The Sacred Language of the Abakua…
“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.
The antecedents of the Abakuá or ñañiguismo are in the secret society that existed in Nigeria, Calabar. Its organization and content have the roots in the African legend that tells the story of the violation of a secret by a woman: the princess Sikan. She found the sacred fish Tanze and reproduced the roar in the sacred drum Eku. The ñañiguismo cannot be separated of the African believes about the existence of Ancestor (spirits), that’s why in all the ceremonies they are called to guaranty the development of the ritual according to rigorous liturgical norms. Its symbolic representation is the Ireme or Diablito.
All the activities of the cult are made in the temples. In all the rituals are used lines and graphics known as Ekeniyo which are an ideological graphical system of signs to immobilize and attach the representation of global events. These symbols are painted with yellow and with yeast and they are divided in three categories: the Gandos, the Signs or Anaforuanas and the Seals.
The ñañigismo has several hierarchies. The Indisime is the applicant to enter into a potencia, the Obonekué is an already initiated man. The Plaza is a everlasting hierarchy with a relevant position in the juego. This person is in charge to preserve and to make follow the norms and ritual and social principles. The Iyamba, Mokongo, Ekueñón, Nkrikamo and Nasako have the title of Plaza. Only men are admitted in the secret society Abakua.