This Documentary Shows Sierra Leone's Deep Debul Parade Tradition

'Freetown Masks' follows a debul parade commemorating Sierra Leone's independence day.

Tail of Education Debul. Photo courtesy of Wills Glasspiegel.

In the early 90s, black British scholar Paul Gilroy conceptualized the “Black Atlantic,” a maritime geography through which Afro-diasporic art, especially music, has spread, hybridized, and echoed out across the world. Gilroy located the Black Atlantic largely outside of continental Africa—in diaspora—but the Black Atlantic ideal is also quintessentially at home in the port town of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Freetown Masks follows a series of debul masks as they parade through the streets to celebrate Sierra Leone’s independence day in 2014. I first learned about the masked debuls and their societies from my friend and colleague, Sierra Leonean musician Janka Nabay. Nabay’s 2005 song, “De Debul,” describes the debul masks, a rowdy, multi-sensorial, communal art tradition that dates back to the earliest days of the Sierra Leonean colony.

Watch Freetown Masks here:

British missionaries condemned African masks as “devils,” but Africans in Freetown turned insult into a mark of cultural advocacy and pride. In Krio, the local patois, devil became debul, and debul masks were known for encircling churches, mimicking missionaries with drumming and dance. In his excellent study of Sierra Leonean masks, art historian John Nunley notes:

This manner of disrupting services was common. It served notice to missionaries and the colonial administration that another form of government, rooted in African concepts, might well exercise sovereignty over the liberated African.

In Freetown, various mutual benefit collectives, secret societies, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, political parties and neighborhood gangs participate in the art of masking. Nabay sang about a debul that belongs to one of the more notorious collectives called Firestone, of which he is a member. In the 1940s, Firestone took its name from the tire company to signify a rubber-to-the-road, think-fast urban lifestyle. As shown in Freetown Masks, sharp quills evidence the strength and fierceness of the debul and the collective it represents.

Firestone is one of many ode-lay societies in Freetown. Ode-lay masks celebrate modern themes, but they also honor older gods. The masks framed in Freetown Masks push forward an aesthetic legacy that goes back centuries and crosses vast geographies. When the British abolished slavery, ships full of Yoruba captives (from what is now Nigeria) were re-routed back to Africa. Instead of going home to Nigeria, these captives were sent to start new lives in Freetown. Other descendants of the Yoruba returned to Freetown from throughout the Caribbean. By the mid 1800s, there were nearly 60,000 Yoruba descendants in Freetown.

Freetown is the New Orleans of Africa, a Caribbean outside the Caribbean, an African city established by Afro-diasporas. Though African masks have long been imagined in the West as primitive, Freetown’s masks testify to the enduring cosmopolitanism of West Africa and its arts. They keep it moving, always have.

Education Debul. Photo courtesy of Wills Glasspiegel.

Constructed to draw attention to the need for a school, the Education Devil provides a vivid lesson in how Freetown artists use masks to negotiate the political and the aesthetic through performance. The basic format of the kudu-headed costume is based on hunting societies, but the education debul’s pants are made from hundreds of neon plastic rulers. Porcupine-like spines have adorned debuls for centuries; here the spines are juxtaposed with sharpened number two pencils. On the back of this debul, pencil sharpeners are juxtaposed with conch shells, and miniature notebooks flap in the wind as the debul dances. Propelled forward by the music of several drummers, the debul is guarded by the bila man and his ceremonial rifle.

Children's Debul. Photo courtesy of Wills Glasspiegel.

Adorned with shells, this zoomorphic mask submerges revelers with its underwater ambiance—fins, shells, and sea porcupine needles adorn the cape like coral or barnacles lodged on the hull of a ship. Seashells are interspersed with tortoise shells called trokiback. According to Nunley, “these symbolize the invincibility of the devil, for it is said that an animal which carries its own house is well protected.”

Fancy Debul. Photo courtesy of Wills Glasspiegel.

The bright orange cloth of the masqueraders contrasts and frames the luminous indigo of the mask. Cross-dressing and the incorporation of foreign “fancy” materials are the marks of Jolly and Gelede societies across Sierra Leone. As early as 1919, Freetown mask makers were drawn to imported textiles, authenticating the foreign through the art of masking. Nunley writes, “Indian madras, Swiss madras, handkerchiefs, blue and shiny materials, tissue blue prints, printed flannelette, fancy prints, checks, scarves and shawls… supplied the Egungun, Gelede and hunting societies.”

Egungun. Photo courtesy of Wills Glasspiegel.

Sharp horns and spines crown the head of this debul mask. Latticework in the facemask shrouds a zebra cloth, like a sneaker gone abstract. Cowry shells add multi-dimensionality and highlights. Camouflage flags announce a militarized hunter’s lodge aesthetic. Fresh palm leaves spill through the shells and paddles. The paddles are like fins, bobbing up and down as this unwieldy debul dances through the main avenues of East Freetown. These masks are kin to Egungun and Ogun masks from Nigeria, an enduring congruence across space and time.

Debul clash. Photo courtesy of Wills Glasspiegel.

Like the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans, when two debuls pass each other in the street, there is the possibility of an altercation, but generally nowadays, as they did in 2014, the debuls will greet each other with mutual respect, testifying to the health of the city, the ability for neighborhoods to move through one another. The masks ventilate the city—bigger masks on main streets and smaller masks like the children’s debuls in the tiny pathways that snake through Mountain Cut.

Gelede. Photo courtesy of Wills Glasspiegel.

Another mask, spotted briefly in East Freetown, recalls the Gelede masks of the Yoruba, but shaped like a buoy drifting in the sea, draped in raffia died with the green, white and blue of the Sierra Leonean flag, the colors muted by the sun and dusty streets.

Bubu music. Photo courtesy of Wills Glasspiegel.

The last scene in Freetown Masks features bubu music. While many of the musical traditions in Sierra Leone reflect foreign practices, bubu is considered indigenous, known for its connection to Temne compins, or farmer’s collectives. Bubu pipes are locally produced instruments, tuned to pentatonic scaled and played in an entrancing, hocketing rhythm, designed to keep people dancing across great distances.

Freetown Masks is dedicated to all those who passed away too soon from the Ebola virus in West Africa. The film is meant to pay respect to the contemporary art and context of Freetown’s masks, and the diverse histories these masks channel into life. I’m especially grateful to Janka Nabay, Firestone and the Bongatown society for their support, and to the mask makers and theirs societies included. Masks, as Nunley and Robert Ferris Thompson have suggested, interface with the ancestors, giving them presence, revealing rather than concealing, framing timelessness in real time.

'Freetown Masks' is currently on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in their exhibition on urban masks from Sierra Leone called 'The Fierce and the Fancy.'

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