|Africa/Middle East: Features||
Meet 'Ngofariman' the Nasty Chimpanzee among Mali's Puppets and Masks
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The sun is setting on the banks of the River Niger in Segou, Mali’s second city. A very special event is happening and emotions are running high as the audience member recounted (above).
The Bozo, traditionally fisherman in Mali, are from the nearby village of Kirango and are performing with their puppets out on the river. One of them, ‘the fish’ has just been spotted rising out of the water by the audience. The singing by group drifts over the water: “Who is equal to you/ Your appearance announces the light of the day…”, accompanied by drumming that mirrors the slow stately rising and dipping of the fish in the water.
“They’re mythical beings, it’s not about the people inside.” As they perform — whether it is ‘Ngofariman’ the Nasty Chimpanzee or ‘Ciwara’ the Antelope — the character of the being and its place in the history and cultural identity of the people takes over; the person within acts as a transmitter and, “They never betray the secret.”
According to legend, the Bozo are descendants of Faro, the water spirit and creator god. They are seen as the inventors of the masquerade tradition in Mali. Another group from the area also with a strong masquerade tradition, the Bamana, are putting on a grand spectacle here in Segou too with their own puppets and masks. The Bamana have always been connected to the land as farmers. Their puppets and masks differ from the Bozo’s aquatic animals, representing animals of the bush and domestic animals, as well as sprits and human beings.
These puppets are large, standing well over the heads of the audience - a couple of metres in length and height. Clothed in cloth and millet straw, the head of the puppet is made of wood and brightly painted. They dance and move almost within touching distance, whilst the musicians and singers stand just to the side of the space.
A pair of Kono — birds that announce the rains — now take centre stage. The birds, with beautiful large painted beaks prance slowly in loose formation on the sand, flapping their wings and bending their necks. The singers praise the bird’s character and its importance in the lives of the people: “You, bird be welcome/ Malikono, you are popular/ Bird of the river, the water of the river has inundated the field…Bird of the river, you do not have a father/ Bird of the river, the animal has left no place to lie down/ Bird of the river, Allah is your support”
The Bamana have a wide repertoire of creatures, animals of the savannah such as buffalo, hyena, antelope as well as domesticated animals such as cows, horses and sheep. Human and mythic beings also make an appearance, not to mention scenes from daily life: women pounding millet, a hunter, a mother and her child.
The Bozo and Bamana have always lived and worked closely together and their masquerade traditions also share similarities in puppet form, the instruments used, the chorus and the ritual.
The most important feature of the masquerade for both groups is that the puppeteer must not be seen by the audience. He assumes the character, appearance and movement of the character, concealed within the large frame of the puppet or wearing its costume and mask. Elisabeth den Otter, an anthropologist who has worked with the groups from Kirango for over a decade explains: “The person goes into the animal, you’re not supposed to know there’s a person inside. They’re beings, mythical beings, it’s not about the people inside.” As these beings perform — whether it is ‘Ngofariman’ the Nasty Chimpanzee or ‘Ciwara’ the Antelope — the character of the being and its place in the history and cultural identity of the people takes over; the person within acts as a transmitter and, “They never betray the secret.” continues Elisabeth.
The tradition of masks, puppets and their stories differ widely across the world. There are delicate string puppets in Asia that tell stories of gods, kings and their kingdoms; there are also traditions of leather, and string puppets, and two-dimensional puppets.
Elisabeth den Otter is from the Netherlands and has been researching the masquerade tradition across the world for many years, working at the Tropical Museum at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, Holland. She explains that what is unique about African masquerade is that the people are hidden within, or wearing the mask and so assuming the character of the being themselves. “There is no difference between a head, shoulder or face mask. The human’s face, hands, feet are covered, or they are actually within the puppet. This is a uniquely African characteristic.”
These days, the tradition of masks and puppets is going through a shaky period of inevitable change on the African continent, as Elisabeth explains: “Something that lives has to change, even if you don’t like it.” Nowadays, urbanisation, the cash economy, religion, modernisation are affecting how masquerade is practised and how the precious knowledge is passed down from one generation to another. Elisabeth continues, “The reaction of the old men is that the young people are no good, we aren’t going to give our knowledge anymore; they’re not worthy of our secret knowledge.” She adds, “This is an extreme situation for these people where unity means everything.”
The groups in Kirango have been performing at festivals in Europe and Mali over the years, keeping the tradition alive. As well as generating an income and pride amongst the group, it also enables a wider audience to enjoy the spectacle. The masks and puppets still produce a profound reaction from any audience - whether they are Bambara, Bozo, Malian, or from further afield. Anyone who has seen them perform would hope the tradition continues and not be relegated to being merely a museum-piece.
The Royal Tropical Institute has produced a CD of Bamana and Bozo songs from Kirango, Mali called Donfoli — Play the Music. The sound is high quality and the recording crystal clear: the audiences responses to the groups’ claps, drumming and singing makes it an atmospheric and unusual listen.
For more on the CD, Mali’s puppets and masks, as well as other useful information, please visit Elisabeth den Otter’s website on: www.euronet.nl/users/edotter
See Lydia’s photos of Malian puppets and masks on our sister site Flykr
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