Mon | Nov 12, 2018

Celebration of Jamaica's heritage

Published:Sunday | March 4, 2018 | 12:00 AM

We continue our journey highlighting the artefacts of Jamaica and their place in history. today, we look at Abeng.

Jamaica has several Maroon settlements of which Accompong is the largest. Other major Maroon communities can be found in Moore Town, Scotts Hall, Trelawny Town, and Charles Town. They are mostly located in the mountainous jungle region that is called 'Cockpit Country'.

Maroons were those enslaved persons who escaped from the Spanish- and British-owned plantations. The word maroon comes from the Spanish word 'cimarrones', which means wild or untamed. The Maroons fled to the mountainous areas of Jamaica, where it was difficult for their owners to follow and catch them, and formed independent communities as free men and women. They were known for their strength, speed, guerrilla warfare tactics, resisting of martial troops, and their constant attacking and raiding of plantations.

To consistently evade capture and send messages across large distances, the Maroons are noted for their use of the drum and the abeng.

The abeng is a musical instrument made from the horn of a cow. It has its origins in West Africa Olive Senior explains that "the word abeng comes from the Twi language of the Akan of Ghana and means an animal horn or musical instrument." Olive Lewin says that "the abeng can be used to reproduce the pitch and rhythmic patterns of a fairly small vocabulary of Twi words from their mother language Kromantian (Maroon Spelling) after the Ghanaian port from which many slave ancestors were shipped."

The horn is blown by putting the lips to a hole on the concave side and working the thumb over a small hole on the tip to produce variations in tone. The Maroons used the abeng to keep in touch with each other during their wars, hence it has, by extension, come to be a symbol of freedom. For instance, a radical newspaper in the 1960s was called the 'Abeng'.

 

A SOURCE OF TERROR

 

As Mavis C Campbell describes it: "This instrument can utilise a wide range of notes. Thus it was capable of transmitting complicated messages, intelligible only to the Maroons, informing them of the size of the approaching troops, the amount of armaments they possessed, the path they were using, and the like. Similarly, directions regarding Maroon strategies would be given on the abeng by their chief of operations. Once the alarm was sounded, everyone (warriors, women and children) knew what to do."

She adds that the abeng was also a source of terror to the enemies: "The Maroons soon became aware that the British parties found its sound "hideous and terrible", and they exploited its use to the fullest extent by blowing it continuously when the parties were close to their towns, thus creating confusion, and in some instances, flight among the soldiers.'

Today, the instrument is still seen as an important instrument and is used on ceremonial and festive occasions to summon residents to meetings and to announce important news. Each Maroon village has a signaller or 'horn man', who enjoys a special status. Every signaller had to undergo a long and arduous training and was not allowed to blow the abeng at community functions until the current signal man retires due to old age or sickness.