Recording the Okpella and other ethnic groups of Edo North, Nigeria


by Jean Borgatti


"The most obvious attraction of postmodernism is surely the license it provides for selective autobiography in the guise of honest scholarship" 
- Adam Kuper


Introduction: Background on field study and equipment


I made these recordings -- selected interviews, songs both social and ritual, chants, and stories – in the Edo North area of what is now Edo State, Nigeria, between 1972 and 1974 as part of a field study resulting in my dissertation in Art History (The Festival as Art Event—Form and Iconography: Olimi Festival in Okpella Clan, Etsako Division, Midwest State, Nigeria, 1976, UCLA). The recording was done with a Uher 4000 Report L reel to reel tape recorder, using BASF and AGFA tapes. I used initially a speed of 7-1/2 ips, though switched to 3-3/4 ips as my stock of tapes became difficult to replenish. Although transcribed, translated, and rendered machine readable, relatively few have been fully translated for publication and used in articles on expressive culture. Although I will sketch in the events where recordings were made throughout this piece, more detailed accounts may be found in my publications with particularly important essays referenced here.

I focused on Etsako Local Government Area in 1971-72, carrying out a survey of material culture that extended over 10 ethnic groups and encompassed 50 villages. On the basis of this research, I selected Okpella as the site for a case study because their masking traditions reflected their location at the juncture of three local government areas, Etsako, Akoko-Edo, and Igbira, making the history of Okpella masking interesting in relation to questions of acculturation and ethnicity, and because Okpella culture possessed a specific mechanism by which women could obtain access to the "secrets" of masquerading, an activity normally restricted to men. However, I also made recordings among other ethnic groups in the area, notably the Ekperi, Uzairue, Weppa-Wano, and Avianwu in Etsako, and the people of Otuo, on the border between Owan and Akoko-Edo Local Government Areas. (See index of field recordings for more detailed information). However, most of my recordings were made in Okpella where I was carrying out a study of art in context.

My research associate Anidu Audu from New Iddo (Okpella) did initial transcriptions and translations of the Okpella tapes, often working by kerosene lantern and many D-batteries late into the night. He was also present at the Okpella recording sessions. Where we did not understand language or word usage, we returned to the appropriate group of elders for clarification. Songs and chants, even folktales, contain cryptic allusions to characters, places, and events – both historic and contemporary, and often require explanation beyond a literal translation. Subsequently, additional recordings have been made in Okpella, Ekperi, Weppa-Wano, Otuo and neighboring communities, and a number of communities in Akoko-Edo local government area using video format (2002 – 2004, 2013-2017) though these are not included in the collection. They have been archived along with my original still photos (35 mm slides and B&W negative) and super-8 movie film footage at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. I include that information here in the event someone is interested in carrying out additional research.


Background on the region and mask culture


Edo North is a contemporary designation for the area generally coterminous with regions inhabited by Edo-speaking peoples north of Benin City that in the past were designated as Kukuruku or Afenmai. More recently this has included Etsako, Owan (Ivbiosakon), and Akoko-Edo local government areas which have been subdivided even further in recent years. Most of the people of Edo North speak an Edo-language and trace origins to Benin in their orthodox histories. Declared Benin origins with the most reasonable dates for migration ranging between the 15th century and the early 18th century tend to mask the ethnic complexity of the populations living in the area that includes not only people who migrated at different times from Benin, autochthonous populations whose origins are unclear, but also Igala and Igbo-speaking peoples who settled on both banks of the Niger River in a kind of ethnic fallout in the aftermath of fishing, trading, and war expeditions.

