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I traveled to the eastern part of Nigeria for the 2023 Christmas holidays and I had such a wonderful experience. I spent two days in Oboro, Imo state and the highlight of my7 visit was witnessing the ekeleke masquerade festival.

The ekeleke masquerade festival is a dance festival that has been in existence for so long no one knows when it actually started. The dance traditions are passed on from generation to generation and usually takes place during the Christmas period.

The ekeleke dancers

The ekeleke dancers are covered in multiple wrappers from the waist down with sticks protruding underneath the wrappers. Their faces are covered with a white piece of cloth, well ventilated for easy breathing. Their faces are not visible to the public. They have masks attached on the top of their heads.

The ekeleke dancers perform their routine standing on 2-3 feet long pointed wooden sticks attached to their feet with a thin piece of cloth. Only men can be ekeleke dancers, women are not allowed to dance during the ceremony.

Other active participants of the ekeleke dance ceremony

Although only men are allowed to be ekeleke dancers, women and children still actively participate in the ceremony.

  • The drummers: anyone can be a drummer. There are 3 wooden drums played during the ekeleke dance. The drummers play the drum to introduce a tune while the singers sing along according to the tune. The drummers play a very important role in the ceremony as their performance often sets the tone for the entire ceremony.
  • The singers: the singers comprises of mostly women and children. They also surround the inner circumference of the arena and sing along to the tune of the drums. The songs are usually sung in their native dialect. Anyone can actually join in the singing. If an onlooker knows the songs, you can sing along with the singers.
  • The clappers: you can describe the clappers as the less sophisticated drummers. The clappers are usually comprised of children but anybody can be a clapper. The clapper hold 2 sticks in their hands and makes a rhythmic sound that goes with the drumming and the singing. The sound is usually 2 simultaneous clapping sounds, a pause and 2 simultaneous sounds again, followed in quick successions. ‘’Kpa-kpa, pause, kpa-kpa” all in quick successions. A few of the children clappers also surround the inner arena; the rest joins the onlookers outside the arena. If you can find 2 sticks and follow the rhythm, you can be a clapper. You cannot clap with your hands.

The ekeleke dance

On the day of the dance, a makeshift arena is created out of sticks, short trees and twigs. The sticks are tied to each other to create a big rectangular space which is where the dancers, drummers and other active participants of the ceremony will stay to perform their routine. The ekeleke dance is a very energetic dance that involves the dancer moving his whole body.

The dancer rushes into the arena through the entrance amidst songs and drumming, he dances, hopping on one foot with his arms spread out and his shoulders moving from side to side. He dances according to the rhythm of the drums; you can tell that a lot of practice has gone into this performance. As he dances, onlookers drop money into the arena to appreciate his moves.

The dancer dances on one foot for a while, moving from side to side, switching from one feet to the other periodically and then dancing with both feet. He dances around the arena, moves closer to the drummers and dances in front of them and to the beat of their drums before stepping back to dance around the arena too.

The dancers come in one at a time, there can only be one dancer in the arena. After a dancer performs his routine, he dances out of the arena and towards their station where the next dancer is already approaching the arena. The exiting dancer shakes hands in greeting with the next dancer and then heads to their station while the next dancer enters the arena and performs his routine.

The highlight of the ekeleke dance

The highlight of the ekeleke dance is the appearance of the tallest masquerade/dancer. The tallest masquerade stands on a pointed wooden stick about 6-8 feet long. Asides the length of his stick, he is dressed similarly with the other dancers. This dancer can be seen from afar and is usually the last dancer to come on. If you are not very patient or did not plan to stay till the end of the ceremony, you may miss out on the final dance performed by this masquerade.

The tallest masquerades dance involves him taking giant strides from one part of the arena to the other. He is the only masquerade that performs outside of the arena too, he strides across the onlookers shakes his feet to make noises with the ornaments tied around his legs. He performs his dance a little longer than the other dancers as his performance is the last for the night and usually indicates the end of the ceremony.

In conclusion

The ekeleke ceremony is a very good social and traditional event that provides an avenue for guests and even indigenes of the community who may have been away for a long time to get to know a part of their tradition. The ceremony allows people socialize, meeting up with kinsmen and old friends who you may not have seen in a while.

Vendors also grace the event, selling different snacks and both adults and children can be seen surrounding them and patronizing them throughout the course of the ceremony.

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