“Ima Mbem”: An Ancient Igbo Art Form That Has Refused to Die


Ima Mbem” is a hybrid of song and speech utilized originally by Igbo masquerade societies. It is a specialized public performance used to inform, educate and of course, entertain. Metaphors, factoids and popular expressions are seamlessly blended in telling tales in a fashion that is not unlike that used commonly by stand-up comedians. The performers tell acknowledged facts which are often twisted and colored in ways that convey the sense of ease and jocularity. 

Historically, ima mbem is a specialized art form associated with Igbo masquerade societies. In non-literary culture, large amount of knowledge could be encoded in verses which are then memorized by masquerade societies and passed along for generations. In indigenous cultural setting within precolonial Alaigbo, masquerade societies fulfilled spiritual and security functions in mainstream Igbo society. Folklore can be packaged into poetic verses, memorized and recited in the form of ima mbem.

The variant shown in this YouTube video is an adaptation of the original and is performed by regular folks (without mask) for entertainment of the general public. As is the case with Igbo language, there are subtle linguistic dialects which can vary from one town to the next. There could, therefore, be a challenge in comprehension if there is a wide difference between the dialect used by the performer and the one understood by the listening audience. By all practical purposes, the best scenario is when both the performer and the audience are familiar with the Igbo dialect in use.

This is an ancient art form indeed. The fact that the young generation has mastered the art, as shown in this video, would go a long way in debunking the notion that the indigenous unadulterated Igbo language has fallen into obsolescence and decay because of mass urban migration of the youths and widespread use of English and patois spoken in many large metropolitan areas in contemporary Nigeria.