Sunday, September 24, 2006

ñáñigo / Abakuá


I am not only an African drum maker, I also repair drums.
I replace the goatskin heads on djembe drums. When I work with drums I always feel as if I am doing something that one of my ancestors had done long before me. I feel as though I am channeling this wisdom from the great beyond of my ancestors.
I was never formerly instructed in the art of drum making by anyone. Yet, I can say that I was instructed in drum making by guiding spirits. I have made hundreds of drums and my drums have been featured in two major museum exhibitions.

One day I repaired some drums for Onoche Chukwurah who is an Igbo storyteller from Eastern Nigeria. We were having a typically enlightening conversation about African and Afro-Caribbean culture. I can't remember how it occurred in the conversation but he said that he thought I should investigate the Efik culture in relationship to my own Caribbean bloodlines.

Some things that happen to me are quite esoteric and difficult to explain; in terms of my knowledge of Africa and my ancestors. I have always been able to identify "what comes from where". I've always been able to understand Africa in a way that only historians can. Many times in my passionate research of African culture, I would innately know the answer to the question. Research would only validate that which I knew or felt before hand. My psychic connection to my ancestors is simply something I took for granted. It is not anything that academics would respect without research. Maybe my real quest is to prove to others the validity of my psychic knowledge.

Something esoteric was sparked in me by Onoche's comment about the Efik ethnic group. Earlier, I had told my older brother (who shares my passion for African cultural research) that I had a feeling that we had some connections in our family to the area of Nigeria referred to as the Cross River Delta. It is the southwestern region that borders Cameroon. The region is also referred to as Calabar.

When one thinks of the ethnic groups that have discernible cultural influence in the Caribbean the major groups that come to mind are Yoruba, Bakongo, Ashanti, Mande and Fon. We can very easily see, hear and feel their influences. The Yoruba gave us the liturgy and musical foundation of La Regla de Ocha & Shango. The Bakongo gave us many musical instruments and spiritual concepts beside Palo Mayombe. The Ashanti brought many fine arts and a joyous non-secular music and dance. The Mande, like the Yoruba, brought the civic organization of former city-state dwellers. The Fon brought the powerful way of Vodun. Some other groups contributing to the Caribbean's culture were the nomadic Hausa & Fulani who were adept at agrarian skills and animal herding. What about the Efik? My friend Onoche suggested that the Efik contributions could be seen in the majority of the colorful carnival costumes.

I had heard the Abakuá music of Cuba since I was a kid but I thought it was just a kind of Yoruba music. I did not know then what I know now; the Abakuá Secret Society is a male-only fraternal order. Abakuá members derive their culture from the Efik and Efo of the Cross River Delta in Nigeria. I thought that Abakuá existed only in Cuba, now I know otherwise. The Abakuá society went beyond Cuba to Puerto Rico and Trinidad. I have seen the name Calabar used as a designation of ethnicity before; on the manifest of Puerto Rico bound Spanish slave ships.

When I was younger, my mother would always refer to ñáñigo whenever she referred to traditional African religion. She never said Lucumi, Santeria, Obeah,Vodun or Palo. As far as I was concerned, there were some unexplained spirit concepts that I didn't understand but I only knew one word to describe them: ñáñigo. It was a word that I heard my mother and my grandmother use often but I thought Lucumi and ñáñigo were one and the same. When I got older I mistook ñáñigo for ñágo. What I did not realize is that ñáñigo and Abakuá are the same. Some people say that the secret society practiced a malevolent sorcery, still others disagree.

Looking at the Abakuá ceremonial costume I see some similarities with some of the masquerade costumes in Ponce. I am especially drawn to the fact that the mask and costume have a leopard spot pattern. This is intriguing because the leopard is a symbol of power for the Abakuá. Since my mother and grandmother only used this word ñáñigo for certain occult practices or occurrences I feel that I must do my research to understand more.


  1. Vivian4:45 PM

    Or maybe just GO GO GO to NiGERIA!
    Your soul-searching never ends Rasheed!

