African-Caribbean Masquerade

Exploring masquerade practices of the Caribbean with Horniman Community Action Researcher, Scherin Barlow Massay

Oro Efe Masks Emerging from the Sacred Forest (1993) by Carol Beckwith & Angela FisherAfrican Ceremonies

Masquerade has always been part of African culture. Today, many do not know the history or meaning behind Caribbean masquerades.

Community Action Researcher Scherin Barlow Massay has been researching the connections between the Horniman’s collections and Guyanese masquerade.

LIFE Photo Collection

The History of African-Caribbean Masquerade

In the 1600s, enslaved Africans were taken to the Caribbean, where their traditions were suppressed by European authorities.

Fulani Talking Drum (1961) by Horniman Museum and GardensHorniman Museum and Gardens

Fulani Talking Drum, West Africa

Masquerade is found in many different cultures but originated with the Fulani people in West Africa as many as 8,000 years ago. Prehistoric cave paintings found in Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, show people wearing masks and horns. 

Copper Alloy Figure of Hathor (0) by Horniman Museum & GardensHorniman Museum and Gardens

Copper Alloy Figure of Hathor, Egypt, North Africa

In ancient Egypt, masquerade was an important part of ceremonies and festivals. Priests wore masks of the jackal-headed god Anubis as they prepared bodies for the Afterlife. Important gods such as Hathor were depicted with part-animal features.

Stocks and Slave Irons (0) by Horniman Museum and GardensHorniman Museum and Gardens

Stocks or Slave Irons, North Nigeria

In the 1600s, the European quest for African resources led to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Over 15 million Africans were kidnapped, enslaved and taken to the Americas and Caribbean. Enslaved Africans continued masking traditions in secret - connecting to their culture. 

Egungun Mask (0) by Horniman Museum & GardensHorniman Museum and Gardens

Egungun Mask, Yoruba, Nigeria

In West Africa, the Yorùbá people’s ‘Egúngún’ masquerades honour the dead and mark the return of ancestors to the land of the living. It is believed that the masker transforms into the spirit of his ancestors through the mask.

Map of Guyana (2004) by Horniman Museum and GardensHorniman Museum and Gardens

Map of Guyana

After slavery was abolished, people flocked from Barbados to Guyana, in search of better opportunities. They took masquerade with them. Over time, Guyanese masquerade has changed. Today, many performers and audiences do not know the original meaning of the African tradition.

African Trio:Native Musicians (1950) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

The Music of African Masquerade

Traditionally, African music was used as a means of communication between the living world and beyond. Drums had a meaningful presence even when they were not played. Where there were no instruments, hands and feet were used to keep rhythm. Dance and music were always connected.

LIFE Photo Collection

Enslaved Africans took these musical traditions to the Caribbean where they became an important method of communication, rebellion and connection to the home they had been torn from.

Djembe - Musical Instrument (0) by Horniman Museum & GardensHorniman Museum and Gardens

Djembe Drum, West Africa

Djembe drums originated with the Mande people about 800 years ago. They were originally used by griots; singers and trained historians, who passed down stories. It is believed these drums hold 3 spirits: the tree, the animal whose skin was used, and the drum’s maker.

Talking Drum (0) by Horniman Museum & GardensHorniman Museum and Gardens

Talking Drum or DunDun, Nigeria

Talking drums are used to imitate the Yorùbá language, where words have different meanings depending on their pitch. The drum is held under the arm so the lacing between the two skins can be squeezed. This stretches the drum’s skin to create different pitches. 

Notched Flute (0) by Horniman Museum and GardensHorniman Museum and Gardens

Notched Flute, Nigeria

The flute was one of the earliest musical instruments of civilization. Flutes were originally made from bamboo, wood, or reed with the mouthpiece either at the side or at the top.

Sekere or Chekere (1940) by Horniman Museum & GardensHorniman Museum and Gardens

Sekere or Chekere, West Africa

This rattle is made from a dried gourd. Beads or cowrie shells are strung on a net tied around the hollow gourd. The net is then pulled, shaken or tapped, hence its onomatopoeic name.

Genesis Mas Band Costume (1998/1998) by Genesis Carnival BandNotting Hill Carnival

The Characters of Guyanese Masquerade

Guyanese Masquerade is an exciting and colourful performance that moves through the streets of the South American country around Christmas time. An important part of masquerade are the costumed characters who perform to a band’s music, collecting money from audiences.

Carnival in the Port of Spain, Trinidad (1888/1888) by Melton PriorNotting Hill Carnival

These characters have evolved over time but were inspired by the African and Indian cultural traditions of enslaved or indentured people who were taken to the Caribbean by colonial authorities.

Butting Cow (2020) by Scherin Barlow MassayHorniman Museum and Gardens

Butting Cow

It is not known when the cow was added to Masquerade. However, in 1838 people arrived in Guyana from India as unpaid workers. The cow has religious importance to many Indian cultures, so it may have been added then.

Bumbum Sally (2020) by Scherin Barlow MassayHorniman Museum and Gardens

Bumbum Sally, Flouncers (Dancers)

Different African cultures have their own traditional dances for celebration, religion, and storytelling. Dancing also became a method of survival and a moment of release for enslaved Africans, who were made to dance on slave ships for exercise.

Stilt Walkers (2020) by Scherin Barlow MassayHorniman Museum and Gardens

Stilt Walkers

Some African cultures view stilt walkers as guardians of villages, tall enough to drive away evil spirits.

Stilt walking was taken to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans. On some islands, stilt walkers were called ‘Moko Jumbie’, Healer Spirit.

Notting Hill Carnival Mas (2017/2017) by AFPNotting Hill Carnival

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