The Bubu Continues: Discussing Sierra Leonean Culture With Scholars John Nunley and David Skinner
As part of our investigation into the history of bubu music in Sierra Leone, we spoke with some brilliant scholars focused on West African culture: John Nunley (Morton D. May Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the St. Louis Art Museum) and David Skinner (Professor of History at Santa Clara University).
Professor Nunley’s work on black performance—his theorization of the “fierce and fancy” aesthetics, and various other writings–served as our guide in Sierra Leone, introducing us to the complexities of life and performance in urban masquerading societies. We spoke with Nunley about the “devils” we saw in the streets of Freetown—the same devils that inspired the title of his book Moving with the Face of the Devil.
Devils—or debuls as pronounced in Krio, the lingua franca of Freetown—are towering masked dancers that walk the streets of Freetown during carnival and other festivities.
For Nunley, the devils represent the force of regional culture in Sierra Leone—devils are tied to specific neighborhoods, and when they march, they give presence to the “the streets” and to the informal formality of underground societies that go back centuries in Sierra Leone.
“Here comes the devil,” Nunley told us, watching footage from our trip to Sierra Leone. “And who’s stopping?” Nunley asked. “Contemporary society is stopping to see what’s going on, and I thought that was remarkable.”
Nunley is a scholar who has taken to alternative roads. Whereas anthropologists and African art historians in the ’70s tended to be interested in rural traditional creative practices, Nunley focused his work on the African metropolis, Freetown. Nunley seemed skeptical around any reductive uses of the concept of “tradition.”
“There’s no such thing as tradition,” he told us. “Darwin will tell you that. Things are variation, adaptation, selection, natural selection. That’s what makes planets move. It makes music move. It’s always changing. That means we always have to be on the run.”
Professor Nunley helped us contextualize the devils within a larger history of culture and Christianity in West Africa. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
“In Freetown particularly, the missionaries were very hostile towards those masqueraders, and reading the accounts of the missionaries at SOAS in London was always interesting because around Christmas time, the missionaries–you could see their handwriting in their letters back to the home missions were very shaky because, at that time of the year, the masqueraders would go around the churches and masquerade. The missionaries couldn’t stop them because their sanctuary was the street. It was motion, whereas in the church you had your people, your pews and you had the guy on top, so everything was static.
“One was open and fluid, and one was closed and structured. The missionaries began to talk to their congregations about, ‘That’s the devil,’ and, of course, they’re saying in Christianity the devil’s bad, so they were trying to get the backsliders and new converts, so those masqueraders became known as devils. Over the years it’s become a badge of pride.
“The devil, of course, is a Western concept. In Africa, I think in general, when you practice juju medicine for good or for bad, it’s all the same thing. If you’re a lawyer and you’re defending your person, you’re good. If you’re accusing somebody, you’re bad, so you use medicine to make things work, and the devil is part of that process with Africans. The devil is good and bad.”
As part of our work around bubu, we also spoke with scholar David Skinner, a professor from Santa Clara University focused on Islam in West Africa. Below are some key excerpts from our conversation with Professor Skinner:
“I think the primary thing that most people who study Islam in West Africa–and it’s a very large literature now–is that it really is African Islam, that is has been, at least until the very, very recently, an indigenous or indigenized Islam. The introduction of Islam to West Africa is quite ancient, but most of the people who were the major forces for introducing Islam, especially below the Sahel, or that border area just south of the Sahara were Africans themselves.
“We could go all the way back to the 9th century, as the Arabic-speaking forces swept across North Africa and became established in the Mediterranean and up into Spain. The pre-existing trade networks across the Sahara became appropriated by Muslim merchants, some Arabic-speaking, some of so-called Berber, people speaking dialects of the Saharan people, particularly the Tuareg, for example… and they brought Islam with them as they appropriated these trade networks.
“Because they were so important to the economic health of many of the communities along the Sahel region south of the Sahara, which eventually developed into some fairly big empires like Mali, they were incorporated in various ways into the local cultures, mostly through intermarriage because they didn’t bring a lot of women with them when they came.
“So, those merchants who stayed—and to be clear, when you’re a merchant in Islamic society, you either are also a missionary or you bring a relative or a kinsman or a close friend who’s also a missionary because trade and Islam go together…. Increasingly, more and more people became attracted to Islam because of the holistic nature and you might say even the international nature of Islam.
“Gradually what happened—and this is well-documented—their small communities of Muslims became permanent and began to intermarry with local families, usually very prominent families, of course. Some of these prominent families started to send their sons or some of their younger male relatives to Islamic schools because it makes sense, of course, to create these alliances.
“Islam, when it came, was not at all an army of invasion. It was just the opposite. It was a totally peaceful, slow transformation that was introduced in a variety of ways and often became integrated with local practices.
“So, you have West African Islamic music that wouldn’t be recognized by, say, a Muslim in Saudi Arabia or in Iran or Pakistan or whatever it would be. It would be very localized forms of instruments and lyrics and so forth.
“Sierra Leone has become a melting pot country and, because it has, despite the civil war, experienced far more peaceful history dating from the early 19th century than most places in West Africa. One of the strengths of having so many connections with different ethnic groups and linguistic groups … the Christian/Islam thing, the conflict there just doesn’t exist the way it does in some other places.”
To hear another Afropop Hip Deep exploration of Islamic history in Africa, be sure to check out our program on the “Arabization of North Africa.”