My recordings made in Okpella between 1972 and 1974 focused on history, ritual, the music/songs associated with masquerades in performance, and story-telling. Among the first recordings I made were those during the Oghalo ceremony, the final ceremony for men taking the title that would make them community leaders and living ancestors (Itsogwa). In the pre-colonial period, these men and their female cohort of titled women (Igbidegua) formed the governing body of the community. The titled women sing praise songs during the final phase of the men’s title-taking ceremony (Oghalo) that relate the history of the kindred, likening the candidate to his high achieving forebears, the man who killed an elephant, the man who brought the first motor car or used corrugated tin to roof his house. The titled men repeat an incantation throughout the final ceremony that exhort and command the title-taker to behave with integrity when adjudicating disputes or solving community problems. They remind him that “an Atsogwa is straight in all his actions, straight as the trunk of the efolo tree.” For a detailed account of this ceremony, see Borgatti, 1989, "Atsu Atsogwa: Art and Morality among the Northern Edo of Okpella, Nigeria." I never did witness a full ceremony for women. None was completed to my knowledge during the period I was there. However I did record songs for this ceremony sung by a celebrated praise singer who was herself an Ogbidegua, a member of the women’s group. Her songs focused on the importance of history and tradition. (Borgatti 2004 “Achetu Obamina: Biography of an Okpella Traditional Artist (Edo North)” and 2009 “A Tale of Two Sisters.”)

Okpella and other northern Edo ethnicities dot the belt of rolling hills which cuts through northern Edo State. These hills extend west to Ekiti and east to Kabba, forming a main watershed between north and the south in Nigeria. It is also the area that marks the southernmost extension of the Islamized Nupe in the late 19th century—a threat that was neutralized by the British in 1897 when Niger Company troops finally took Bida. With the relative peace established by the Pax Britannica in this area after 1897 after the fall of not only Bida but the Benin Kingdom, many Edo North villages moved down from the hills where they had sought refuge from slave raiding and persecution from the Palace at Benin, and took advantage of their newfound freedom (or safety) to engage in trade with neighboring ethnic groups. Interactions built upon those established by refugees in the 19th century. These interactions are chronicled in the area’s expressive culture—as evidenced in the masqueraders’ songs sung in languages other than Okpella.

Within this region, the climate and vegetation are semi-savannah. The area is rich in minerals, especially kaolin, marble, granite and limestone—and the exploitation of these provides people with some livelihood. The population continues to concern itself with subsistence agriculture, with the sale of surplus foodstuffs providing individuals with cash income—as urban centers in Nigeria demand increasingly more food from the rural sector. Since the 1950s, Okpella's economy received periodic boosts through the influx of transients associated with military installations, road-building activities, and a government sponsored cement factory. (It remains the site of a new privately-owned cement factory, and today, women find it more lucrative to hand break granite rocks into gravel in their compounds than to weave.)


2002 Field Study


When I returned to Nigeria in 2002 for the first time since 1979, I brought with me digitized versions of the tapes and a CD player for Anidu, who had been so important in the gathering and interpreting of this material. His comment, “We don’t speak Okpella like this anymore; we don’t speak it as well” speaks volumes about language change and language loss. Okpella is not a major language, and the ethnic group is small. People speak the language at home, and most people in this area are multi-lingual in local languages since it is inhabited by many small ethnic groups. English is the language of instruction in school. Only two of the languages in the Edo North area – Etsako or Ekperi or “yekhee” in Etsako LGA (Elimelech 1976) and Emai in Owan LGA (Egbokhare and Schaeffer 2007) – have been properly documented and studied.

Life has changed dramatically since the 1970's with increasingly available material goods, a more but not necessarily better educated population, traditional life curtailed by time constraints and the prohibitions of fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, enhanced communication that includes satellite TV, internet and, most important, cell phones. Indeed, in the early 1970's, Okpella was at the end of the paved road. With the extension of that road, Okpella finds itself today well-situated on the main road between Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria and Abuja, its political capital; a location advantageous for transshipping goods and produce between north and south.

The Edo North area (a blank on the art historical map when I began my study in the 1970s) remains sadly undocumented beyond my own efforts—despite the richness of its expressive culture (even with the problems attending the carrying out of traditional activities today). The art of the Benin Kingdom, of course, has been widely published and studied in some depth since 1900, but the art and culture of the Edo speaking peoples living to the north, remain little known. In general, anthropological, historical, and art historical scholarship concerned with southern Nigeria has been concentrated on the many kingship traditions (Benin, Ife, Owo, and Idah to name the most relevant) and upon the more accessible and populous groups that include the artistically rich Yoruba- and Igbo-speaking peoples.

