• Bonita Amenta Cutliff

Rites of Passage: African Mask & Drum History

An Overview of the African Mask & Drum

African Ritual Masks and Drums play a fundamental role in the culture of indigenous peoples worldwide, often representing deep symbolic and historical meanings. The specific implications associated with the use of the mask and drum varies widely by tribe but a common trait is use for spiritual/religious ceremony. They always accompany any manner of celebration including: births, deaths, marriages, dances and festivals. The victorious and commanding rhythms of the drum stir up excitement and passion while the aura and presence of masks add depth and charisma to any occasion.

African Ritual Mask

Usually a particular bloodline or special initiation is a prerequisite for the artists that create masks and the performers who wear them. In most cases, mask making is an art that is passed on from father to son. Carvers undergo many years of specialized apprenticeship until achieving mastery of the art.

Since every mask has a specific meaning, most traditions produce various types. For example: masks from the Senufo people of Ivory Coast, have their eyes half closed, symbolizing a peaceful attitude, self-control, and patience. In Sierra Leone and elsewhere, small eyes and mouth represent humility, and a wide, protruding forehead represents wisdom. In Gabon, large chins and mouths represent authority and strength. The Grebo of the Ivory Coast carve masks with round eyes to represent alertness and anger, with the straight nose to represent unwillingness to retreat.

Another theme found in African masks are ideals of feminine beauty. Masks of some tribes have breasts and ornamental scars, while others have almond shaped eyes, curved eyelashes, thin chin and ornaments.

Animals are common subjects in traditional African art. Carvings of animals can represent the spirit of animals, when applied to masks; the mask-wearer becomes a medium to speak to animals themselves and in many cases, an animal is also a symbol of specific virtues.

A common variation on the animal-mask theme is the composition of several distinct animal traits in a single piece of art; sometimes this is accompanied by human traits. Merging distinct animal traits together often represents unusual, exceptional virtue or high status. For example, the Poro secret societies of the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast have masks that celebrate the exceptional power of the society by merging three different "danger" symbols: antelope horns, crocodile teeth, and warthog fangs. Intangible forms and ideas are also expressed in African art. For example the Nwantantay masks of the Bwa people of Burkina Faso represent the flying spirits of the forest; since these spirits are deemed to be invisible, the corresponding masks are shaped after abstract, purely geometrical forms.

Ancestral Veneration is a common aspect of numerous traditions worldwide, remnants of this custom is seen on almost every continent and is still heavily practiced today. So it is not surprising that Ancestors are also a common subject for masks ritual. Veneration of the dead is often associated with fertility and reproduction so many of these types of masks contain sexual symbols. Masks are also often associated with notable, historical or legendary people.

In most traditional African cultures, the person who wears a ritual mask conceptually loses his or her human identity and turns into the spirit represented by the mask itself. This transformation of the mask wearer into a spirit usually relies on other practices, and is always accompanied by specific types of drum music and dance, or ritual costumes that contribute to conceal the mask-wearer's human identity. The mask wearer thus becomes a sort of medium that allows for a dialogue between the community and the spirits. Masked dances are a part of most traditional African ceremonies including coronation, weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies, initiation rites, and so on.

The most commonly used material for masks is wood, although other elements can be used, including light stone such as steatite, metals such as copper or bronze, different types of fabric, pottery, and more. Some masks are painted and some incorporate a wide array of ornamental items; including animal hair, horns, or teeth, seashells, seeds, straws, egg shell, and feathers.

Traditional masks are one of the most admired and well known art forms of Africa, elements found in mask making have most evidently influenced Europe and Western art; in the 20th century, artistic movements such as cubism, fauvism and expressionism have often taken inspiration from the vast and diverse heritage of African masks.

Since the popularization of traditional African masks they have become widely commercialized and sold in most tourist-oriented markets and shops. As a consequence, the traditional art of mask making has gradually ceased to be a privileged, status-related practice, and mass production of masks has become widespread. While, in most cases, commercial masks are (more or less faithful) reproductions of traditional masks, this connection is weakening as the logics of mass-production make it harder to identify the actual geographical and cultural origins. For example, the Okahandja market in Namibia mostly sells masks that are produced in Zimbabwe (as they are cheaper and more easily available than local masks), and, in turn, Zimbabwean mask-makers reproduce masks from virtually everywhere in Africa rather than from their own local heritage.

