Najite Agindotan, Founder, Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks
A master drummer, who has worked with luminaries from across the African diaspora, Najite drew on the spirit of the Egungun festivals back home in Nigeria as the guiding idea for Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks. Of the original tradition he says, “Day of the Ancestors is actually a day in the Yoruba tradition once in a year when we honor our ancestors because we stand on their shoulders. It is the Yoruba belief that though the body is still not here, the spirits are always here with us.” The tradition is to call on those spirits through the masks worn at the festival to acknowledge their presence and gain their support to move forward auspiciously.
Son of an Urhobo tribal chieftan, Najite Agindotan is an amazing drummer who, from a very young age, traveled with the Urhobo cultural music troupe under his father's direction. They traveled throughout West Africa and performed at national festivals in Nigeria, their native country. In his early teens, Najite was introduced to his fellow Nigerian and international superstar Fela Kuti. He not only became a student of the creator of Afrobeat, but ultimately, upon the death of his father, he became Fela’s Godson in a traditional ritual at the African Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria. Najite brought his singular talent, developed through these Nigerian influences, to Los Angeles where it continued to grow through exposure to the wonders of African Diaspora culture - he had the chance to work with luminaries such as Horace Tapscott and his Pan-African People's Orchestra, Billy Higgins, Hugh Masekela, Remi Kebaka and many others. He has been justly awarded for his contributions in the performing arts in Los Angeles receiving prestigious awards and grants from the NAACP, the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. One of his proudest accomplishments is founding Leimert Park’s annual Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks.
Why was it important to start the festival?
Najite: The Mask Festival, Day of the Ancestors is actually a day that folks back home in the Yoruba tradition honor our ancestors because we stand on their shoulders and though the body is not here, the spirits are always here with us whether we know it or not. The tradition is to call on those spirits and those spirits will answer so if you have an ancestor try to call on them whenever you can because their spirits are still here. The Yoruba believe that those ancestors since they are still here in spirit they need to be represented for the whole tradition to keep on. So they represent those spirits through masks - once a year, in the yoruba culture, they have an Egungun festival which is the festival of the masquerade. Egungun in the yoruba actually means skeleton like “bones”. So the masquerade itself is called Egungun - the spirit of our ancestors are being honored and are being called. When I came here, a long time ago, they had a mask festival many, many, many years ago on Wilshire, I think it was in the 1980s through the Craft and Folk Art Museum. I was part of that festival with the group I used to have called The Rhythm of the Village. They suddenly stopped that festival, and I didn't know why.I was so excited when I came here to the United States to see something like that being done here. That really let me see a little bit more insight into the American life. But when that suddenly stopped, I thought to myself this is something that needs to continue especially in the African American diaspora because of all those things that happened to African people in this country and all over. And those spirits are still here, very much here and people don't really know that because people just believe they are dead and gone. But those spirits are here, those spirits, the ones that were hung, the ones that were killed, the ones that fought, the ones that taught, all those ancestors spirits that were brought here and made slaves. They weren't enslaved before - they were educators, midwives, hunters, kings, queens brought here and made into slaves. These ancestors believed when they left with their body, their spirit would still be here and they hoped that their children would call on them. But, you know, some understand what it's about but some don't. So I was hoping I could continue this whole thing. So one day Ben Caldwell called me and told me there's a group that wants to help communities - LA Commons, I said wow and I met these very nice nice nice nice people. I told them about my idea is to honor all those ancestors and I actually would like to call their names because we haven't called their names -Emmett Till, Paul Roberson - all those people that were here, that are still here in spirit. We need to call on them, we need to name buildings, places in their names, so our children can continue to call those names. I'm carrying on the spirit of ancestors and they come to not only remind us of who they are but also the good things we need to continue to do. Those in society who are doing bad they actually get penalized by these spirits so it's not something to joke with in the Yoruba culture as those spirits are very much alive. I spoke to LA Commons about this idea and they were fully in support. For me everybody had a part to play in this - it wasn't just my idea everybody have their own input. The way it's growing right now I'm so happy that this is happening. And I hope that it continues even when I'm not here anymore. If you have an ancestor please call on them because this is what it's all about.it's about knowing that our ancestors are still here.