Exploring ways to engage with the past: Puppet Masquerades in Bamana society


How do we place ourselves in a position where we do not live in the past, but instead, learn and adapt from it? Tradition is something that should provide a sense of foundation and fluidity, enabling us to connect and learn from our roots whilst preserving this knowledge in a meaningful way which we can adapt to cater to our own lives. When exploring the history of the Bamana people, one is able to gauge how creativity in the form of dancing, singing and acting was used as a mechanism to carry out the process of engaging with the past. For the Bamana, puppet masquerades in theatre performances were used in part, to fuse elements of past with present in a bid to educate as well as instil a sense of togetherness within communities. Given the fluid nature of theatre performance, it emphasises how space was given for various interpretations of the past, all of which convey a flexible approach to engaging and preserving history.

The Bamana (also referred to as Bambara) are a people of Mande lineage who have inhabited parts of the Segou region in present day Mali since the 17th century. Along with other neighbouring tribes in the region including the Boso, the Somono and the Maraka, puppet masquerades among the Bamana were very popular and used for a number of ceremonies to mark seasonal changes. Most of the characters in the theatre performances represented a part of the community’s shared experience. Some elements of these performances include:

Youth presenceTon (youth association) was a prominent feature in the puppet masquerade performances as well as for wider Bamana society. In Puppet Masquerades in the Valley of the Niger, Anthropologist Mary Jo Arnoldi noted that “while the reappearance every year of older masquerades is much appreciated, innovation and change in the repertoire is also a hallmark of the youth association theater” which highlights a way of preserving history whilst still remaining forward thinking. It shows how elements of the past were fused with the present in a way that resonated and aligned with the modern experiences faced by young people in the community. It also supports an argument made that part of the puppet theatre’s role is to act as a “school which serves as a society of initiation” by bringing together the young and old to share and learn from experiences. The presence of ton in performances indicates an emphasis placed on looking to the youth, who are the future, to preserve and celebrate history whilst they develop and apply their skills as they link past and present.

Artistry – The different styles and patterns used to create masks indicates an importance placed on self-expression within traditional theatre performances and celebrations.  When interviewed about the presence of puppet masquerades in ceremonies, a puppet master explained “they remind you of the magical moment of connection”. From utilizing the skills of blacksmiths to carve out masks and puppets, to using textiles to create costumes, in addition the process of coming together to brain storm on ideas for what characters to play, all of these aspects highlight the space given for creativity in the process of engaging and preserving the past.

Nature – Animal imagery played a central theme in the theatre performances of the Bamana. Musical anthropologist Elizabeth den Otter highlighted the various mask and puppet interpretations of certain animals, “animals of the savannah are represented in the form of antelopes, buffaloes, birds and domesticated animals. The bush buffalo, Sigi, symbolises strength and the power of tradition”. This can also be seen in the use of the Ngon mask which represents the baboon, during theatre performances, the characters using this mask mimicked the perceived unruly and loud nature of the animal. The presence of animals in performances implies a strong awareness of surroundings that has been cultivated over a long period of time.

The examples indicated above point to some of the aspects involved in the process of engaging and preserving the past among the Bamana people. Theatre performance, as an art is a fluid concept which can give ample opportunity to aid the process of change. It seems very fitting that this was chosen as a mode to preserve history for the Bamana. The various designs and performances in ceremonies were given the space to adapt as aspects of the community changed, which draws attention to the fluidity of tradition. This mode of creativity highlights the importance of allowing ourselves the chance to engage with our roots whilst acknowledging our ability to adapt and apply lessons from the past in our own way. Nothing is permanent, as we continue to grow may the engagement with past and present be meaningful for us and aid the process of nurturing a sense of balance in our lives.


Wild Animals and Heroic Men: Visual and Verbal Arts in the Sogo bò Masquerades of Mali – Mary Jo Arnoldi

Puppets and masks of the Bamanan and the Bozo (Mali) – Elizabeth den Otter

Puppet Masquerades in the Valley of the Niger – Mary Jo Arnoldi

Puppetry is the soul of Mali – Dawn Kennedy

Kore (Animal Mask): Ngon (Baboon) – ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA

*Image taken from Pinterest

(I do not own the rights of the picture in this post)

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