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Cuban Epke Tradition Traces its Roots Back to Eastern Nigeria

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By Prof. Dr. Ivor Miller –
(Visiting professor, centre for black Diaspora, DePaul University, Chicago)
During the trans-Atlantic slave in the mid 16th – 18th century, a lot of slaves were

taken to the new world. These slaves became agents of cultural dispersal seeing African traditional institutions established in many western lands. Epke, an age-long traditional sacred institution, was one of such, planted culture. Epke is a secret society, open to men in Calabar region of eastern Nigeria.

The society, from the Calabar has over many centuries in eastern Nigeria, moved into the Hinterland, stretching, from Akwa-Ibom (Uyo) to Abia, Imo and Eboyi States. In Abia, Imo and Eboyi states of Nigeria, the people have given Epke different names according to their different dialects. For instance, in the Orlu area of Imo state, it’s called “Okonko”.

Although the change in name does not affect the internal secrets of the orders of the Ekpe society. Recently, Dr. Ivor Miller, visiting professor, centre for black Diaspora, DePaul University, and Chicago has been on a research journey, to find out, the origin of Epke in Cuba. According to Professor Miller, Ekpe was recreated in Cuba in 1830’s by people taken as slaves from Calabar region to the Americans, Canada and Argentina. There are about 120 lodges with 20, 000 members in Cuba. The professor’s research has been possible by West African Research Association, from Boston University, to share the information among Epke people, so that they can re-unite to facilitate intercultural exchange. Plans are under way to officially invite Cubans to visit Nigeria for the Epke festivals to experience the actual cultural feeling.

The most striking part of this rediscovery is that, the Calabar people warmly welcomed Professor Miller, with a Chieftaincy title of “Esu Mbakara”. Esu – a type of messenger, while Mbakara comes from the encounters of the region, with the European traders. Speaking on what he intended to do with this title the professor said, he will liaise between the Cuban officials and the Calabar’s. To become a member of the Epke group, one must be initiated. This process requires rituals and a form of secrecy. This means being in the possession of privileged information.

According to Miller, he has also been initiated into the Yoruba group religion in Cuba. He explained that the most beautiful thing about African tradition is that, it is very inclusive. They don’t exclude and so this is what one sees in the Cuban Epke traditions here. There are roles that African religions play which is pertinent and relevant to our today’s war, greed and racial discrimination-ridden World: African religions send to the world, a message that, “we can accept each others differences and create a community based on inclusion rather than on exclusion”.

Miller further said, “I think the most exciting thing is that, I am being well received here in Calabar. I can’t do anything here without the people and I think I’ve done a lot. It’s because people help me by leading me to meet the right people. That’s the first message. The people of Calabar are very excited about this mission. The other one is that, the memories of the Cubans are accurate. We have confirmed much of the languages they speak can be understood by the people here. Ironically, this proves that a lot of the very deep African cultures which were carried to Americans still exist. So it is a very important part of our human history. It’s very important to the Cuban’s that, their chanting is affirmed by people on the other side – the Africans in Calabar.

For example Uban is very important in Cuba. Atakpa and Duke town are remembered in Cuba. Oron and Usakaedet are remembered too. What is important is that the Cubans are learning that the memories of their ancestors are today accurate, alive and relevant to them. 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 researching on 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 fabulous 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, with already fairly large population of 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 to organise a programme (in July 18) with Diabel Faye, host of the “Rhythm and News” show (formerly radio Kankan) at WBAI, Pacifica radio in New York, on the Efik meeting and the Cuban cultural connection. In this exchange group include, Chief Joseph Edem, an Efut Ngbe (Ekpe) leader, Mr. Ukpong, C. Daniel Dawson (an African Diaspora specialist) and Diabel Faye. I spoke on the issues regarding Ekpe/Ngbe culture and its Diaspora. We also had on the program, a recording of Abakua music which was 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. When he realised the enormity of the meeting, he agreed to participate in a performance with the Efik Ekpe masquerades.
The next Sunday (July 22), Mr. Ukpong, Mr. Dawson,

Jabel and I went to meet Román Diaz and several other Abakuá who performed 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 enthusiastically noticed many possible relationships to his homeland Efik culture. For example, he perceived the woman’s’ 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. When Asuquo danced up to the musicians, Román immediately came to centre 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, twirling 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,Frank Bell, David Oquendo. As Frank Bell prepared 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 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 the people are reconstructing their local histories, and forging traditional practices to grapple with contemporary issues of the nation state like 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.

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