the Caribbean islands and South west USA (including Miami and New Orleans) celebrate Carnival and Mardi Gras; while eastern South American countries (such as Brazil) have carnaval. One link between these outdoor festivities is the elaborate spectacle of costume and mask, song, dance, dramatic performance, religious symbolism and celebration is known as masquerade. Of all the carnival traditions this side of the Atlantic, however, the Rio carnaval is surely the most spectacular!


Samba song and dance, capoeira performances, large-scale magnificent floats, the artistic expressiveness and creativity of the giant costumes and dazzling masks…are just a few of the defining elements of the Rio carnaval. Taking place in the city of Rio de Janeiro each year forty days before Easter, it is an exotic fusion of African ancestral, Christian and native South American traditions...and it easily wraps such enchantment around those watching and participating, that the echoes of its West African from across the ocean may melt quietly into the background. Whenever you see (pictures of) exuberant dancing or hear the infectious beat of the samba of the Rio carnival though, take a moment to think about the influence of the West African masquerade at the foundations of this globally noted event, casting its own subtle spell...


What are masquerades?

Masquerades are the human repositories of the ancestral spirits and gods of West African cosmology. These representatives of the divine, as well as their performance of song, ritual dance and dramatization of spiritual or ethical issues, are known altogether as masquerades. The essential task of the performers of the masquerades is to temporarily manifest or channel the spirits that they call upon to acquire information (via divination), or to affirm to the living their eternal presence. In Nigeria, members of religious secret societies may wear masks and costumes to represent all the classes of supernatural beings – from maternal and paternal ancestors, to the gods that affect their daily lives, such as their God of Fertility, their God of Fire, their God of Rain. In fact, throughout the whole of sub-Saharan West Africa, traditional pre-colonial religions uphold that the ancestors of the living in the unseen spirit world strongly influence the fabric of the living world for good or ill – anything from the weather to human relationships. Any occasion of ceremonial worship or celebration in West African culture is strongly underpinned by this sense of spirituality – in fact, traditional civic life was once thoroughly infused with it. The theatrical narratives or rituals performed by masquerades on these occasions symbolically bridge the earthly and spiritual worlds, as the masquerades become divine emissaries. This is why they are feared and revered, as well as loved and respected in the traditional communities.




Wear Many Masks in Society

Masquerades perform many roles in life, mirroring the myriad influences of the spirits on the living world. They may be called upon to implement any task civic or personal: from honouring the dead (as the 'egwugu' of the Asaba region does); to paying obeisance to gods of plenty as thanksgiving for a good crop harvest that year (as seen in the ‘New Yam’ festival every August); to the pacification of angry spirits; to making social commentary, using comedy to satirise and expose immoral behavior (as performed by the 'ogbo' of the south-east Nigerian region); and to remind people to honor prevalent moral, ethical or social codes. In addition, masquerades can play a more serious role as tools of law and order, instruments of divine justice that can catch criminals, mete out sentences and resolve disputes between neighboring clans and tribes. For instance, if something has been stolen from someone within the clan, a specific masquerade may divine the person who committed the crime using direct knowledge obtained from ancestral spirits. The masquerade may then dance or perform in front of a prime suspect in order to signify to the rest of the clan that this person should be subject to a trial.


The masquerades can also act as mouth pieces of the ancestral spirits or the Gods, and this often holds more sway over community decisions than what the village elders may say. In fact, whatever a spirit says through a masquerade may override decisions made by the village leaders in unusually serious matters, such as whether or not to embark on a war with a neighboring clan. Whenever a higher sanction than those of fallible humans was sought, the spirits were consulted and the masquerades conveyed their messages back to the living. If a decision was made based on something that a guardian spirit said, then personal revenge or retaliation for what were spiritually-guided decisions are rendered unjustifiable. Such concepts of divine spirituality providing a guiding moral force that was deeply embedded in daily living were taken with the captives who were later made slaves in the New World. There, their religious customs intertwined with those of Christianity, giving rise to syncretic religions such as the Evangelical movement in the US, Voodoo in the Southern USA and Caribbean, and Camdoble in Brazil.


Candomblé: a strand of religious Africa in the fabric of the Carnaval

Candomblé is a religion blending elements of three primary West African clans: the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, the Fon tribe of Benin and the Bantu people originally of the Niger Delta basin/Congo region. It is currently followed by over 2million Brazilians, but it was originally banned as a form of worship by slave-owners. A culture of rebellious subversion developed whereby worship practices were carried out under the guise of parties and entertainment, the true meaning of which was understood only by the initiated, but were lost on the casual observer... Distinctive elements of the religion were its priestesses, who always led the ceremonies; sacred spaces known as terreiro or temples; divination by throwing of cowry shells; possession of orixa (or one’s deified ancestors), and its expression through dance. Such singing dancing ceremonies were originally outlawed and persons caught attending were punished by fifty to a hundred lashes of the whip! The religion nonetheless evolved, shepherded by its priestesses, incorporating local cultural influences into its forms, one example of which was the development of the dance/martial art capoiera, developed by slaves as a form of self-defense. In this setting, songs were sung with an accompanying syncopated pattern of beats called ‘samba de roda’ (a marriage of samba and capoiera), which sowed the seeds of what is now the diverse family of samba music - including the salsa, the mambo and the boss nova-style of the classic ‘Girl from Ipanema’...


Rio and Sao Paolo - Samba, Samba, Samba!

The Samba, that genre of music and dance so emblematic of Brazilian culture, is central to the carnaval. The word itself can be traced back to the Portuguese verb ‘samber’, which means to dance in rhythm. However, in an elegant conflation of meaning, it also bears striking resemblance to ‘semba’, a word originating in the region now known as Angola, meaning ‘to pray’, ‘to cry’ or ‘to invoke (your personal god)’. Each district in Rio features a Samba school that contributes their own style of song, dance, costume and float to the carnival. The culmination of celebrations is the ‘Samba Parade’, in which each of the schools compete. The beating heart of each Samba school’s parade is the percussion band or ‘bateria’, headed by a samba-dancing Queen of Drummers and followed by the lead male vocalist and band, all trying to out-perform the competition. Prizes and awards go for the best song and to those judged have most capture the spirit of the carnival that year. However, there can be no real losers in the carnival, because in its joyous exaltation of life, love, music and dance, the Rio carnival pays glorious homage to all our ancestors!



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