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2003 Encounter in Michigan: Cuban Abakuá and the Obong of Calabar, 11/06

In July, 2003, the Paramount ruler of the Efiks of Calabar, His Majesty Edidem Professor Nta Elijah Henshaw VI, visited the USA for the first time, for the occasion of the 6th Annual Convention of the Efik National Association, Inc., USA, held in Southfield, Michigan. 

At the invitation of the organizers, and Abakuá delegation was set-up to meet with the Obong to discuss Ekpe influence in Cuba. Therefore, on July 26, Ogduardo ‘Roman’ Díaz and Angel Guerrero traveled to Southfield, Michigan to participate. They were accompanied by Ivor Miller (camera) and Rafael “El Santiagero”, who accompanied their performance by marking clave on the ekon bell. 

Mr. Guerrero is an important Abakuá chanter from Pogolotti, Havana, who participated in the 2001 recording Ibiono as lead voice. Recorded in Havana, this is to date the most detailed expression of Abakuá chanting available to non-initiates — it mentions many place names and mythic events in Cross River Ekpe history.

1.  Inside the hotel where the event took place, Angel, left, salutes the Efik delegation, asking for union between both groups.

2.   Angel joins hand to symbolize the unity and elevation Abakuá and Ekpe will enjoy through their contact.


3.  At the meeting, Chief (Dr.) Eyo Etim Nyong, a representative of the
Obong, shares information about Ekpe culture.

4.  At the hotel, a makeshift Ekpe room was set-up for the masquerades and musicians. The Ukara cloth used to designated the room is by Ekpe members only, it contains key symbols of Ekpe culture. top

5. The Cubans were privileged with a private meeting with the Obong, who listened very carefully to their Abakuá language.


6. Accompanying the Obong at this meeting, Etubom Essien Effiok (with white
cap), the Obong Ebonko of Efe Ekpe Iboku, who is the Chairman of the Obong
Council. Also present was Dr. Nyong (not pictured here).


7-8.  Roman and Angel present themselves. top


9. The Obong recognized Abakuá titles like Moní Bonkó as ‘Muri Ebonko’ (Chief of the drum), and Iyámba, a title he holds himself. He responded: “you are my children!”

    

10-14.  After this meeting, in a suburb of Detroit, the Cubans and Efik Ekpe wait outside for the Obong, to send him off to the evening event with Ekpe music and dance.top

 

         

              

                   

                        

                             

15.  The Obong, Chief (Dr.) Nyong, and entourage enter the hotel for the evenings’ event.top

16.  Calabar women perform before the assembly. Their hooped skirt costumes were an element of 19th century Calabarí processions in Cuba. Both women hold a red feather in their mouths, a sign of discretion. 

17-18.  The women wear hats with plumed staffs upon them, also an important Abakuá symbol. top

                          

                                      

19. The Cubans enter chanting in Abakuá.

20-21.  Roman opens, greeting the assembly. During their ten-minute performance, only Abakuá is used.top

22-25.  Angel chantstop

26-32.  Angel begins to dance while chanting.top

              

                   

                        

                             

                                  

                                       

                                            



33.  An assembly members praises the Cubans by ‘spraying’ them with cash. top



34.  Angel leaves the stage, beaming after a mission accomplished. By meeting with the Obong, Roman and Angel acted as representatives of Cuban Abakuá, both living and dead. By establishing a dialog with Calabar Ekpe, they are helping to renovate a major strand of transatlantic history, for the mutual benefit of the peoples of Cuba and of the Cross River estuary.


35.  During the meeting with the Obong, the Paramount ruler instructed that a letter of invitation to visit Calabar would be sent. It was received promptly by a Cuban/USA delegation of Abakuá and scholars, sent from the Iyamba of Obutong, the Calabar settlement whose namesake was memorialized in the first Cuban Abakuá lodge for Creoles, founded in 1836: Efik Obutong (often spelt in Cuba ‘Efí Kebúton’).

Scanned letter of invitation from the Iyamba of Obutong

A father and son embrace’: the significance of the encounter between Abakuá and Ekpe. top
By Angel Guerrero, the Aberiñán title-holder of the Itiá Mukandá Efól lodge of Havana.

3/07

For the first time in Cuban history, in 2001, contact was established between the Ekpe society of the African continent and the Cuban society called Ekoria Enyéne Abakuá. Although its sources were on the west coast of the African continent, the Abakuá society forms part of Cuba’s cultural heritage. But Cubans lacked direct contemporary links with the peoples and cultures of the Cross River estuary, called Ekpe, or ‘the leopard society’. 

It was through a cultural event sponsored by the National Efik Association in New York City, where for the first time Abakuá members established contact with their counterparts from the other side of the Atlantic ocean. The encounter was informal, and several members of Abakuá lodges participated as performers with the Omí Odára ensemble, a group of professional musicians. 

