By Sarah Corbett

Zaouli is a mask of the Dje LaLou. The Gouro ethnic group from Manfla in the Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa, uses it in a traditional mask dance drumming ceremony.  LaLou Zaouli was a goddess for the Gouro people and the words ‘Djela Lon Zaouli’ mean ‘The Lions daughter’.

The Zaouli dance is a seductive dance, and is performed by a masked character. The Zaouli mask is brightly coloured and is said to represent a woman who appears in the legend of a sacred forest.

During a meeting of tribal leaders who had gathered in the sacred forest to settle a dispute, a woman collecting wood appeared and crossed their path. The woman was heavily pregnant and was seen by the leaders to be the solution to their dispute. These warlords decided that the man who could correctly choose the sex of the unborn child would win the argument. The pregnant woman was then murdered and her stomach slit to remove the unborn child.  The pregnant woman who had been collecting wood, was the wife of Sia doh bi Itzi bou hi Angel, and so the child she carried was his unborn baby. Although the child was brought into the world in such a brutal way, she survived; named ‘Angel Lou’ (daughter of Angel) and also adopted the name ‘Za gou li’ (fatal bet).

The survival of Za gou li is celebrated in the wonderful music and dance of the Manfla region of Cote ‘d’Ivoire. The mask is created to capture the beauty of Za gou li, lest she be forgotten.

The man who performs the dance wearing the mask is considered to be a reincarnation of the deceased Za gou li, yet also represents beautiful women of the village.

The dance is a celebration of calm following conflict, and is performed at various events during a year. At the outset the dancer uses pompom like objects to signal the rate of the drum beat. The dance itself is physically demanding, and the dancer undertakes a type of duel with the audience. He must showcase his talent, originality and dexterity, by performing diverse dance steps that must not be repeated. The upper body remains almost still, while the legs and feet create a mesmerizing spectacle.

The clothing worn accentuates the motion of the legs, a striped or checked fabric cloak conceals the upper body, and only a mask and hands remain in view. The wrists are swathed with ruffs constructed of raffia as are the ankles. Brightly shaped narrow trousers and layers of seed pods accentuate the ankles and create a rhythmic sound during the dance.

The dance of Zaouli is mesmerizing and conveys to me to the spirit of the beauty of Angel Lou.

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