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Voice of the Leopard

Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba

Foreword by Bassey E. Bassey
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    Voice of the Leopard
    Book Description:

    InVoice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba, Ivor L. Miller shows how African migrants and their political fraternities played a formative role in the history of Cuba. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, no large kingdoms controlled Nigeria and Cameroon's multilingual Cross River basin. Instead, each settlement had its own lodge of the initiation society called Ékpè, or "leopard," which was the highest indigenous authority. Ékpè lodges ruled local communities while also managing regional and long-distance trade. Cross River Africans, enslaved and forcibly brought to colonial Cuba, reorganized their Ékpè clubs covertly in Havana and Matanzas into a mutual-aid society called Abakuá, which became foundational to Cuba's urban life and music.

    Miller's extensive fieldwork in Cuba and West Africa documents ritual languages and practices that survived the Middle Passage and evolved into a unifying charter for transplanted slaves and their successors. To gain deeper understanding of the material, Miller underwent Ékpè initiation rites in Nigeria after ten years' collaboration with Abakuá initiates in Cuba and the United States. He argues that Cuban music, art, and even politics rely on complexities of these African-inspired codes of conduct and leadership.Voice of the Leopardis an unprecedented tracing of an African title-society to its Caribbean incarnation, which has deeply influenced Cuba's creative energy and popular consciousness.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-814-8
    Subjects: History, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-2)
    Bassey Efiong Bassey

    Trans-Atlantic trade in slaves involved mostly Africans of the tropical forest region of what is popularly referred to as the Dark Continent. The main ports of embarkation of the slaves were in the geographical zone of West Africa, more precisely the Gulf of Guinea. Calabar, an inland port with access to the Atlantic Ocean and beyond, played the ignominious role, among a few others, of facilitating the trade promoted and funded by Europeans and white Americans who did not think much of black Africans. The trade was premised on the belief that black Africans were not worth more than preferred...

    (pp. 3-36)

    The Abakuá mutual aid society of Cuba, recreated in the 1830s from several local variants of the Ékpè leopard society of West Africa’s Cross River basin, is a richly detailed example of African cultural transmission to the Americas. The Abakuá is a male initiation society, and its masquerades and drum construction, as well as musical structures, are largely based on Ékpè models.² Its ritual language is expressed through hundreds of chants that identify source regions and historical events³; several of them have already been interpreted by speakers of Èfìk, the precolonial lingua franca of the Cross River region.⁴ The term...

  7. 1. Arrival
    (pp. 37-65)

    Ninety-seven-year-old Andrés Flores, a descendant of Calabar, born and raised in Old Havana, told the story as he learned it from his ancestors and immediate family of how the founders of Abakuá came to Cuba. For him the story of their migration began with the Europeans: “To speak of slavery one should mention Bartolomé de las Casas, who suggested to Queen Isabel that Africans be brought to the Americas.² The first Africans arrived in Cuba in the early 1500s didn’t come directly from Africa, they came from Spain and spoke Spanish.³ In 1513 the Spaniards brought the first four slaves...

  8. 2. The Fortified City
    (pp. 66-88)

    In the 1660s a buccaneer who sailed past San Cristóbal de La Habana with Sir Henry Morgan described the city’s defenses and international reach. He paid special attention because their plan was to sack the city: “This City is defended by three Castles, very great and strong, two of which lie toward the Port, and the other is seated on a Hill that commands the Town. It is esteemed to contain about 10,000 Families. The Merchants of this Place trade in New-Spain [Mexico], Campechy [Yucatan], Honduras, and Florida. All Ships that come from the Parts before-mentioned, as also from Caraccas,...

  9. 3. Planting Abakuá in Cuba, 1830s to 1860s
    (pp. 89-102)

    Cross River Ékpè lodges governed each autonomous community. As villages grew into urban areas, such as the nineteenth-century city-state of Old Calabar, former towns became neighborhoods, yet maintained their own lodge. To the north, in Arochuku, each ward had an Ékpè lodge that “was an effective integrative factor in the heterogeneous community.”²

    Ékpè concepts of autonomy were sustained in Cuban Abakuá lodges, selfdescribed as “‘small states’ governed by four grand chiefs.”³ The full expression of independence was not possible, yet Abakuá councils disciplined the membership in their jurisdictions. The function of Abakuá as a basis for moral laws is conveyed...

