Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Great Dance, Gule Wamkulu



The Gule Wamkulu (Great Dance) is a dance cherished and sacred to the hearts of the Chewa people of Malawi. It is a symbolic, religious masked dance performed by the Nyau society at various occasions such as funerals, weddings, installation of traditional chiefs and authority, initiations as well as ceremonies of local or national proportion.

Nyau is the presence of the dead, an encounter with a spirit and so it is associated with fear and ritual dread.  There are a variety of masks symbolizing different spirits or aspects of life such as fertility or death.  And the dance is seen as a gateway that transverses the realms of the present and that of the ancestors and spirits, once forming the cosmology or indigenous religion of the Chewa people. The belief system's foundation of the dance is based on communication with those who are dead, or their spirits, calling this act pemphero lalikulu (Great Prayer).



The dance fuses religion, centuries of tradition and rituals as it not only entertains but conveys a message. It makes the borders of the realms indistinct, blurring the senses, hypnotizing and draw you in by curiosity only for a while. The dance involves complex footwork, great stamina and flinging dust into the air to create dust clouds. The dancers shuffle, step and respond to specific drum beats and songs depending on the mask he is wearing. The purpose of the dance is said to be a way of communicating messages of the ancestors to the villagers and making possible continued harvests and continued life. But each particular mask and dance serve a particular role. Each of these figures plays a particular, often evil, character representing certain forms of misbehaviour in order to teach moral and social values to the audience, or to tell a story by dance.



The dancers are men who have been initiated, and it is the chief of the village who has appointed them. And Initiation of men into the secret society is said to begin with living in a cemetery for a week or more, but no one knows what goes on there. This Nyau brotherhood is then responsible for the initiation of young men into adulthood, and the performance of the Gule Wamkulu at the end of the initiation procedure to celebrate the young men’s integration into adult society. The Nyau societies are found within villages but they are part of a larger network. With the society being so secretive, the dancer's masks become their identity and thus lead a secret double life. The society is said to have coded language, riddles, metaphors, myths and signing. The men are actual spirits in the ritual, and cannot be spoken of as men even though women may recognize their husbands, fathers, brother and uncles. Identifying the man wearing a mask is disrespectful to the religion.


Nyau dancers wear costumes and masks made from a variety of things, wood, paint, feathers, metal, wool, animal skin, representing a great variety of characters, such as wild animals, spirits of the dead or slave traders. Some masks made of animal hide or horns are believed to capture the soul or spirit of the deceased that brings renewed life. Some have a blank but horrific appearance, others a fixed enigmatic expression. When the dancer wears the mask, not only do they change their appearance, they also evoke a persona to match. Fierce masks will most undoubtedly evoke a high energy persona that would breakout into a wild dance and would kick up a cloud of dust and leave bystanders in awe. With hundreds of masks out there, the dance and experience would always be different with a different meaning.



There are different perceptions about them either by gender, age or even race. Most children are frightened by them, even some older people are. During performances with the masks it has been observed that women and children often rush into the houses when a Nyau performer threatens. But generally tourists or foreigners are intrigued by them. Not all this holds true, as it seems that nearly everyone you talk with about the Gule will give you a somewhat different story about them.

There is evidence that Gule Wamkulu existed during the great Chewa Empire of the 17th century. Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries to ban this practice in Chewa communities in Malawi, it managed to survive under British colonial rule by adopting some aspects of Christianity. Due to Westernization the Nyau society is becoming weakened, but since 2005, Gule Wamkulu has been classified as one of the 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, a program by UNESCO for preservation of intangible cultural heritage. It is hope that the dance and traditions will be preserved for future generations.

Experience a world of ancient tradition and ritualistic mystery of song and dance that echo through time and space, transverse the realms of the present and that of the Chewa ancestors and spirits for a while, come and let your self be drawn in and experience The Great Dance.