Abakuá, a mutual aid society for men based on religion, was established by Africans in Regla, Havana, in the 1830s. It represents one of the least known yet most powerful examples of West African cultural influence in the Americas. The Abakuá society is derived principally from the male "leopard societies" of the Àbàkpà (Qua Ejagham), Efut, and Èfìk peoples of the Cross River Basin (Old Calabar, now called Calabar), in southeastern Nigeria, and southwestern Cameroon. These societies are called Ngbè and Ékpè, after the Ejagham and Èfìk terms for leopard.
A variety of distinct ethnic groups from southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon were brought to the Caribbean region as slaves. Because the port many departed from was called Old Calabar, and because the language of many others (from the Niger delta) was Kalabari, many of them became known as "Calabarí," (and later in Cuba, "Carabalí," reversing the "l" and "r"), in the same way that various Yorùbá subgroups became known collectively as "Lukumí" and various Bantu groups became known as "Congo."
As Africans were brought to Cuba during the slave trade, the Spanish government divided them ethnically by encouraging those in urban areas to form cabildos, or "nation-groups." These cabildos became important centers for the conservation of African languages and cultural practices. Carabalí peoples formed several cabildos in the eighteenth century, and titled members of the leopard societies were among them.
Cuban Abakuá have never sought repatriation to the African continent, as did the original Rastafarians of Jamaica. Instead, because Abakuá fundamentos (sacred objects) were established by Africans in northwestern Cuba, this region is the center of the society's activities. The consecration of land that accompanied the creation of the first fundamento by Calabari immigrants definitively established Abakuá in Cuban soil.
Because their primary allegiance is to Ékue, their central fundamento, Abakuá consider their society to exist as a separate state within the nation, with their own language and laws. Although each group is distinct, with a pattern of independent settlement closely resembling the social organization of precolonial Southeastern Nigeria, all Abakuá groups share a common mythology and organizing structure. Following the tratado (origin myth) of each group, they are identified with Cross River ethnic groups—Efí (Èfìk), Efó (Efut), and Orú (Oron). These groups are relatively independent, yet they are answerable to an informal council of elders (recognized for their mastery of Abakuá lore) who convene in times of crisis.
Many key Abakuá terms are slightly transformed Èfìk terms still used in the Calabar region. For example, the word íreme (spirit dancer) derives from ídem (body), while ékue (sacred drum) derives from ékpè (leopard). Used to evoke ancestral and other divine forces, Abakuá words are believed to motivate inanimate forces into action.
The Abakuá language has influenced Cuban popular speech: chébere (or chévere), used popularly to mean "valiant, wonderful, excellent," derives from "Ma' chébere," a title of the Abakuá dignitary Mokóngo. The Abakuá terms asére (greetings), ekóbio (ritual brother), and monína (ritual brother) are used as standard greetings among urban Cuban males.
National and Popular Culture
Partially inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and "Bohemian" Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, the intellectual and artistic movement called Afrocubanismo emerged in Havana during this same period. Seeking to define a national culture, the movement drew inspiration from local black and mulatto working-class cultures. Because the Abakuá were anti-colonial, endemic to Cuba, highly organized, exclusively male, secret, and uniquely costumed, they became an important symbol for the Afrocubanistas.
At the forefront of this movement were Fernando Ortiz (1881–1969), who in 1923 founded the Sociedad de Folklore Cubano; Nicolás Guillén (1902–1989), who published his first book of poetry, Motivos de son, in 1930; Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980), who published his first novel, ¡Ecue-Yamba-O!, using an Abakuá theme, in 1933; and Lydia Cabrera (1900–1991), who published Contes Nègres de Cuba, in 1936. The composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895–1963) used Abakuá themes in his 1930 composition "Danza de los náñigos [Abakuá]", and the singer Rita Montaner performed Félix Caignet's (1892–1926) composition "Carabalí" in Paris in the late 1920s.
Cuba's renowned painter Wifredo Lam (1902–1982) returned from an apprenticeship with Pablo Picasso in France to live in Cuba from 1941 to 1952, where Alejo Carpentier and Lydia Cabrera encouraged his exploration of African-derived themes. A 1943 painting (untitled) depicts an Abakuá íreme with conical headgear and playing a drum. The conical Abakuá mask appears repeatedly in Lam's later work in abstracted forms. In 1947 he painted "Cuarto Fambá," his imaginary recreation of the Abakuá initiation room, which of course he never saw.
Many important musicians of Cuban popular music have been Abakuá members. Because the rumba percussion ensembles were marginalized and rarely recorded before the 1950s, many early composers and compositions remain obscure. Ignacio Piñeiro (1888–1969), a member of the Abakuá group Efóri Nkomón, founded the son group Septeto Nacional in 1927. Piñeiro was known as "the poet of the son " because his over 400 compositions helped create the global son craze of the 1930s. Chano Pozo (1915–1948), a member of the group Muñánga Efó, composed the classic "Blen, blen, blen" in 1940. His later compositions and performances with jazz great Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940s helped create the bebop genre and are celebrated as a foundation to Latin jazz. Pozo and Gillespie collaborated on compositions in Afro-Cuban jazz (or Latin jazz), including "Manteca" and "Afro-Cuban Suite," performed in 1947 with the Gillespie Band, integrating Abakuá ceremonial music and chants with jazz harmonies. In "Afro-Cuban Suite," Pozo chants "Jeyey baribá benkamá," a ritual phrase in homage to the celestial bodies. Dizzy performed these compositions into the mid-1980s as standards, fusing Abakuá rhythms to popular music in the United States.
The enduring legacy of the Pozo-Gillespie collaboration is felt in numerous ways. In the late 1940s, conga and bongo drums became symbols for the emerging beatnik movement, and the conga drum is now a standard instrument in the United States. Musical tributes to Chano Pozo began in 1949, the year after his death, and continue in the twenty-first century. Irakere, an important jazz group in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, also used Abakuá themes.
Brown, David H. The Light Inside: Abakuá Society Arts. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.
Cabrera, Lydia. La Sociedad Secreta Abakuá: narrada por viejos adeptos. Havana: Ediciones C. R., 1959.
Cabrera, Lydia. Anaforuana: Ritual y símbolos de la iniciación en la sociedad secreta Abakuá. Madrid: Ediciones Madrid, 1975.
Cabrera, Lydia. La Lengua Sagrada de los Ñañigos. Miami: Colección del Chicherekú en el exilio, 1988.
Matibag, Eugenio. Afro-Cuban Religious Experience: Cultural Reflections in Narrative. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Miller, Ivor. "A Secret Society Goes Public: The Relationship Between Abakuá and Cuban Popular Culture." African Studies Review 43, no. 1 (April, 2000.): 161–188.
Ortiz, Fernando. La "tragedia" de los ñáñigos. Havana: Colección Raíces, 1950. Reprint, 1993.
Ortiz, Fernando. Los bailes y el teatro de los negros en el folklore de Cuba. Havana: Letras Cubanas, 1951. Reprint, 1981.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage, 1983.
Irakere: Selección de exitos 1973–1978 (Live). Areito, 1978. Includes "Iya" and "Aguanille Bonko."
ivor l. miller (2005)