Benin: The Gelede Masks, A Treasure of Tradition

Masks, magical movements, singing: the wisdom of the village is passed down from generation to generation, year after year.

It is a warm morning, and all the inhabitants of Lanta Kope, a small village in southern Benin, have gathered to attend the Gelede festival, which takes place when the dry season ends and when the rains arrive. The name ‘Gelede’ (translated as “female power”) derives from the name of a secret society of Yoruba origin, the largest ethnic group in West Africa, scattered between southern Nigeria and southern Benin. People attending the mask ceremony pay tribute to Yami, the main deity of the village and the source of all good.

The Gelede masks are used to ward off evil spirits which manifest themselves through calamities, as well as to solve ethnic conflicts, improve moral behaviour, and reassert important events in the community. The Gelede masks are also a way to send messages of compassion, solidarity, anger, or humour.

One man and one woman, who distinguish themselves by their wisdom and their loyalty to the group, are nominated as the custodians of the masks. The choice of the couple is not accidental. The Gelede masks are in fact female masks worn by men, implying that the ceremony and its meaning involves both the women and the men of the community.

The men who wear the masks are dressed in their traditional colourful clothes. The Gelede ‘mask’ is more of a headdress than a mask, and rests on top of the head displaying its exuberant colours. The Gelede headdress is generally carved in two parts; the lower part often with the form of a human face with big wide open eyes, and the upper part with either an elaborate coiffure or a depiction of human activity through symbolic motifs. The face of the mask has female lips, which show vertical scarification lines at the corners of the mouth, a typical tribal mark among the Yoruba people. The pupils and nostrils are roughly pierced with circular holes. The chin of the masks protrudes beyond the confines of the face (which experts call ‘prognathism’), adding an extra level of expressiveness to the mask. The Gelede masked performance is a way of sustaining life through creating a social bond with their female elders, by paying respect to them and working for a prolonged peace in the community. At the same time the Gelede festival turns out to be a real highlight, acting as an entertaining event for the people of the village.

This festival never fails to meet the expectations of the people in the village. During the celebration, the choir members stand in a circle, moving anti-clockwise and marking the rhythm of the songs with alternate movements of legs and shoulders. There are two large drums at the centre of the circle. The Gelede masked performance involves carefully choreographed dance, with pairs of men wearing similar headdresses. During the performance, each pair of dancers comes forward in turn and moves towards the drum rhythm in intricate dance steps. Drumming and singing are essential features of the performance. A series of Gelede headdresses illustrate different characters or animals; among them is the Yami mask, whose arrival is accompanied by the sound of bells ringing. The mask kneels and prays to the Creator in the name of all the people of the village, imploring clemency for all. The choir sings songs that express the needs of the community – for example, a new school for the children of the village. Two dancers disguised as pregnant women, a symbol of the many children in the village and the many more to come, join the Yami mask and pray with him. Another mask reaches the others; it represents a truck – one of the many that pass through the village. The message of the choir’s song is clear: that the people of the village, who do not own a truck or car for transporting cement, sand, and other materials needed to build the school, will nevertheless do their best to get it done.

The audience listens, smiles, and claps, confirming that they got the message. The Gelede ceremony invokes and ensures the spiritual forces’ benevolence towards the people of the village; it will be up to them to do their best to provide their children with a school.

The last mask that joins the others represents a hyena, which reaches the other masks by running on long stilts. The mask runs, jumps, falls to the ground pretending to be dead, then gets up again. The scene recalls the days when the village was threatened by wild animals. There is less danger nowadays, but it still happens that some animals attack the villagers and their cattle. The hyena symbolises the antagonism that typifies the relations between the village and the surrounding nature. People mock the hyena and dozens of children run after the mask while singing songs.

This ceremony combines art and ritual dance to amuse and educate the community. The Gelede festival confirms once again the cheerful nature of the Yoruba people. While echoing modern realities and needs, the ceremony is a treasure of tradition and a wonder to behold.

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