I also spent as much time as possible recording historical accounts of the Okpella people and the origins of various masquerade types—most important the walking shrouds commemorating important deceased male elders (omeshe) and their messengers, Inogiri, who wear either carved wooden or cloth hood masks with richly layered costumes. See the index of recordings for details.


Story-telling events and traditions in the Okpella communities


To keep myself regularly visiting the Okpella communities during the months leading up to their annual festival, I also organized story-telling events (Amusingly, the word for story-telling in Okpella translates literally as “what we do to keep from falling asleep in the afternoon.”) These ranged from relatively informal gatherings during the day when children and the elderly were at home to more formal presentations by recognized raconteurs. Every story has a song that summarizes its point and every song has a chorus that is sung by the whole group. Story-telling is highly interactive. As one story-teller finishes, another may jump in and take command of the circle of on-lookers. Story-tellers ranged in age from 12-year old boys to 72-year old women. I was particularly interested in stories that might shed more light on visual images that I was documenting, or fictional places that recurred in the songs I was recording. One of the most interesting stories in this context focused on a mythical water beast with a jeweled tail, a character that features prominently among the wall-paintings done by titled women to dress the title chambers of men undergoing the final rituals for the Atsogwa title. ((Borgatti 2008 “Achikobo: Tale of the Achikobo, It is the Tail that is Mine.”
The stories in the less formal sessions tended to be shorter in length and included many stories involving tortoise, a trickster figure (the African “Brer Rabbit”). However, all made a moral or ethical point. For example, the moral of the story concerning the beast with the jeweled tail is that a wealthy man has a responsibility to be generous—certainly a fitting comment for men achieving the status of titled elder. Accomplished raconteurs, in contrast, tended to tell very long stories featuring a range of characters who moved between the natural world and the supernatural world, they often played passages on a harp or thumb piano to create dramatic pauses.

During this period, before the festival rituals that most concerned me took place, I also recorded a text on body-painting, since various designs adorn individuals on different occasions, from the crowning image on a title candidate’s chest to the facial striations and web-like designs on girls who are marked out as having a special relationship with the spirits during the ancestral festival. The painting is done with the juice of a berry (atsu) mixed with charcoal and remains visible for at least a week.


Festival Season


As we came into the festival season, I concentrated on recording the songs, prayers, and chants of various masquerade figures or groups. Tape 7 is particularly rich with the prayers, invocations, and music – beginning with the “Peeking” (Idoeme) ceremony where those women being inducted into the Festival society get a glimpse of what is to come—myself included, for I took the title Inyilimi in order that elders could speak openly with me about matters that would otherwise have been restricted; narrations on the origins of the Messenger (Anogiri) masquerade, Lawrence Ajanaku’s prayers offered prior to beginning his commission for UCLA, Histories of the Olimi Festival narrated by Pa Ebigie, oldest man among the titled elders, songs of the senior night society, and those associated with the prayers and songs of the final ceremonies of the women’s festival title. (I was one of those women that year.) The last cut on this tape is the drumming and chanting associated with the processions of young men led by Messenger masquerades to develop anticipatory excitement in the community.

This ancestral festival follows a particular sequence of events, each having music, song, prayer, or dialogue associated with them. The Okpella celebrate Olimi festival at the end of the dry season to honor their ancestors and purify the community for the coming year. Partway through the dry season (November-December), the senior masked messenger or Anogiri in a festival congregation makes his first public appearance. He calls on the village chief, senior titled men (Itsogwa), elders, and other important or wealthy men in the community as well as on the Mothers, (Inyilimi--mothers of spirits), women who hold the festival title. As servant and messenger of the Dead Fathers, that is, the commemorative masquerades, this masked character collects gifts of drink and money from the individuals he visits, exhorting them to prepare for the coming festival. His appearance ushers in a three-month period known as Ukpeogbe--the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

During Ukpeogbe, members of the community with personal problems (health, barrenness, or crop failure) consult the masked heralds Inogiri (pl.), who appear at intervals in the village and pledge offerings for the remedy of those evils. Preparations are made for the bringing out of new masquerades, and old costumes are refurbished and embellished. Food, money, and drink are put by for the upcoming days of entertainment and feasting.