This important encounter set a standard, so that afterwards, a dream could become reality: our meeting in the summer of 2003 with his royal Edidem Professor Nta Elijah Henshaw VI during the sixth meeting of the National Efik Society in Southfield Michigan. Our encounter as representatives of the Abakuá culture, with Nta Elijah Henshaw, Obong Iyamba of the Ekpe society, was a watershed moment in Afro-Cuban history as it represented the re-establishment of contact between two religious expressions that had been separated, persecuted, and threatened with extinction. In spite of these difficulties, both societies have persisted through the centuries. The re-encounter was between the African continent with part of its diaspora, a continent that had witnessed and suffered as its finest children were sold as slaves, exiled, and obligated to live in precarious conditions, to survive a genocide called colonization, away from their beloved land. If they were treated brutally, even greater was their willpower, the physical and mental forces they unleashed, in spite of all the difficulties of involuntary displacement, to establish, cultivate, and preserve their culture. 

It was precisely to the iron willpower of our enslaved African ancestors, as well as the strong social structure of their rites and customs, that we owed this day in Southfield, when in spite of centuries of detachment and distance, a father and son embraced. Yes, this is what we felt, those who by the fate of history had the honor and privilege of participating in this emotional encounter. And to make this moment even more relevant, destiny willed that members of the lodge Efik Obutong led the delegation of Efik Ekpe, the same lineage that in 1836 gave origin in Cuba to the Abakuá society, an institution that we belong to and honor. Our emotion was uncontrollable, and in this moment the blood circulated through our hearts at an untold velocity, since like never before we knew that we are not alone. On that day many of those who lived, loved, and gave the best part of their lives for the Abakuá fraternity were present in spirit, as well as many ‘ekobios’ [brothers] who, living today around the globe, have never betrayed their faith and love for the religion that we profess.

The Abakuá visit to Michigan demonstrated to us once more, that the thing for which we are prepared to give our lives, nobody can destroy, even though this destruction has been the object of many throughout our history. For us as Abakuá brothers, this fraternal encounter demonstrated that in spite of our errors, we are a society strong in principles and spirit. We have been able to maintain a religious and organizational structure for centuries, and we have preserved a language, even though displaced from its place of origin, and today nearly extinct in the lands were our religion emerged. Today we can say with pride that, in a world where money has corrupted many, our ranks have been unbreakable bastions, to which one belongs by self-merit, not for money or inheritance. We are the only religion of African origin not to have left Cuba, and we defend it with pride. The best moments of our brotherhood are yet to come, the willpower and integrity of our ancestors will be the mirror we gaze upon each day and from whence we take the necessary force to give our religion the place and respect it deserves in history. As Abakuá brothers we want to thank all those anthropologists and students of our culture who have worked professionally and respectfully. We are and will be always a society with cult secrets and all cultural exchanges will be based on this reality. 

We cannot forget to recognize the outstanding investigative work and academic contributions to Abakuá culture by the professor and anthropologist Dr. Ivor Miller, without whose help and collaboration, both as a scholar and as a friend, all that we have achieved until today would have nearly been impossible.

I hope that these lines will one day serve all who once professed their life-long love to EKUE, and that for one motive or another have violated their initiation oaths, to understand that to maintain one’s word is the most noble of acts and that each day in the morning as we rise with pride and faith, to chant for those who died, for those who are alive, and for those who will come: 

¡BONKERE ECOBIO ENYENISON
ERENDIO ABASI BOME!

Angel Guerrero
Aberiñán, Itiá Mukandá Efo
January 2007

Se abrazaran un padre con su hijo’: el signifcado del encuentro entre los Abakuá y Ekpe. top
Por Angel Guerrero, el Aberiñán de la potencia Itiá Mukandá Efó
de La Habana.
3/07

El año 2001 marcó el momento en que por primera vez en la historia cubana se establecía contacto entre las sociedades Ekpe del continente africano y la sociedad cubana Ecoria Enlléne Abakuá. Aunque la sociedad Abakuá, proveniente de la costa occidental del continente africano, forma parte del patrimonio cultural de la isla, Cuba carecía de vínculos directos y recientes con las culturas negras del delta del río Cruz, llamadas Ekpe o “sociedades del leopardo.”

Es a través de un evento cultural auspiciado por la Sociedad Nacional Efik en New York, donde por primera vez la sociedad Abakuá entra en contacto con sus orígenes al otro lado del Atlántico. Fue un encuentro de carácter informal donde participaron varios miembros de potencias Abacuá integrantes del conjunto Omí Odára.

