Dramatic aspects of ‘Ijele’ …king of masquerades


By Afunugo Amaechi


“IJELE’, the King of masquerades featured during the World Black Festival of Arts and Culture: FESTAC ’77 in Nigeria. Dramatically, the Ijele is a masquerade that performs only on very big occasions.


It appears at coronation or installation ceremonies of kings, at New yam festivals marking the end of a planting season and the beginning of another, at the death of an important village head. It is note worthy that the appearance of ‘Ijele’ symbolises a great occasion.

Africa has been described as land of drums and dances. This is part of the rich culture of the people of the continent. The Igbo society which parades this masquerade is noted for celebrations and festivals. In most of these, masquerades are the species which liven up such occasions. They are artistic institutions whose aim is to entertain the society.

Writing on Drama for Rural Development, in a book: Philosophy and Dimensions of National Communication Policy (vol2), produced by Centre for Black and African Civilisation, edited by Dr Tony Nnaemeka etal, Dr Segun Oduko informed that “there are forms of drama useful for rural development in Nigeria, one is indigenous drama (masquerades, and festivals) which has long been firmly established in rural setting”.

According to Dr Segun Oduko, “arguing from a pro- Aristotelian perspective, Ola Rotimi defines drama as an imitation of an action or of a person, object of which is to edify or to entertain, to do both.

Some African ritual ceremonies reveal instances of imitation either of an experience in life, or of the behaviour patterns of some power, without the momentous impulse to recreate the ways and details of those powers; what could be and has frequently been mistaken for drama in most African traditional displays as with movements, rhythm, and spectacles, beyond the ordinary.

It is at such a point that some objectivity in concept might help in the definition of what really is drama. Ritual displays that reveal in their style of presentation in their purpose and value, evidence of initiation as enlightenment and or entertainment can be said to be drama”.

Dr Segun Oduko revealed in the publication that “Rotimi’s definition provides a broader view of drama then as presented in English Dictionary, which states that drama is “a representation of a state, a play, dramatic literature”.

To him, to accept the dictionary definition is to deny the existence of dramatic acts before the emergency of modern theatre. The concord Desk Encyclopedia (1982) does accept one of the origins of drama as the ancient Greek religious festivals. As such, it would be wrong to define drama solely in terms of a place and form of performance. Menagh attempts to clear the issue by directing attention to the performer or the medium of expression in drama.

“The fundamental medium of expression in any theatrical presentation, however, is mimicry. In the dictionary sense, and simply enough, mimicry is any imitation of or any assuming of resemblance to any real or imagined person, thing or action when it is expressed through or as if through action when it is intended to portray real or imagined life”.

Therefore, according to him, we further streamline our concept of drama to the act rather than the place and form of performance. This means that a ritualistic display which is based on imitation is dramatic. Masquerades, which imitate dead persons as their ghost, are masked actors in dramatic events. Some aspect of festivals which re-enact past events for either the enlightenment of their participant “audiences” are definitely theatrical acts.

Clark elaborates on this definition thus: “If drama means elegant imitation of some actions significant to a people, if this means the physical representation or the evocation of one poetic image or a complex of such images, if the vital elements of such representation or evocation are speech, music, ritual, song as well as dance and mime, and it as the Japanese say of their Noh theatre, the aim is to open the ear or mind of a spectator in a corporate audience and open his eyes to the beauty of form, then there is drama in plenty in Nigeria, much of this distinctive as any in China, Japan and Europe”.

The aim of this write up is to express various complex artistic techniques employed by the masquerade to achieve its aim of entertaining the society. These complex artistic devices have deep rooted meanings that are highly enveloped in symbolism.

“Ijele” performs usually at the square called “Ama”. This is especially because of the size of the masquerade and the large audience it draws. The dancing arena is decorated with tiny triangular shaped plastics of different colours of blue, red, yellow and indigo artistically stringed together, hung with ropes and poles in tantalising patterns of XS, TS, ZS. The dancing arena blooms as these multi-coloured plastics dances in the air. These colours are chosen to fit the costume of the ‘Ijele’ masquerade thus ensuring colour uniformity and beauty.

The colours serve decorative and artistic purposes and people look at them for aesthetic pleasures. The house of ‘Ijele’ is built semi-circularly with traditional woven raffia palm leaves. This is where Ijele mounts until its formal outing. The costume of ‘Ijele’ masquerade is all embracing.

Above all, there are representations of the colonial administration of British imperialism in form of a European on an iron horse. The peace-loving people are the town in form of two policemen and finally defence in forms of armed person.

All over, the masquerade is decorated with glasses. The glasses reflect as the masquerade turns and are essential for beauty. It should be noted that as a drama, the masquerade as a central force in uniting the people. Culturally, the appearance of ‘Ijele’ marks the celebration of people’s highest ideals. It is a festival in a festival. ‘Ijele’ masquerade as a drama does not only serve to entertain the people. It is also a means of recreation: a means whereby the people shift from boredom. The drama is a reflection of the people’s rich cultural values of life.

‘Ijele’ masquerade is aimed at entertainment and eliciting humour from the audience. This is didactic and exactly what the Western drama does.

In Nigeria, there are many contemporary festivals with dramatic elements, some of them are as follows; Igue Festival, Benin, Edo State, New Yam Festival, Isikwuato, Imo State, The Mmanwu festival, Onitsha, Anambra State, the Egungu festival –Ibara. Abeokuta, Ogun State.

According to Oduko,”the songs in festivals have for long served as means of disseminating information and of social control. Osadebe states that in the Igbo community, the functions of the mmanwu masquerade were entertainment, education and social control. The mmanwu developed into a masked actor in the performance of Igbo drama which had the elements if mime, dance, social commentary, music, songs and acrobatic acts.

He revealed that “use of the mmanwu for social commentary music, songs and satires are designed to ridicule wrong-doers and put them to shame. To him, it is a means of affecting social reform while providing entertainment.

This shows that Africans have their culture and their dramatic instincts are in no way borrowed from the Europeans.


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