  2. Afro Cuban All Stars in Minneapolis
    Sidebar: The Gift of Life
    By Al McFarlane, Editor-in-Chief
    Insight News

    Wain talked with Juan De Marcos Gonzales, leader of the Afro Cuban All Stars following their phenomenal performance at the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall. Wain told de Marcos Gonzales about their music providing him a bridge to ancestral realms and a soundscape for his exploration of separate realities.
    Wain was describing his journey to other worlds while he lay in a medically induced coma at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Rochester, MN. He was there for a routine check up on the successful recent kidney transplant he had undergone.
    But the examination revealed cancer in the liver had become aggressive requiring immediate replacement. They moved him to the top of the waiting list and within a day, had him in surgery for a liver transplant. His body rejected the liver, however. Doctors kept him in a coma a waited for a new liver.
    A second organ was considered and passed on. By Saturday, he had been "under" four days already. He had 48 hours to live without a functioning liver.
    Ray and I drove down to visit. The room was full of machines and monitors, tubes and bandages...emergency gear of all types. Like in the movies. But this was serious. It was no joke.
    We were comforted by the massive amount of technology, and the huge amount of medical learning and science, and the excellent care and compassion of expert health workers, all organized to support and sustain life.
    But something was missing.
    There were beeps and buzzes. Bells and public address announcements. The occasional siren wailed faintly in distances beyond the hospital walls. The sound of the room was the ambient signature of the business of life...and death.
    Wain McFarlane's life is music.
    Wain is music.
    I asked if it would be ok to get a boom box or cd player and play music for Wain. They said yes and ordered a boom box from the hospital library. I had Afro Cuban All Stars cd "Distinto, Differente" in my car. I got it and dropped it in the cd player and plugged in the box on a ledge just above Wain's head.
    Nurses said Wain might be aware of what was going on in the room, but they were not sure. He could hear, but he could not speak, due to the sedation. And they were not sure exactly how much he would actually hear or comprehend or remember.
    So I talked to Wain. I rubbed his forehead. Then I walked to the other end of the bed and I rubbed his feet. I said "This is a gift, Wain. So have no fear. You are being given the opportunity to examine this world and others from distinct and different points of view. So, Go! See! Remember all that you can! You will be able to cross vast amounts of space and time in blink of an eye. You can fly and stop at will, suspended in any space you choose. Let this music guide you and connect you to our Ancestors."
    Wain arose three days later speaking Spanish, Portuguese and other languages he did not know. He had visited what appeared to be construction sites. He said, on closer examination, he recognized that he was watching people building the Great Pyramid. He visited the Andes and Southern Mexico and experienced ancient Toltec culture. Beings from that world followed him back to this world. As he drifted toward ordinary consciousness he could still perceive energy bodies that had tracked him, two to defend him, one to destroy him.
    Wain shared this story with Juan De Marcos Gonzales and with our mutual friend Victor Valens, another Twin Cities based Cuban, who visits Cuba regularly. De Marcos Gonzales, eyebrow raised and gaze fixed on Wain's words, smiled deeply, understandingly. He was experiencing the story stereophonically...from Wain eye to eye directly in front of him, from me on one side, telling my part of the story in English and in Spanish, and from Victor, reinterpreting what he had heard from me and from Wain, purely in Spanish.
    There was one song, Wain said, about being a Jamaican but living in Cuba. Yes, de Marcos said, it paid homage to a great Cuban singer Nino Rivera, who, like many, went to Cuba to find work and to live.
    And there was another song on that album that no doubt affected you, he said to Wain. Warariansa is a song from my father's religion, he said, an African religion that retained its expression in Afro Cuba. His father was the Pope of Abakua religion in Cuba.

    The music's mission is to protect and grow the culture by looking back to the ancestors and playing a pathway to the future.
    In preparing this observation I found the following liner notes about the Afro Cuban All Stars:
    A multi-generational big band, with members ranging in age from 13 to 81, the Afro-Cuban All Stars incorporate the full spectrum of Latin dance music, including mambo, cha cha, salsa, rumba, son montuno, timba, guajira, danzón, abakuá, and bolero. During a late-'90s interview, Gonzalez explained, "We have to use all the heritage of Cuban music to create a sound of the future." Gonzalez, who holds a doctorate in hydraulic engineering and Russian and has worked as a consulate at the Agronomic Science Institute in Havana, formed the Afro-Cuban All Stars shortly after the disbanding of Sierra Maestra, the group with whom he had attracted global attention since 1978. Musicians in the Afro-Cuban All Stars, including pianist Ruben Gonzalez and trumpet player Yanko Pisaco, represent the cream of Cuba's instrumentalists.
    One of the people in the audience who is Cuban now living in Twin Cities, and who got special recognition from De Marcos Gonzales was Gloria Rivera. After the reception backstage following the concert, Gloria, Wain, Victor and I sat for coffee at a late nite bistro across the street from Orchestra Hall. Gloria, who sings with Wain from time to time, told me in Spanish, that her father was the object of celebration in the Afro-Cuban All Stars song "Tributo al Nino Rivera."
    Wain had felt the meaning of the song in his coma. He remembered. And he asked De Marcos Gonzales about that song in particular.
    Gloria Rivera, the daughter of the song, was in his life already, unbeknownst to him. This night connected and extended the gift of life.

    Al McFarlane
    Insight News, Minneapolis, MN