Esta importante jornada, marcó las pautas para lo que luego sería un sueño hecho realidad: el encuentro que tuvimos en el verano del 2003 con su majestad Edidam Profesor Nta Elijah Henshaw VI con motivo de la sexta convención de la Sociedad Nacional Efik en Southfield, Michigan. Nuestro encuentro, en calidad de representantes de la cultura Abakuá con el señor Nta Elijah Henshaw, Obon Iyamba de la sociedad “Ekpe,¨ marcó un hito en la historia afro-cubana pues representó el restablecimiento del contacto entre dos expresiones religiosas separadas, perseguidas y sometidas a exterminio, las cuales lograron subsistir pese a las mas difíciles condiciones de vida a lo largo de los siglos. Era el reencuentro entre el continente africano con parte de su diáspora, continente que vio y sufrió cómo sus mejores hijos fueron vendidos como esclavos, desterrados y obligados a vivir en condiciones precarias, sobrevivientes de un genocidio llamado colonización lejos de su amada tierra. Pero, si brutal fue la forma en que fueron tratados, más inmenso aún fue su férrea voluntad, la fuerza física y mental que desplegaron para, a pesar de todas las dificultades de un desplazamiento involuntario, implantar, cultivar y preservar su cultura.

Fue precisamente a esa voluntad de acero de nuestros antepasados esclavos africanos y a la fuerte estructura social y religiosa de sus ritos y costumbres, se debió que ese día en Southfield se abrazaran después de siglos de olvido y distancia un padre con su hijo. Sí, eso fue lo que sentimos aquéllos que por suerte histórica tuvimos el honor y el privilegio de participar en ese emocionante encuentro, y como para que fuera todavía aún más relevante ese momento, el destino quiso que fueran los miembros de la logia ¨Efi Obutong¨ los que encabezaran la delegación de sociedades Ekpe Efik, los mismos que en el año 1836 dieran origen en Cuba a la sociedad Abakuá, entidad a la que pertenecemos y honramos. Nuestra emoción era incontrolable y en ese momento por nuestros corazones la sangre circuló a una velocidad como nunca antes pues supimos que no estábamos solos, muchos de aquéllos que vivieron, sintieron y dieron lo mejor de sus vida por la fraternidad Abakuá estaban presentes, al igual que muchos ¨ecobios¨ que hoy en día en lejanas latitudes nunca han traicionado su fe y amor por la religión que profesamos.
La jornada Abakuá de Michigan nos demostró una vez más que aquello por lo cual estamos dispuestos a dar la vida, nadie lo podrá destruir aunque haya sido esa destrucción el objetivo de muchos a lo largo de la historia. Para nosotros como hermanos Abakuá, ese fraternal encuentro nos demostró que a pesar de nuestros errores somos una sociedad fuerte en principios y en espíritu. Hemos sido capaces de mantener una estructura religiosa y organizativa por siglos y hemos preservado una lengua desplazada de su lugar de origen, hoy casi extinta en esas tierras donde surgimos como religión. Hoy podemos decir con orgullo que, en un mundo donde el dinero ha corrompido a muchos, nuestras filas han sido bastiones inquebrantables, a las cuales se pertenece por méritos propios no por dinero ni por herencia, hemos sido la única religión de origen africano que no ha salido de Cuba y la defendemos con orgullo. Los mejores momentos de nuestra hermandad seguro están por venir, la voluntad y entereza de nuestros ancestros serán el espejo donde nos miraremos cada día y de donde sacaremos la fuerza necesaria para brindarle a nuestra religión el lugar y el respeto que merecen en la historia. Como hermanos Abakuá queremos agradecer su colaboración mediante estas palabras a todos los antropólogos y estudiosos de nuestra cultura que lo han hecho con profesionalismo y respeto. Somos y seremos siempre una sociedad de cultos secretos y todo intercambio cultural se hará siempre sobre esas bases. 

No podríamos dejar de reconocer la destacadísima labor de investigación y aporte académico a la cultura Abakuá del profesor y antropólogo Dr. Ivor Miller, sin su ayuda y colaboración tanto académica como amistosa, hubiera sido casi imposible todo lo que hemos alcanzado hasta hoy.
Ojalá sirvan estas líneas a todos los que un día profesaron amor por vida a EKUE y que por un motivo u otro han violado sus juramentos, que mantener la palabra es el más noble de los actos y que cada día en la mañana cuando nos levantemos con orgullo y fe digamos por los que murieron, por los que estamos vivos y por los que vendrán: 

¡BONKERE ECOBIO ENYENISON
ERENDIO ABASI BOME!

Angel Guerrero
Aberiñán, Itiá Mukandá Efo
Written, January 2007
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International Ekpe Festival, Calabar, Nigeria: December, 2004

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