This resource was created by Horniman Community Action Researcher, Scherin Barlow Massay, who is researching the connections between the Horniman’s collections and Guyanese masquerade.
The History of Afrikan-Caribbean Masquerade
In the 1600s, enslaved Afrikans were taken to the Caribbean, where their traditions were suppressed by European authorities.
Masquerade is found in many different cultures but originated with the Fulani people in West Afrika as many as 8,000 years ago. Prehistoric cave paintings found in Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, show people wearing masks and horns.
In ancient Egypt, masquerade was an important part of ceremonies and festivals. Priests wore masks of the jackal-headed god Anubis as they prepared bodies for the Afterlife. Important gods such as Hathor were depicted with part-animal features.
In West Afrika, the Yorùbá people’s ‘Egúngún’ masquerades honour the dead and mark the return of ancestors to the land of the living. It is believed that the masker transforms into the spirit of his ancestors through the mask.
The Igbo people live mainly in modern-day Nigeria. Their stilt walker masquerades are known as ‘Izaga’ or ‘Ulaga’. The Ulaga masquerade is only seen during the funerals of important men, or to show someone’s importance within the community.
In the late 1600s, the European quest for Afrikan resources led to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. During the Maafa, over 15 million Afrikans were kidnapped, enslaved and taken to the Americas and Caribbean. In the Caribbean, enslaved Afrikans continued masking traditions in secret. Masquerade was one of the few remaining connections to their culture. In Barbados, traditions came together from across West Afrika and mixed with the traditions of British and Irish people who also lived there. This cultural fusion created a new kind of masquerade.
After slavery was abolished, people flocked from Barbados to Guyana, then British Guiana, in search of better opportunities. They took masquerade with them. Over time, Guyanese masquerade has changed. Today, many performers and audiences do not know the original meaning of the Afrikan tradition.
Become a researcher and create a fact file about the Yorùbá or Igbo people:
- What can you find out about their masquerade traditions?
- Sketch the masks that they traditionally use and add information labels. How are the masks made? What do they mean? How are they used?
- How are these masks different from those that you have seen, or worn, before?
- Present your research to an adult.
The Music of Afrikan Masquerade
Traditionally, Afrikan music was used as a means of communication between the living world and beyond. Drums had a meaningful presence even when they were not played. Where there were no instruments, hands and feet were used to keep rhythm. Dance and music were always connected.
Enslaved Afrikans took these musical traditions to the Caribbean where they became an important method of communication, rebellion and connection to the home they had been torn from.
Djembe drums originated with the Mande people about 800 years ago. They were originally used by griots; singers and trained historians, who passed down stories. It is believed these drums hold three spirits: the tree, the animal whose skin was used, and the drum’s maker
Three main types of bells are used in Afrika: the Pellet-bell, the Clapper-bell and the Struck-bell. The Pellet-bell has a free moving object in the cavity and is closed. The Clapper-bell has a hanging attachment on the inside, while the Struck-bell is hit with an implement.
Talking drums are used to imitate the Yorùbá language, where words have different meanings depending on their pitch. The drum is held under the arm so the lacing between the two skins can be squeezed. This stretches the drum’s skin to create different pitches. The patterns of speech rhythms are beaten out with the curved stick.
Kettle drums can be either small or large to make them easier to carry. Traditionally, the main beat is played by the right hand and the secondary with the left. This drum is made of a gourd covered in goat skin.
The flute was one of the earliest musical instruments of civilization. Flutes were originally made from bamboo, wood, or reed with the mouthpiece either at the side or at the top.
This rattle is made from a dried gourd. Beads or cowrie shells are strung on a net tied around the hollow gourd. The net is then pulled, shaken or tapped, hence its onomatopoeic name.
There was flute music a little bamboo thing that they would play. And drumming and they paraded around the village, and as they walked through the village, they dance to the music that was being played by them. The ones that stuck out for me were the characters in grass skirts. They all wore different masks, depending on the character...
Because it was just for the village, it was quite small. It was very colourful and noisy. There was lots of tinny sounds as opposed to a bass drum sound; [the drums] were small and they played it under their arms. And they played with a hook-line stick... There were cowbell sounds.
Read the eye witness account of Urhobo Masquerade:
- Which instruments does the person see?
- Can you draw the scene that the person is describing?
- How might it have felt to be there?
Now watch this video of Masquerade in Guyana:
- Write an account of what you can see in the video.
- What are the differences and similarities between this and the Urboho Masquerade?
- Why do these differences and similarities exist?
The Characters of Guyanese Masquerade
Guyanese Masquerade is an exciting and colourful performance that moves through the streets of the South American country around Christmas time. An important part of masquerade are the costumed characters who perform to a band’s music, collecting money from audiences.
These characters have evolved over time but were inspired by the Afrikan and Indian cultural traditions of enslaved or indentured people who were taken to the Caribbean by colonial authorities.
It is not known when the cow was added to Masquerade. However, in 1838 people arrived in Guyana from India as unpaid workers. The cow has religious importance to many Indian cultures, so it may have been added then.
Different Afrikan cultures have their own traditional dances for celebration, religion, and storytelling. Dancing also became a method of survival and a moment of release for enslaved Afrikans, who were made to dance on slave ships for exercise.
In Afrika, stilt walking is an important cultural practice. Some Afrikan cultures view stilt walkers as guardians of villages, tall enough to drive away evil spirits.
Stilt walking was taken to the Caribbean by enslaved Afrikans. On some islands, stilt walkers were called ‘Moko Jumbie’, Healer Spirit. To some, the stilt walker became the spirit of fate and retribution.
There is a bull cow made out of bamboo, then they cover it with a horn. They move from left to right. They have a string attached to their shoulder and the person stand in the frame of the cow dancing.
The dancers move from left right, front to back, then they go on their right foot with their hips and hands moving, then you step on the back and repeat. The dancers would spin their foot inwards, heel and toe, that is the flounce. Sometimes there would be 10 to 15 dancing on the streets. They wore female clothes; they wore strip pieces of cloth made into a skirt.
Mother Sally was [a man dancing] on a stilt. Years ago, the character was made from bamboo. He was on a stilt and his head protruded from the character. I was scared. The frame was made from bamboo or raffia.
Discover more about the history of the characters of Guyanese Masquerade
- Use the eye witness account to draw a picture of how you think each masquerade character might look. Which would you most like to see in person?
- Watch this video of Guyanese Masquerade. Which characters can you see? Do they look how you imagined?
- Another festival, Mashramani, is also held in Guyana each year. It is a much newer celebration and has different origins.
- Research the history of ‘Mash’. Why was it created? How is it celebrated? How is it different from the older tradition of Masquerade?