IJELE; The Masquerade
The Igbo Land is one that is ripe with cultures and traditions. One that easily stands out is the masquerades, they are believed to embody the spirit and human worlds. The mystery and fascination around the masquerades is one that has transcended time regardless of various Western involvements.
There are different masquerades in the Igbo land each created to depict one thing or the other, which could be, beautiful, intimidating or sinister.
The Ijele Masquerade is the biggest and most respected in Sub-Saharan Africa. It originated from old Anambra from a dance group called Akunechenyi from Umuleri and Aguleri communities along the eastern tributaries of the River Niger. It is believed that it was created originally to intimidate and scare early missionaries away and to celebrate royalty and greatness in Igboland.
The Ijele costume is divided into two at the center by a big python. Ijele towers at about 15 ft to 12 ft and is creatively built around a myriad of multicolor cloths, bamboo sticks, and canes and decorated with figurines and depictions of every aspect of life. An outdoor big house must be prepared for Ijele anywhere it will perform due to its weight. It is believed that about a 100 men work for six months in preparation of Ijele costumes and house before an outing performance.
One of the most important and crucial aspects of the Ijele masquerade is the fan carrier also known as the Akupe carrier. It leads the Ijele with its symbolic powerful fan called Akupe. The Ijele must not lose sight of the fan and its carrier, as it only moves when the fan carrier moves and stops when it does, otherwise it loses its way and that becomes a dangerous situation.
The Ijele is a majestic masquerade and so deserves only royal treatment. This means that the Ijele only dances to a Royal band group known as “Igba-Eze” (drums of the King), popularly called “Akunechenyi” in the Igbo language. The musical instruments include 4 drums, Ogene, Ubom, Uyo, Ekwe, Flute (Oja – ufele), Wooden clapper (aja – oja), etc.
The Ijele masquerade performs during the dry season to mark fertility and annual bountiful harvest and at any burial ceremony, festival or any special occasion.
Ijele performs at the burial ceremonies of great and powerful kings (The Last Ofala) or special men and women in Igboland. It also performs at the burial ceremony of any member of the Ijele family or at the death of the oldest man in the community. The Ijele just like other masquerades cannot be attended to by a female. Only a man who has gone through the initiation can dance or walk beside it or allowed into its presence.
Unless seven Cannon gunshots are released into the air alongside the sound of its royal music, the Ijele will never step out. Most importantly the Ijele MUST never fall or touch the ground if it does, it is considered dead and the carrier and his family can never bear the Ijele again.