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The Magnificent African Masquerade

Updated on January 14, 2015

The Magnificent African Masquerade

African Masquerade

In many social -cultural gathering especially in Africa you are more likely to see the presence of masquerades. Masquerades are colorful costumed figures that are said to represent the spirits of dead ancestors.

Deeply entrenched in the social cultural fabric of modern day civilization and tradition the costumed figures can be seen at town gatherings and meaningful occasion in all their masked glory.

The African masquerades have everything to do with ceremonies either purely for tourism and entertainment. Including special occasions like new yam festivals in the eastern parts of Nigeria, secret societal rituals, age group celebrations, blessing the land for bountiful harvest.

Otherr sober occasions, joyous occasion like the installation of new kings, chiefs and other gatherings such as carnivals, political gathering, sports fiesta and festivals. On such occasions the rare presence gives meaning, color and merriment to the audience in attendance.

The egungu masquerade

 The Egungu masquerade
The Egungu masquerade

Masking traditions

Masked traditions are not limited to Africa alone; Europeans had their masked balls where individuals ware interesting masks and outfits to designated balls. Other mask traditions can be found in Brazil at their yearly Brazilian carnival which is well known throughout the world.

In the case of African masquerades they go way back well over one hundred and fifty years old, although adequate historical data is limited other pointers like ancient carvings and drawings show the importance of masquerades in African culture.

Other cultures that have some form of masking tradition can be found during Christmas with the gift giving Santa clause, during Halloween holidays, or the outfit worn by circus clowns

Traditional African Masqurade

Traditional  African masquerade
Traditional African masquerade

Some of the masquerades that can be found in West Africa are

Some of the masquerades

1 Gelede

2 Eyo

3 Egungu

4 Zanbeto

5 Ekpe

6 Ekpo and many others

Characteristics of African masquerades

The African masquerades although entirely different in mode of interpretation, costume, dance functionality and reason for appearance they have basic rules that guide them that are similar, some of the general characteristics are highlighted bellow.


African masquerades favor elaborate outfits that boost unique patterns colors, imagery, prints and textures, some of the outfits are embellished with raffia, shells, chains, straw, bamboo and bits of cloth, delicate embroidery and many more. The material used could be tie and dye, Ankara a Ghanaian fabric, cotton, silk, damask, polyester or completely made out of non cloth material like raffia or tree leaves.

Each masquerade is clearly identifiable by the costume it adorns which is usually different from others even in the same locality.

The masquerades mask. The costume usually has a mask that covers the face of the performer mostly made out of carved wood, polyester and in some cases plastic material could be monochrome, multicolored or may posse’s two distinct characteristics. Masks could be frightful, serene, overstated, understated, smiling or expressionless. They may have carving of animals, deities, gods or other elaborate and complex forms.

Image of two raffia masquerades

Image of two Raffia masquerades
Image of two Raffia masquerades | Source

What type of costumes do African masquerades wear?

# costumes with unique patterns

#very colorful outfits

#different texture materials used

#masks have carving and characters

#some outfits made from bamboo

#costumes made from straw or raffia

Three kinds of Masquerades

Festival masquerades
Nnight masquerades
Dday masquerades
cultural groups
secret society
coronation masquerades
small family masquerades
security masquerades
bountiful harvest masquerades
age group masquerades
death of prominent man

The Eyo masquerade of Lagos

The Eyo masquerade of  Lagos
The Eyo masquerade of Lagos

What is the significance of African Masquerades?

1 Masquerades are used to honor ancestors

2 Masquerades are used to honor the gods through dance

3 They are believed to be representatives of spirits

4 used for entertainment

5 used in commemorate special occasions like coronations, death of prominent members

6 masquerades appease the gods for bountiful harvest

7 Masquerades are deployed during festivals to attract tourism and participation.

The African masquerades association

Most African masquerades are bound to an association like a group, ethnic/ demographic area, religion usually old African traditional practices, secret society or family based society. The association based on group could be a socio- cultural group, ethnic group, cultural group, dramatic group or an age group.

In the eastern parts of Nigeria each age group might be linked to certain tradition, practices and a certain type of masquerades, age group meaning boys between three to twelve, thirteen and eighteen, nineteen and fifty and the elderly fifty upwards.

Association by demography relates to the ethnic persuasion of certain groups, each ethic group having their own distinctly different masquerades, like igala people of Badagry, Yoruba people west Africa, Nupe people, Fulani people and many more, the entire continent of Africa can boost at least one masquerade that represents their ethnic group.

Masquerades represented in dramatic societies

Cultural groups strictly into entertainment also have their own masquerades, this type does not have any religious, spiritual, significant affiliation but could mimic certain masquerades in a certain geographical area, dramatic college groups, university theater practitioners and private cultural groups are more into this type of masquerade

Masquerades in cultural festivals

The presence of masquerades at cultural and festival gatherings add glamor and fun to the festivities, the festival could be sports related, tradition related like the Oshogbo festival, Eyo festival in Lagos Nigeria or the yearly festival in Badagry. The Badagry festival attract one of the most spectacular masquerades in that geographical area the Zanbeto masquerade an energetic whirling, twisting and gyrating mass of raffia palms. The masquerade represents and honors the sprits and deity that has to do with the climatic seasons of bountiful or dry harvest.