Towards the end of Ukpeogbe, the elders gather and with the help of a diviner cast an oracle to see if the proposed days of celebration will be free from death or sickness. If the oracle is positive, the date is set and a sacrifice of foodstuffs is made in the village sanctuary, the Owilimi or spirit house. Approximately two weeks before the celebration, the senior night society, Ilukpekpe, comes out to proclaim the date. Thereafter a cloth clad masquerade referred to as the daytime Alukpekpe may appear at dusk to repeat the announcement. Once the date has been announced, the two night societies, junior and senior, will perform nightly in a communal public effort to combat witchcraft--human inspired malevolence which works at the supernatural level. During the week preceding the celebration, young men and boys "dance" Okolijomo in the late afternoons to build up excitement as the important days approach. At this time, the elders of the senior night society begin receiving small offerings from reigning Mothers (Ozu or Inyilimi) and larger gifts from women who wish to complete their titles. Festival titled women and girls appear in the village wearing white cloth, a red fez (emblematic of a titled man), and body-paint applied in characteristic designs.

Final Eve of the Festival


On the actual eve of the daylight dancing that marks the culmination of the festival, Okolijomo processions begin in the late afternoon. Young men and boys move through the streets in small groups, each led by a masked messenger (Anogiri). They stop at certain compounds to dance vigorously and exhibit their strength and endurance in whipping contests. Okolijomo reaches a climax when an architectural masquerade called Iyabana's hut (Iyabana Okholo) arrives at the public performance area. Made of plantain leaves (or now, streamers cut from reinforced plastic bags), Iyabana's hut shelters members of the junior night society during their daytime festival appearance. When they appear at night, they are cloaked in darkness and create character through sound.

At nightfall a town crier warns women, children, and non-villagers to go inside because Efulegede must pass through the village to call the spirits ("ilimi") from the Other World. After the crier issues his warning, able-bodied men sweep through the streets, punishing with severe whipping anyone who has disobeyed the injunction to remain indoors. Their chant "efule gede, efule gede" ("efule" is out) mingles with the thin, reedy sound of the sacred horn ("akala") used to summon the spirits ("ilimi"). After Efulegede, there is a period of respite in which citizens are able to move freely about the village and partake of an evening meal. By 9:00 P.M. people retire to their compounds again for it is time for the Belled One (Ogbanikaba) to make his rounds. The Belled One (Ogbanikaba) is a powerful anti-witchcraft persona that finally "clears the way" for the masquerades ("ilimi" or spirits) who will appear during the night and on the following day. The Belled One (Ogbanikaba) visits all entrances to the village and stops to pray at each road junction. It calls at the house of each elder in the guise of his "late father" to receive offerings of food and money. After the Belled One (Ogbanikaba) completes his rounds, the members of the two night societies come out and perform at the compounds of the chief, their titular father, and other important persons in the village.

At midnight, members of the senior night society (Ilukpekpe) assemble at the compound of their titular father and head to partake of offerings of food and drink--pounded yam, soup made with "bush" meat, and corn beer ("ato"). Gathered in a circle around a dying fire, the spokesman for the society pours a libation over their emblematic bell gongs. At the same time, he calls upon the dead fathers of the town, using their night society pseudonyms, and upon Eshinegba, the Creator, to protect the village from quarrels ("uwula") and sickness ("uguami"), and to bring to the town children ("omo"), money ("ukpagho"), and good crops ("erishemi ti"). After the offering and sharing of food, the two night societies continue to "play" until daybreak, the calls of Ilukpekpe rending the night air and the sound of Iyabana's flute dancing on the wind. They dance and sing, praising virtue and excoriating vice, admonishing the citizenry to cleanse hearts and minds of grudges and to mend their ways for the New Year.


Festival Second Phase


In the late morning of the following day, villagers gather at the public square ("olele"). They come to greet the personified spirits ("ilimi") who are returning to celebrate the successful completion of festival ritual. Okolijomo and the masked heralds move through the village drumming up enthusiasm. Iyabana's hut lumbers into the dance arena surrounded by a coterie of titled women (Izu) and settles finally on the fringes of the playing ground. The festival musicians, seated at one edge of the arena, begin to play.

