Otakagu Masquerade: “Ima Mbem” as Quintessential Art Form in Igbo Social Commentary


It is ancient; surreal some would say. But it is authentically Igbo. Power of speech is is revered in the authentic indigenous cultural value system that underscores the Igbo worldview. The Igbo say that the spoken word is a peep hole into one’s heart. Freedom of speech, whether in the reclusive private caucus of the umunna kindred or in the open public square, is universally respected by the Igbo as an unalienable right of all, irrespective of one’s socioeconomic rank in society. An Igbo metaphor say that “words bottled up within and unspoken can indeed choke one to death” (paraphrased). Creating enabling allowance for people to speak out their minds, in context of Igbo culture, is salutary and healthy. The Igbo is hot-wired to speak truth to power even if it is from behind the mask. The Igbo masquerade societies in Alaigbo utilize this truism to its utmost limit. Masquerades are, therefore, the most reliable sources for emboldened speech in the pre-colonial Igbo society. Even the most embarrassing gossips may get an unexpected public airing through ima mbe, especially the ones performed by masquerades.

“Ima mbem” is a variant of public speech. It is a hybrid of song and speech; the original “Rap” style that effectively piggybacked on popular music of contemporary Rhythm & Blues. Ima mbem art form is used to inform, educate and entertain. Connoisseurs in the art can weave poetic verses and commonly used Igbo metaphors and sayings seamlessly into a typical storytelling recital. As has been shown already in preceding YouTube videos in this site, ima mbem can be performed by non-masquerade public entertainers. In such casual performances, this art form can easily become bastardized into becoming conduit for praise singing and fawning on people, within the audience, for their monetary tips or in anticipation of rewards.

The performance recorded in this YouTube video was in a more solemn and relatively private occasion. From wordings of the performing masquerade, the death of a valuable member of the community is being mourned. Masquerades usually appear during the funereal rites of deceased members or patrons and sponsors of their society. They can appear during daytime or at night, depending on the masquerade group’s preferences.

“Otakagu”, as this masquerade is called, belongs to the philosophical genre and thus conveys nonthreatening mannerism in speech and action. This category features in general public entertainment where women and children are in attendance. Other masquerades may conduct themselves differently according to the reputation of the society to which they belong. The fear of feisty ones compel women and children to stay at safe distance in whichever crowds such masquerades appear to perform.