“The goat that breaks the drum will pay for it with his hide”
Abakuá 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, Egbo, 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. 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 were established by Africans in the town of Regla, Havana, in 1836. 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.
Abakuá members derive their belief systems and traditional practices from the Igbo, Efik, Efut, and Ibibio spirits that lived in the forest. Ekpe and synonymous terms were names of both a forest spirit and a leopard related secret society. Members of this society came to be known as ñañigos, a word used to designate the street dancers of the society. The oaths of loyalty to the Abakuá society’s sacred objects, members, and secret knowledge taken by initiates are a lifelong pact which creates a sacred kinship among the members.
One of the oaths made during initiation is that one will not reveal the secrets of the Abakuá to non-members, which is why the Abakuá have remained hermetic for over 160 years. Aside from its activities as a mutual aid society, the Abakuá performs rituals and ceremonies, called Plantes, full of theatricality and drama which consists of drumming, dancing, and chanting activities using the secret Abakuá language.
Knowledge of the chants are restricted to members of the Abakuá but Cuban scholars have long thought that the Abakuá expresses their cultural history through their ceremonies. Other ceremonies such as initiations and funerals, are secret and take place in the sacred room of the Abakuá temple, called the Famba.
Prejudice about the Abakuá dates back to the colonial era, and stems from the negative propaganda associated with the fear of slave uprisings. It was compounded by the secretive nature and mysteries surrounding the culture… While Abakuá members do use some of the same phrases that their Ancestors did in Africa, it is only for religious purposes, not for everyday oral or written communication. Some of these expressions have become popular sayings, such as -Ekue mbori aborekin ñangue, which means “The goat that breaks the drum will pay for it with his hide.”
However, sometimes people use refrains from the Abakuá moral code that can cause misunderstandings. The concept of Manliness depends on a subjective interpretation, and that depends on one’s cultural education and on psychological and sociological factors such as a person’s family, school and community. Some Abakuás view it as being – a good father, son and brother.
The expression that refers to – cleansing honor with blood, advocates being ambia koneyó – sincere friends and solidarity among Ecobios – Brothers in religion. The Abakuá’s roots go back to the slave trade. The Carabalíes – people from the Calabar region of Africa who were brought to Cuba maintained their legends and their secret societies from Africa.
The rhythmic dance music of the Abakuá combined with Bantu traditions of the Congo contributed to the musical tradition the rumba.