For the Kalabari man which includes his women folks, culture is a way of life and forms part of their daily life. The Owu-Aru-Sun Alali is a series of masquerade display by the Kalabari people of the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria. Oral Tradition has it that the festival is usually performed after the exhaustion of the various masquerades owned by both the community and the groups or compunds which usually last for between 15 to 20 years.
Tracing the Genesis of Ou-Aru-Sun, it can be recalled that it was celebrated in Buguma City previously in 1908, 1927, 1973 and 1991 by the Ekine Sekiapu under the leadership of the Opu Edi.
The Ekine (it’s proper name) and Sekiapu (dancers) are the custodian of the Kalabari customs and traditions right from the old shipping (Elem Ama) till date. The Ekine also formed the nucleus of the traditional Government of the Kalabari people which includes the maintenance of law and order, including matters of arbitration where punishment were meted out to offenders according to the laws of the land.
The Owu-Aru-Sun Alali is the festival of the highest cultural display that has ever been witnessed in the socio-cultural organisation of the Kalabari people. Where the masked players in these dances were said to represent the water spirits, (Owu), to whom the Ekine ministered. The unique beautiful scenario of masked masquerades in colourful outfits and dancing in the special steps and styles and styles of their compounds is a sight to behold after which the Owu is said to be returned to the Ocean where they are said to reside.
While some of these masquerades are owned and performed by the entire community, some are owned by particular chiefs and compounds such as the Alagba by the Abbi group , the Peri-gbo by Georges Compund, Bekinaru Sibi by Wokoma Compound, Gbasa of the Onbo group. The major masquerades are always played during the dry season with about three plays annually over a long period which ranges between 15-20 years as said earlier. After the last group of masquerades have performed, the Ekine Sikiapu through the town crier intimates the people of the need for preparation for the next Owu-Aru-Sun Alali. The town crier (Kpo kpo gbo la bo) having done this, Head Chiefs of the various canoe houses and compounds who own masquerades harnesses with it’s people on how to put up it’s best performance and sometimes also involves services of experts in the assembling of headpieces and costumes.
Two days to this celebration, Sekiapu must host some special sacrifices made up of white male fowl, an eg, a split finger of plantain and a piece of white cloth at strategic points sch as the waterside of the national deity of the people (Owameso), the entrance of the Ekine house, the entrance of Adum (head of the local water spirits) Oferema Etele (an ancient sacred path in the North-West part of the town) and Ebe Boko, (an inlet off the main River leading towards the Ocean). The essence of this sacrifice is to appease the deities and also plead with it to ensure total peace and to eradicate evil forces and disturbances from obstructing the going down of he water spirits.
On the eve of the Owu-Aru-Sun proper, headpieces of all masquerades are set up in the ancestral shrine of the various owners where the head chiefs and male members of the group performs the necessary purification and sacrifaces, this also gives an opportunity for smaller houses to come up with request of favours, protection and provisions from the spirits while the women folk sings praise songs of the masquerades in front of the ancestral memorial hall (Inkpu). In the midst of all these, the Igba Alabo (purification pries) positions by the shrine of Obiana (Owame Akaso’s daughter) holding in his hands a glass of gin, and an egg in the other hand and libates to the seven founding fathers of the Kalabari (Amabiame, Endeme, Korome, Ituruame, Akialame, Igodome, Bukume). He invokes by inviting all the water spirits in Ekine to come out tomorrow and return to the Ocean after the Owu-Aru-Sun celebration after which the egg in his hands is placed on the Obiana’s shirne. On the D-day of all celebrations, all the colourfully dressed masquerades of the varioys groups and compounds lines up in front of their ancestral halls and are being escorted to the town square amidst cheers by members of it’s house. On reaching the square each masquerades is greeted by the Chief drummer (Akwa Alabo) and shows a little display of its distinctive dance step before taking a bow into the Ekine hall.
After all the expected masquerade groups has gathered at the King Amachree square, the patron goddess of the masquerades (Ekine Alabo) libates to the Amatemeso with a bottle of gin and glass on the completion of the series of plays of the water spirits and the journey back to the Ocean. The Ekine Alabo ask for journey mercies back to the spirit world and also assurance of their return in the next festival. After which, the Akwa Alabo summons the masquerades and Sekiapu for final procession with the Ikikroko drum with Igba Alabo taking the lead and closely followed by the Opu Edi (Head of Sekiapu) and Ekine Alabo. Following this procession is the masquerades Tari Oboko (First paddler in the water spirits canoe). Then comes all the masquerades that had participated in the last series of play with the masquerade ofor (helmsman) in the water spirit canoe taking the lead. It is worthy of note that Tari Okoko and Ofor do not feature in the series of plays, they appear only at Owu-Aru-Sun. The masquerades calmer (The Owu Koribo) who must be a Sekibo escorts the masquerades and are on a line with unmasked sekiapu dressed in elaborate traditional attire of Donne or Woko and capped with either Ajibulu (head dress) or Bolar Hat.
The procession moves around the Amachree square in the usual anti-clockwise direction moving slowly to the special rhythm for Ofor the helmsman, the Akwa Alabo calls the names of the various deities and ancestors with masquerades and Sekiapu of the mentioned houses responding by pointing towards their various shrines, after which they return to the Ekine meeting house for a rest having completed the third round of dance.
At intervals, the comical trickster Ikaki (the tortoise masquerade) entertains by keeping up the interest of spectators and keeping the arena lively.
After about 20-30 minutes of rest the que of masquerade lines up again for another three rounds of display as usual and as it completes this season, the chief drummer changes to the “sending down of the spirits drums” (Owu Iderima Akwa) which special sound means the embarkation of the spirits. At this stage the purification priest retrieves the egg, with his left hand holding the egg, and his right hand holding his irony purification horn, takes the lead of the procession to its final trip. As soon as he approaches the entrance to the southern part of the main street, he backs off from the line and speeds down to the waterside (Owu Sera) with a group of young Sekiapu rushing ahead of him and with their canes, driving women away. All the masquerades following him also backs off at the approach of the main street and follows suit to the waterside.
On arrival at the waterside, the purification priest reminds the Gods in an incantation of his request of the previous evening of “a safe journey to the spirit world pleading with the spirit to pilot them safely to the ocean, after which he throws the egg into the river and also passes his ivory horn anti-clockwise round his head and dips it into the water, this action he repeats 7 times which ensures that any evil force among them that may cause disruption of the journey to the spirit world is defeated.
After this purification rite is finished, the masquerade players strip themselves off their head pieces and costumes and each after the other, dives violently into the water which signifies the water spirits are on their journeying back to the ocean, and the masqueraders are escorted by the masquerade calmers back to their various memorial halls where they change into their regular cloths. A few days after this once in a lifetime event, the Ekine Sekiapu rolls the Ikinko drum into the replica of the ancient town well (Ama Sube) which signifies the official closing of the masquerade season.