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GULE WAMKULU - THE GREAT DANCE

Posted on Monday, 08th Dec 2014

The ancient rites and runes of Africa are often expressed through dance, rhythm and chants. In various parts of Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, the spirits of the ancestors seek to guide, inform, chastise and entertain their descendants. They achieve this through their embodiment in the dancers of the unique and widely unknown gule wamkulu - the great dance.

The dancers prepare in secret for weeks in advance, meticulously carving masks and crafting outfits. They are not thought to be costumes, but actual spirits that represent different characters each purposed to deliver a message. The masks may not be seen by the uninitiated before the time is right. The dancers get changed in a forest far from the village to keep their identities a secret and better communicate their character's missive.

Mwambo is the moral code of the ancestors that the gule wamkulu seeks to convey to the younger generations. This includes rituals, traditions, social etiquette and taboos that are part of the tribe's cultural heritage. The dance not only seeks to pass down the values of the ancestors, but also to comment on the afflictions of modern society: materialism, dispossession and inequality to name a few.

Hundreds of different forms, or masks, have been created; from humanoid to animalistic to the utterly bizarre. There are often new masks being crafted in response to an ever-changing social climate. Some of the characters include a man smeared with mud and ash representing death, a two-manned anthropomorphic lion known as Mkango, a fearsome yet wise Chadzunda (the father of all the gule characters) and even some more modern forms representing Barack Obama and the Ebola virus. The characters are deeply symbolic and the dance serves as a stage for satirical, political and moral reflection.

Dances are incorporated into many different ceremonies such as initiations, funerals, the appointment of chiefs and the interpretation and appeasement of the ancestors. There will also be performances at important ritual and political events, like the gathering of the clans from Malawi, Eastern Zambia and Western Mozambique, paying homage to the king of the Chewa people.


Source: africageographic.com

Posted in Jewels of Southern Africa

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