Masks Rock Africa's Cradle of Voodoo, Explorer Says
Deep within the soul of Africa there can be heard a distant sound, the pulse of the rhythmic beat of dancing drums. Scattered throughout tiny villages during festival season, the dancing masks of West Africa can be heard and seen.
I have had a long fascination with mask dancing around the world, especially in the West African countries of Benin and Togo. Since the mid-1990s, I have journeyed here to witness the rituals of voodoo and the powerful Gelede and Egungun mask dances of the Yoruba people. Now I have returned as a National Geographic Society photographer on a cultural expedition with my friend and associate Wade Davis, a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. We are in search of the roots of voodoo.
We journey to West Africa, during the height of the spiritual season of celebration, renewal, and the transition into the Voodoo New Year in September.
The Gelede mask dance is by far the happier and more entertaining of the numerous mask dances. Its primary goal is to both entertain and bridge the worlds of the dead and the living, considered the sacred and the profane.
The mask dance in Africa is charged with the responsibility of keeping the balance of life between humans and the gods. The mask becomes the visual and living manifestation of the gods, both good and evil.
Balance of Power
The Gelede mask acts out daily life, and more often than not, the conflicts and misdeeds of the mortal man. All the events of the past year—theft, love affairs, corruption, abuse of officials—are brought to light. The head performer, "Efe," a female character, acts out her performance with sarcastic remarks and reprimands that serve to lighten intricate village tensions.
A central part of the Gelede mask dances are the performances of the women spirits, especially the head female Gelede spirit, Iya Lase. This female mask performs to balance the power of the witches always found throughout African tribal society.
As Benin villagers gather once a year for their annual Gelede mask dance, they will once again be woven into the deep and long tapestry of responsibilities of again becoming an honorable citizen—to the family, the village, the community, and the spirits that dwell at the edge of the forest.
Cult of the Dead
Where the Gelede masks embrace the rituals of daily life, the great masks of the Egungun people speak of the cult of the dead.
When members of a Benin village experience a great Egungun mask dance, they are in the presence of their dead ancestors. As drums beat into the heat of the African night, the past and the present merge and the death masks of the Egungun swirl. There is both fear and hope that the ritual will give way to optimism for the future. The purpose of the Egungun dance, and the performance of the masks in attendance, is to cleanse and reconcile the community and liberate it from burden. A visit by the dancing dead ancestors demands a sense of responsibility to the living to behave themselves on a daily basis.
Egungun dance ceremonies also perform the important task of exposing misconduct within the village and avenging it. Punishment is swift.
If touched by the mask, a person reveals to the village they are guilty. They are then banished to a symbolic death within the living world. However, with an offering of money or alcohol to the Egungun mask, the person can save themselves from metaphorical death and shame.
The mask dances are always performed by the initiated men of every village that make up the secret societies who have gone through an intricate series of rituals to be accepted into the group. Once accepted into these secret societies, the men will be able to know the power of the masks and will be well versed in the stories concerning the myths, prayers, chants, and magical practices to each community. These men will be qualified to play the sacred ceremonial musical instruments that allow the mask dancers to fall into trance and become the conduit for the spirits to present in the living world. Even female characters are played by the men.
With the passing of the festival season that marks the end of sacred dances for another year, the masks have performed their task of keeping the forces of life and death in balance. The masks again have demanded their toll, namely the responsibility that every human appease the forces of the spirit world beyond their control and be well behaved for the next year.
The Gelede and Egungun dances of the Yoruba are the visible affirmation of the elusive world of the African spiritual world and of the powerful magic that lies within Africa's modern psyche.
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