The Djembe Drum

The Djembe is probably the most influential and basic of all the African drums but others such as the Dunun, Bugarabu, Fram, Conga, Log, Ngoma and talking drum have played their parts in history as well. The Djembe dates back to 500 AD and was originally created as a sacred drum to be used in healing ceremonies, rites of passage, ancestral worship, warrior rituals, as well as social dances. The drum rhythm of the djembe is performed in the evening for most celebrations, especially during full moon, spring, summer and winter harvesting time.

In much of Africa, certain drums symbolize and protect royalty and are often housed in sacred dwellings. In fact you could say the drum was actually the first form of telephone. Tribes, with use of the drum would communicate with other tribes often miles away. Drums were often used to signal meetings, dangers, wars, etc. The talking drums of Africa imitate the pitch patterns of language and transmit messages over many miles. Drums are also used in conjunction with masks for Ancestral veneration and spirit communication.

There is general agreement that the origin of the djembe is associated with the Mandinka caste of blacksmiths, known as Numu. The wide dispersion of the djembe drum throughout West Africa may be due to Numu migrations during the first millennium AD. Despite the association of the djembe with the Numu, there are no hereditary restrictions on who may become a djembefola (one who plays the djembe). This is in contrast to instruments whose use is reserved for members of the griot caste, such as the balafon, kora, and ngoni.

According to the Bambara people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying "Anke djé, anke bé" which translates to "everyone gather together in peace" and defines the drum's purpose. In the Bambara language, "djé" is the verb for "gather" and "bé" translates as "peace."

The djembe can produce a wide variety of sounds, making it a most versatile drum. The drum is very loud, allowing it to be heard clearly as a solo instrument over a large percussion ensemble.

The Malinké people say that a skilled drummer is one who "can make the djembe talk", meaning that the player can tell an emotional story. Usually, the djembe forms an ensemble with a number of other djembes and one or more dunun. Except for the lead (or solo) djembe, all instruments play a recurring rhythmic figure that is known as an accompaniment pattern or accompaniment part. Traditionally, only men play the djembe, as are the dunun that always accompany the djembe. Conversely, other percussion instruments that are commonly played as part of an ensemble, such as the shekere (a hollowed-out gourd covered with a net of beads), karignan (a tubular bell), and kese kese (a woven basket rattle), are usually played by women.

The djembe has a body (or shell) carved of hardwood and a drumhead made of untreated rawhide. Traditionally crafted djembes are carved from a single log of hardwood. The most prized djembe wood is lenke (Afzelia Africana), not because it necessarily sounds better than other woods, but because the Malinké believe that its spiritual qualities are superior. Malinké traditional wisdom states that a spiritual energy, or nyama, runs through all things, living or dead.

This information was complied and presented in conjunction with the exhibition,

Rites of Passage: An Ode to Humanity & Culture celebrating the genius, beauty and richness of indigenous cultures. A central theme in this exhibition is the relationship between human survival and the environment. The subject matter for the majority of works featured are based on the archetypes of society including family structure, daily survival, and interactions with the plant and animal kingdoms. Curated by Bonita Cutliff, this exhibition featured twenty-six artists in this sophisticated fusion of vintage African art and vibrant contemporary works, weaving the paradigms of history into present day sentiment. This uncommon assemblage of works represent selections from the University Museum’s permanent collection and includes rare sculptures, painting and drawing on various mediums including wood and metal. The exhibition was on view Saturday, February 10 through April 15, 2018 with a special opening night presentation of music and poetry with light refreshments on Friday, February 9th at 7pm.

FEATURED WORK BY ARTISTS: Amaki, John Biggers, Michael Chandler, Marion Cole, Jessie McCowan, Deirdre I. Curnell, Anthony Edwards, Cedric Franklin, Karl Hall, Calvin Hubbard, Johnny Jones, Daniella Lewis, J. Mendoza, Edward Mills, Theophilus Moore, Barry Morris, Joseph A. Moran, Prinston Nnanna , Kermit Oliver, Robert Pruitt, Cedric Taylor, David Kent Thomas, S. Thomas, Johnetta Tinker & Harry Vital.

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