How African secret societies changed the music, art, and history of Cuba.
In Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba, Ivor L. Miller shows how African migrants and their political fraternities played a formative role in the history of Cuba. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, no large kingdoms controlled Nigeria and Cameroon's multilingual Cross River basin. Instead, each settlement had its own lodge of the initiation society called Ékpè, or "leopard," which was the highest indigenous authority. Ékpè lodges ruled local communities while also managing regional and long-distance trade. Cross River Africans, enslaved and forcibly brought to colonial Cuba, reorganized their Ékpè clubs covertly in Havana and Matanzas into a mutual-aid society called Abakuá, which became foundational to Cuba's urban life and music.
Miller's extensive fieldwork in Cuba and West Africa documents ritual languages and practices that survived the Middle Passage and evolved into a unifying charter for transplanted slaves and their successors. To gain deeper understanding of the material, Miller underwent Ékpè initiation rites in Nigeria after ten years' collaboration with Abakuá initiates in Cuba and the United States. He argues that Cuban music, art, and even politics rely on complexities of these African-inspired codes of conduct and leadership. Voice of the Leopard is an unprecedented tracing of an African title-society to its Caribbean incarnation, which has deeply influenced Cuba's creative energy and popular consciousness.
This book is sponsored by a grant from the InterAmericas(r) / Society of Arts and Letters of the Americas, a program of the Reed Foundation.
Ivor L Miller —
Ivor L. Miller, a cultural historian specializing in the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and the Americas, is currently a Research Fellow at the African Studies Center, Boston University. His previous book, Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City, was also published by University Press of Mississippi. Engineer (Chief) Bassey E. Bassey of Nigeria is highly regarded in the Calabar community for his knowledge of the history and practice of the Ékpè system and is the author of Ékpè Efik.
Miller, Ivor L. Voice of the leopard: African secret societies and Cuba. University Press of Mississippi, 2009. 164p bibl index afp; ISBN 9781934110836. Reviewed in 2010feb CHOICE.
A product of long and committed research, this book provides a clear history on the formation of the Abakuá society in Cuba. A mutual aid and secret society, the Abakuá has its origin in the Ekpe leopard society in the Cross River basin of Nigeria. Highly textured and rich chapters explain the origins and evolution of this institution from the 18th century to the present. More importantly, Miller (Boston Univ.) fully elaborates the society's characteristics: a male initiation society with a public face expressed in masquerades, drum construction, musical structures, and a ritual language of chants. The society not only provides the opportunity to create a powerful network, it serves as a regulator of social control, an agency to maintain law and order, and a custodian of cultural and moral values. This is one of the finest books on a case study of African cultural transmission to the Americas, revealing the richness of West African roots, the strategy of the society's reconstruction in Cuba, and the linkages between a secret association and the formation of identity in a racialized Cuban nation.
Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. -- T. Falola, University of Texas