African masquerades and dance

Dance is an integral part of the masquerades artistry, they are masters at the art of dance which my include immense agility, choreographed dance steps, acrobatics, sharp whirling, twists and turns, somersaulting, elaborate gesticulation and dance. The energetic movement of these masked performers usually adds to their mysticism and aura of excitement and wonder.

The dance may also involve illusions, magic and mesmerizing acts that defy conventional logic while other might follow a strict mode of conduct or choreographed dance form. The music could be strictly drums structured, an infusion of modern instruments or a percussion blend of undulation sounds.

The dance may carry significant meaning to placate ancestral sprits through dance, scarifies and elaborate rituals; animal symbolism can be found on some masks worn by masquerades with the art form of certain dance steps mimicking the animals carved into the mask.

Facial expression of mask and what it representation usually dictates the dance steps, strides and rhythmic performance and character of the masquerade.

Masquerades and occasions

Masquerades come out only during specific occasions, they are seen during new yam festivals where the indigenes use the occasion to celebrate the first yam yields with elaborate festivities, the occasion could be said to be in honor of the gods. Masquerades come out to bless the land, but sometimes when there is a tragedy like suicide, multiple accidents or the death of a prominent chief/leader. Other occasions are coronation a new king, entertainment purposes and more presently tourism and drama.

Attributes of African masquerades

African masquerades can depict warrior attributes, some mystical, others having youthful forbearance, age group, dance oriented, acrobatic masquerades, dramatic or for intimidation and fear. The attributes differ according to the purpose and reason for the performance.

Igbo masquerades

The Eastern parts of Nigeria has the Igbo masquerades which can be divided in the visible and invisible masquerades, the visible ones are the masquerades that come out during the daytime while the invisible ones come out at night. The visible masquerades entertain through dance, music vocalization, performed harassment and colorful displays but the invisible masquerades are more geared to surveillance, fear, secret rituals, fierce reputation and frightful sounds and rhythms.


The Egungu is a masked representation of the gods and ancestors of the Yoruba race, the Yoruba people can be found in the western region of Nigeria, they are a highly educated and resourceful ethnic people. The masquerades although have varied interpretations in outfit and costumes generally have some identical traits that distinguishes them to that particular geographical area.

The common costume is a multi layered thick colored patterned material draped from head to toe, same trousers; the face covered in a mask, feet with in a pair of socks and sandals or bare footed and most time wielding a cane/ stick. The egungu can be seen in groups or individual masquerades during certain periods of the year or festivities, they are usually accompanied with talking drums, young boys mostly carry long sticks for display and intimidation.

Eyo festival

The Eyo festival is localized festivals general observed in Lagos Island, over the years it has developed into a tourism attraction but certain things are prohibited and should be observed. People that come upon the Eyo masquerades are required to carry their shoes or sandals, bicycle and motorcycles are prohibited while certain hair styles and public smoking could attract sever beating.

The Eyo masquerades origins are found in secret society, family group society, the white clad masquerade draped entirely in white can only be differentiated by the color of the sash or ribbon on the straw hats which are usually broad and rimmed hats worn by all the performers. The move in groups or processions to the palace of the king referred to as the oba of Lagos, their acrobatic prowess involve very high leaps and dance. Although the Eyo festival has tourism ambiance it also honors old ancestral deities, spirits and gods through dance and traditional practices.

Other countries where you can find interesting masquerades are S.Leone, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Togo, democratic republic of Congo, Kenya, Mali, Sudan, South Africa and many more. Masquerades are an integral part of African culture and tradition, although practices are becoming less frequent due to religious beliefs of most African countries that are predominantly is Christians or Muslims with only a very small fraction still practicing old traditions and religions.

The masquerades are elaborately attired, significant; representative of the ancestors and just outright fun and entertaining, they have become tourist attraction that brings in millions of dollars from tourism. Whatever the group the masquerade fall into the important role they play in African history and traditions cannot be overemphasized.


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    • tony55 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Nigeria

      Nice observation but such festivals also provide business opportunities for small business owners like food vendors, tailors and hotels.

    • word55 profile image

      Al Wordlaw 

      6 years ago from Chicago

      Sounds similar to Halloween but more costly. It seems easier to commit a crime and get away with it under such celebbratiions. Worshiping passed away ancestors is contrary to Bible principals. The expenses to host such events should instead be contributed to feeding the hungry and poor people in all of Africa and housing them.

    • tony55 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Nigeria

      Thanks very much, Thinks Fall Apart is a classic.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      6 years ago

      Wow, this was so interesting and beautiful! I love learning about different cultures and have always found the use of masks for religions and festivals to be fascinating and beautiful. I remember reading about the Egungu or something similar in the novel Things Fall Apart.


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