Ivory Coast has been the home of most of the interesting masking traditions in Africa. While in the western world, such African masks have been viewed mainly as art objects, in Africa, particularly in Ivory Coast, these masks are important cultural objects, used by their wearers to communicate with supernatural forces.
Among the Guro communities of Côte d’Ivoire, Zaouli is a popular mask dance largely performed during rituals and ceremonies. Believed to have been inspired by a girl named “Djela Lou Zaouli” (meaning “Zaouli, daughter of Djela”), the traditional dance pays homage to feminine beauty. But that’s not all.
The popular music and dance, protected by UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, conveys the cultural identity of the communities while at the same time promoting unity and social cohesion.
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Though each Zaouli mask has its own symbolic history, it is documented that the first time a Zaouli mask was created was in the 1950s. Masks were used by Ivorians to ward off danger, protect communities, or used to celebrate. The Zaouli masked dance, which is inspired by two masks — the Blou and the Djela — “brings together sculpture (the mask), weaving (the costume), music (the band and song) and dance,” according to UNESCO.
Craftspeople, instrumentalists, singers, dancers and sculptors are usually the bearers of the mask. Each Guro village has its local Zaouli dancer, and once one adorns the mask, he is transformed into the spiritual being he is representing. “The bearer changes. The spirits take control of him. He is separated from all that happens around him,” Chief Hyppolite Anoh, artistic director of the Solidarity Theatre Club of Abidjan, explained to CNN. “Once he will put the mask on, it will not be him again that will be dancing, but the spirit that will possess his body.”
In fact, the process of wearing the mask is only viewed by the initiated. Women are not allowed to be present during the process. Filming the process is also forbidden, according to CNN. Note that a Zaouli mask, made of Yaranza wood, can take as long as six days to carve. That process of making the mask is also not shown to the public, with each artisan having their own approach.
Even at ceremonies, a Zaouli dancer usually shows up covered by a cloth. The cloth would then be taken off to unveil the beauty of his mask. The dancer then performs diverse dance steps that must not be repeated. These dance steps can be “extremely quick and rhythmical”, and they are usually performed according to the flutes of the orchestra present, a report said. “Hands and feet follow a common choreography improvised by the dancer according to the music,” the report added.
As Ethnic Jewels Magazine also writes: “The dance itself is physically demanding, and the dancer undertakes a type of duel with the audience. He must showcase his talent, originality and dexterity…”
Here’s a video of the Zaouli mask dance of Ivory Coast: