Owu is the form of masquerade predominant in Imo and Rivers States, although Ekpo is equally popular in the area as well (mmawu is more predominant in Northern Igbo)
Owu generally means spirit or spirit entity, it originates from the belief in Owu mini (water spirit or fairies) so the Owu dance came from that belief in the interaction between the Owu mini (water spirits and the human community)
The Owu dance has its origin amongst the Oru, particularly Ezi-Orsu Obodo in Oguta,
The legend has it that woman named Ojeru who was fishing along the creeks instead of catching fish caught a mysterious offer and a mask belonging to a powerful local Owu mini, she took the items to her husband and they decided to consult a local diviner known as Otugwa, Otugwa told them that they have been blessed with wealth and to construct an Owu masquerade and dance it round the village in commemoration of the Owu mini,
They did as told and with time they got wealth and the Owu became popular, this soon invited the jealousy of the woman’s father, and a conflict ensued between the woman’s father and her husband
The Owu masquerade of the Oguta area is linked to two major festivals, the Agugu and the Omerife.
The major masquerades are performed during the New Year festival, Agugu, while Omerife is the area’s New Yam festival.
The Owu Event
Both festivals are comprised of complementary male and female participation and events ,The festivals are timed. They take place at specific times of the year and in a specific sequence among the Oru towns. According to their custom, the senior town of Orsu- Obodo is the first to perform Agugu, while Oguta Ameshi is the next, then other Oru towns such as Eguoma, Izombe, Awa etc following and performing one after the other.
The commencement of Agugu at Orsu-Obodo is timed in accordance with environmental observations of the water levels of Oguta Lake and on the alluvial plains of the River Niger, in addition to the observance of the lunar cycle. Internally, the festival observes the 4-day calendar of the Igbo market week and lasts a full month; it is a complex festival and contains multiple complementary events beginning with the ancestors and then dedicated to the Owu;
there are male and female Owu masquerades, day- and night-time, public- , secret-, semi-secret- and very secret/ forbidden performances, it is an expression of duality, The most secret events are performed by the town’s oldest women in the nude, late at night, when nobody—whether male or female, initiated or not—is allowed to leave their homes on pain of death.
Agugu is a New Year festival. Young men are initiated into adulthood at this time. The festival also prepares the community for bush clearing, the new agricultural year and female
Agugu features multiple title holders, ranks of membership, initiates, masks, performance, events and audiences.
The Owu masquerade is performed in public by masked individuals and groups.
The music rhythm and dance steps of the Owu are very distinct and during Owu Agugu No other than Owu music may be played, and no funerals could be held
During an Owu dance a bard sings all kinds of songs praising the Owu and in his praise songs, the bard evokes the “tame bird that Owu brought,” symbolizing the customary order of Oru civilization.
The town’s oldest women chant a special song and dance for Owu during and after their pivotal and extremely secret night rituals. They evoke male-female cooperation in their song featuring raw and cooked food, a metaphor for gender dualism and balance.
There is a hierarchy of titles within the Owu Okoroshi society and masks correspond to differences in title, rank and message. Title holders also differ in rank, duties and privileges.
The Osere or Omodi at Orsu-Obodo is the Owu Okoroshi secret society’s leader. He holds the society’s Ofo and as an additional wand of office, a rattling iron staff. His eyes are marked with white chalk. His drumming summons the society members to their secret lodge, the Echina House, and announces the festival’s commencement.
He leads the society members into the village square, presides over the public performances and is the first to dance.
The society’s bard is known as the okwa, he holds a special fan. He escorts the Osere and other senior title holders with his songs. His chanting praises the culture heroes and cultural ideals, preserves memory and recounts history.
The Ada Owu is a female title corresponding to the Osere. While several Ada Owu title holders prominently performed at Izombe, Orsu-Obodo’s last Ada Owu had died prior to 1978
The Eze Nwanyi is the town’s most senior woman.
The Isato, a group of eight men ranks next to the Osere. Their dances follow his dancing. The paraphernalia of the first three of the eight men match their titles, e.g. big canoe, Ugboukwu; little canoe, Ugbonta; and “paddle”, Amara, symbolizing the female qualities of grace and kindness
Their titles correspond to the ancestral myths and its characters.
The society’s members next in line are the Amadi and the senior Okoroshi.
The Amadi are title holders in the society’s two segments. Their leaders are the guardians of special paraphernalia, such as the large Iroko (war) drums. They parade through town before the festival’s culmination in masquerades and dances.
The Okoroshi are next in rank. These fully initiated middle-rank and junior members of the society can be summoned to act as enforcers, as police, or as warriors. Their performances may be satirical and menacing, yet, also beautiful and appeasing; they communicate in a secret language and utter mysterious cries in public.
The most senior Okoroshi dances with the Ogu, the symbol of the underlying order of custom
Okoroshi displays their first public performance in the village square, after their prior semi-secret night appearance in the village square under the full moon, and only after weeks of practice, a series of secret initiation events and a semi-secret night-time performance. Their faces are covered by white lace cloth, as this is their first public performance in front of women.
Women cheer and reward good dancers with gifts.
The Masks, Their Costumes, and Characters
The three most senior Owu masks are named in correspondence to the underlying Owu myth. They are Echarakecha (Father makes noise), Igbonnamuo (Beauty of the Igbo), and Akarucha (After gossiping you still desire it). The three highest-ranking masks dance in public in the village square; they perform in broad daylight for four consecutive days. Their dances are highly choreographed. A fourth mask appears erratically and charges violently through town after the four-day performances of the senior masks.
Echarakecha and his entourage enter the village square where the public is gathered. His face is covered by a carved wooden mask with man-like features and a mysterious smile. He wears a carved red cap with eagle feathers, is dressed in a flowing yellow and brown costume, holds a bronze wand of office, and carries a heavy bag of rattling metal
objects on his back.
He dances The mask owned by the Umunna Umudei of Ojeru, the mythical woman’s father. He dances back and forth in front of the society’s senior title holder the Osere/ Omodi.
Igbonnamuo is completely covered by white lace and cloth, decorated with red coral beads, and topped by a lavish crown of eagle feathers. His costumes are of soft fabric, white in front and blue in the back; his wavy movements and the flowing jingles of his music remind one of water.
Another mask is owned by Igbogankwo, the Umunna of the mythical diviner, Otugwa. He also dances towards the Osere and back and carries a heavy bag of rattling objects on his back as well.
Akarucha is the most senior mask. The mask is covered in white lace over red cloths from the head to below the waist, making for a conical appearance complete by a round red hat with a broad rim and pointed top. A small carved face sits on its tip; it is decorated with feathers that appear like sun rays. The contours of Akarucha’s heavy rucksack of rattling metal objects bulge under the white cloth covering the body. This mask belongs to Umuonyeura, the Umunna of Ojeru’s mythical husband.
On the fifth day, a fourth mask, Nwo-no-no dramatically challenges this display of Oru culture and its social ideals. Nwo-no-no wears a flat, carved wooden mask on top of its head, facing the sky and a body suit of raffia, It represents chaos It acts dramatically; it races through town with its entourage, chasing the youth and being chased in a ritualistic all-out war involving the throwing of clubs it is the Owu that chases people.
Even back in 1978, young women would go wild during this event, This mask was not allowed to be photographed;
The classic Owu masquerade and play at Orsu-Obodo re-enacts sacred myth and evokes the order of Oru civilization while Nwo-no-no represents the opposite, chaos.
Down to the current Owu observance Owu always appears in a form of duality being a white-painted feminine beautiful mask and a blackish ugly grotesque mask signifying the duality of nature,
There are different forms of Owu, there is the iginne owu, the ekeleke, ojionu, the okoroshi being the most popular
Following the popularity of Owu, it spread like wildfire in the region, neighboring isuama clans such as the Eziama Obiato, Orodo, Awo Omamma, Amiri, Njaba, came and collected adaptions of the Owu,
It also spread to Owerri area such as the Mbieri, Ubomini, Orogwe, Ogbaku, Agwa, etc
Owu is the primary masquerade form danced in the entire Oru region from Oguta, Ndoni, down to Ekpeye.
It is also the major masquerade in ikwerre society.
Owu societies were once the major law enforcement in the village groups amongst the Southern and Riverrine Igbo.