Preceded by the Alukpekpe, individual cloth-clad deceased fathers enter the arena accompanied by their masked servants and messengers, the Inogiri. The long cloth tubes twist and lunge in the arena; they pause and collapse upon the ground, beating their heads (a cowry-covered top-knot) upon the earth in a silent prayer. The arrival of the Dead Fathers is punctuated by the appearance of masquerades commemorating individual women who had taken the festival title during their lifetimes. Each masked or costumed figure circles the dance area accompanied by sons and titled daughters. The masqueraders acknowledge community leaders and greet friends and relatives. Each dances before small enclaves of people and then takes a turn performing for the audience as a whole. The music recorded during the dancing of the men’s and women’s masks (although all are danced by men) reveals important ideas about male and female roles, in terms of the expenditure of energy (male) versus the complex shifting of rhythm patterns (female). The masquerade sponsored by the elders, Efofe, appears at the climax of the afternoon's dancing. Sweeping majestically into and around the arena, Efofe holds the audience spellbound--its terrible bush-monster face peering out from a brilliant setting of embroidered and appliqued cloth. Festival dancing lasts for several hours and may be repeated on the following day, ending with the appearance of the masquerade referred to as the Aja. Cloth-clad like the Dead Fathers and the Alukpekpe, Aja sweeps the footprints of the personified spirits from the playing ground with the hem of his skirts. He closes the ceremony by praying aloud, once and finally, for the health and wealth of the community.

The first of these is Aminague, considered the oldest of Okpella’s masquerades and one that predates the ancestral festival as it has been carried out since the early 20th century. Aminague, a masquerade featuring a woven raffia mask and costume, is said to be associated with men’s age group ritual. The second, Okakagbe, features elaborate cloth applique costumes. It is a social dance that can be called on to perform whenever entertainment is necessary – when the governor comes to visit or when an entry to the local agricultural fair is needed. Recordings of the music and songs associated with these two independent masquerade traditions also form part of the collection.




Particularly important and evocative is the autobiographical account given by the cloth applique artist Lawrence Ajanaku (found on tape 5) and the prayers he offered prior to beginning a major commission for a set of Okakagbe masquerade costumes for UCLA (found on Tape 7). This material is published in Borgatti, 1979, From the Hands of Lawrence Ajanaku, along with analyses of the masquerade music and dance by an ethnomusicologist and a dance historian. Lawrence’s work (commissioned) is held in the collections of UCLA, the Harn Museum (University of Florida, Gainesville), the Newark Museum, the National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian), and the British Museum where the last two masquerade costumes he made have been installed recently as part of the long term exhibition of masquerades . (I should note that subsequent recordings were made of Lawrence giving his personal history in 2003 and again in 2013—a year before his death as well as telling a long story during which he accompanied himself on a thumb piano.) Recordings of the music and songs for this masquerade, a masquerade widely distributed throughout Etsako, were made in neighboring Avianwu and Uzairue (Tape 8).

Although most of the recordings were made in Okpella, recordings were made in other Etsako ethnic groups as well. In Ekperi, I recorded songs of ritual license sung during the serving of a local protective shrine built around magical medicine (ikhumi). In these songs, men and women satirize each other, making bawdy comments about sexual appetites and apparatus. I was particularly fortunate in having an older man who spoke excellent English who was persuaded to translate this material for me—since a younger man would have been very uncomfortable talking to me about these things—since I was a young unmarried woman at the time. (Borgatti, 1976 "Songs of Ritual License from Midwestern Nigeria"). This associate did proposition me subsequently (he was only 40 years older than I was...) – telling me that our friendship without greater intimacy was like soup without salt. We maintained our friendship (unsalted), and when I returned in 2003, he was still alive though very frail – and I was able to give him a copy of the article I wrote on the age-grade masquerades (Otsa festival) in his community—a festival he had been anxious for me to witness in 1973. Snatches of song sung by the female choral groups accompanying each masquerade in the Ekperi program of competitive dancing were recorded and noted in this article (2004 “Ekperi's Otsa Festival: Igbo Age-Grade Masquerades on the West Bank of the Niger?”)

I have published an initial study (1982; “Age Grades, Masquerades and Leadership") and recently contributed two essays to the blog about Northcote Thomas’ photographs and collections housed at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University, Cambridge, England.