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Cuban Abakuá Chants: Examining New Linguistic and Historical Evidence for the African Diaspora

  • Ivor Miller

Abstract:

The Cuban Abakuá society—derived from the Èfik Ékpè and Ejagham Úgbè societies of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon—was founded in Havana in the 1830s by captured leaders of Cross River villages. This paper examines the process by which West African Ékpè members were able to understand contemporary Cuban Abakuá chants, and indicates how these texts may be used as historical documents. This methodology involves first recording and interpreting Abakuá chants with Cuban elders, and then interpreting these same chants with the aid of West African Èfik speakers. The correlation of data in these chants with those in documents created by Europeans and Africans from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries indicates a vocabulary that includes many geographic and ethnic names and an occasional historical figure. These examples may lead to a reevaluation of the extent to which African identity and culture were transmitted during the transAtlantic diaspora. Abakuá intellectuals have used commercial recordings to extol their history and ritual lineages. Evidence indicates that Cuban Abakuá identity is based on detailed knowledge of ritual lineages stemming from specific locations in their homelands, and not upon a vague notion of an African “national” or “ethnic” identity. The persistence of the Abakuá society contradicts the official construction of a Cuban national identity.

Résumé:

La communauté cubaine Abakuá—descendante des communautés Èfik Ekpè et Ejagham Úgbè du Sud Est du Nigéria et du Sud Ouest du Cameroun—a été fondée à la Havane dans les années 1830 par des leaders capturés des villages de Cross River. Cet essai examine le processus par lequel les membres de la communauté Ékpè d'Afrique de l'Ouest ont été capables de comprendre les chants de la communauté Abakuá moderne de Cuba, et montre comment ces textes pourraient être utilisés comme documents historiques. La méthodologie utilisée a consisté en un premier temps à enregistrer et interpréter les chants Abakuá avec les anciens de la communauté cubaine, puis à interpréter les mêmes chants avec les membres de la communauté Éfik d'Afrique de l'Ouest. La corrélation entre les éléments de ces chants et ceux des documents produits par les Européens et les Africains entre le dix-huitième et le vingtième siècle aboutit à un glossaire comprenant beaucoup de noms géographiques et ethniques, et occasionnellement, des personnalités historiques. Ces exemples pourraient mener à une réévaluation de l'étendue de la transmission de l'identité et de la culture africaines lors de la diaspora trans-Atlantique. Les intellectuels de la communauté Abakuá ont jusqu'à présent utilisé des enregistrements commerciaux pour mettre en valeur leur histoire et les origines de leurs rituels. Il est possible de démontrer que l'identité Abakuá cubaine est basée sur une connaissance détaillée de l'origine des rituels provenant de locations spécifiques dans leurs pays d'origine, et non sur la notion vague d'une identité “ethnique” ou “nationale” africaine. La persistance de la communauté Abakuá constitue une résistance à la construction officielle d'une identité nationale cubaine.

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Cuban Abakuá Chants: Examining New Linguistic and Historical Evidence for the African Diaspora

  • Ivor Miller

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