  10. 4. From Creole to Carabalí
    (pp. 103-118)

    Something unprecedented and momentous transpired in Havana in the 1850s, when Bakokó Efó sponsored a lodge of white men. The effects reverberated throughout the Abakuá, as well as the larger society. Many twentieth-century Abakuá leaders believed that the intended and lasting result was the salvation of their brotherhood from extinction by its persecutors.² Several lodges were created in the 1840s and 1850s, yet in the same period, authorities unleashed waves of repression, culminating in “the year of the lash” in 1844 (as discussed in chapter 2). These pressures, combined with an “intense commercial depression” that ruined many Cubans, encouraged creole...

    (pp. 119-139)

    Spanish authorities faced a problem in Cuba when the creole descendants of Africans joined the nation-groups of their parents to learn African-centered identities. In 1868, as the first War of Independence began, an official memo prohibited the enrollment of creoles in the African cabildos, stating that “to the contrary these should be inclined with prudence and tact to complete extinction, following the death of the blacks born in Africa.”¹ By prohibiting creoles to join the cabildos of their parents, authorities hoped to encourage their assimilation into Spanish-based identities. Instead, some joined the Abakuá, fueling the growth of its lineages in...

  12. 6. Disintegration of the Spanish Empire
    (pp. 140-152)

    By 1882, when some eighty-three Abakuá lodges existed in Havana,² Cuba’s governor general planned to destroy the African cabildos because of their links to the Abakuá: “The African cabildos . . . must not continue, and must not be allowed to perpetuate themselves; on the contrary, civilization and the well-being of all Cubans advise that they be stopped with the last African. . . . These cabildos of Africans have given birth here to some black associations to which there already belong some whites of the lowest class who themselves are called the societies Juegos de Nyányigos. They must be...

  13. 7. Havana Is the Key: ABAKUÁ IN CUBAN MUSIC
    (pp. 153-174)

    Music is integral to all facets of Abakuá practice, whose very origins are linked to the reverberations of the Divine Voice in Cross River estuaries.² Abakuá ceremonies reenact African foundations through sequences of chants and corresponding actions that articulate the significance of ritual objects and symbols, dances, and moral codes. Narratives of Abakuá’s foundation in Cuba, as summarized in chapter 1, are expressed in chants recited in contemporary ceremonies.³ The chants themselves, even if performed a capella, are structured upon time-line patterns usually articulated through hand drumming on skin. Drum skins, once living membranes, are considered transmitters of ancestral forces...

  14. 8. Conclusions
    (pp. 175-178)

    Through Abakuá, African migrants in colonial Cuba reorganized their homeland government and passed it onto their offspring in the form of a mutual aid society. West Africans collectively refashioned an institution in the Americas, resulting in the liberation of many from slavery and strengthening the struggle for independence from a European colonial power, thus shaping the emerging nation-state in lasting ways.

    In West Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Ékpè leopard society of the Cross River basin was a multi-ethnic sodality that served as the local government, enabling mercantile interaction and safe travel between autonomous settlements. Cross River...

    (pp. 179-182)

    On a late afternoon in December 2004, as the sun lowered over the grounds of the Cultural Center of Calabar, Nigeria, a crowd of some 2000 people opened a wide circle for the performance of Ídèm (masquerades) in the International Ékpè Festival, organized by leaders of the Ékpè society, the traditional government of the region.¹ This event was the Nyóró (Ídèm display and competition), and for the first time two Cuban musicians who are Abakuá members, Román Díaz and Vicente Sánchez, were there to participate in the homeland of their ancestral practice.

    After plantain leaves were placed over the high...

  16. APPENDIX I. Cuban Lodges Founded From 1871 to 1917
    (pp. 183-192)
  17. APPENDIX 2. Comparing Ékpè and Abakuá Masks and Their Symbols
    (pp. 193-200)
  18. APPENDIX 3. Abakuá Chants and Their Interpretations in Cross River Languages
    (pp. 201-214)
    (pp. 215-220)
  20. NOTES
    (pp. 221-300)
    (pp. 301-338)
  22. INDEX
    (pp. 339-364)
  23. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)