Chacha VIII – Royal Audience in Abomey

On February 16th, 1996, a ceremony was held in which Chacha VIII was conferred special powers in the court of Abomey by King Agoli-Agbo Dedjaragni of Dahomey.

The Chacha arrived with an entourage of almost a hundred people, all impeccably dressed in “Brazilian” style. Singing songs in praise of the Chacha and Burrinha songs and dancing the “samba,” the Ouidah delegation did not miss the opportunity to show off their ethnic colors. For his part, the reception the king offered the Chacha was his way of showing not only that a particular social order had been established during colonization, but that the Dahomey culture was still alive and well and he and his court were its foremost guardians.

The ceremony essentially constituted an opportunity for interethnic dialogue in which the two cultures were presented not so much in opposition to one another as in contrast.

Once again, comprehensive public television coverage (on the only channel that existed at the time) gave the event national significance, which in its way legitimized the symbolic alliance between traditional culture and a culture that, despite coming from abroad, is an integral part of the country’s history. The television crew arrived an hour late, forcing the Chacha and his posse to wait for over an hour at 300 meters’ distance from the palace to allow their arrival to be filmed for television. In front of the cameras, the Chacha’s luxury car drove up slowly, escorted by the tassinons and embellished by a great parasol held aloft by a person walking behind the car. Two groups of women wearing long dresses and hats and singing songs in praise of the Chacha and some Burrinha songs opened the procession, followed by important personages. A few meters from the palace, the Chacha emerged from the car and headed for the entrance reserved for King Glele, still accompanied by his retinue, who continued to sing in praise of his arrival.

The Chacha was received at the palace entrance by Prince Dah Mele, chief of King Glele’s bloodline. With him were three of Agoli-Agbo’s ministers: Migan, Mehou, and Yevogan. The Royal Palaces of Abomey are formed of a complex of several buildings erected by successive kings, each with its own entrance. The Historic Museum of Abomey operates mainly in Ghezo Palace, which is called Singbodji precisely because of the two-story house (singbo) that Francisco Félix de Souza had built for his friend.

The Chacha and his wife were taken to the covered part of King Glele’s courtyard, called the Ajalala, where around a hundred court dignitaries were gathered. They sat down on two chairs alongside a kind of chaise-lounge arranged for the king, who could not sit on the throne because of the annual ceremonies being held at the same time in memory of bygone kings. At this time of year, called Djahouhou, all the past kings are believed to be present in the palace, incarnated in women. As such, the throne is symbolically occupied by its real occupant, King Houégbadja, founder of the dynasty.

The king was preceded, as is custom, by the griots, who recited the royal prayers while they played gankpanvi, twin bells similar to the Brazilian agogo bells, reserved for the exclusive use of the king. Behind these griots came the ministers, in two rows, and then King Agoli-Agbo Dedjalagni himself and his wives. He welcomed the Chacha with a warm handshake and sat down.

The official part of the ceremony began with greetings. Whenever something was said, the king’s wives would precede his answer with the formulaic “we reply to you,” since the king does not answer in the first person. After the griots had saluted the king, it was the turn of the ministers, who then sat on the floor before the king and the Chacha, who conversed together at ease.

Soon after the greetings, the king expressed his satisfaction at receiving the Chacha. After his words, Gnigla, the deacon of the Migans, or ministers, repeated them in a loud voice. The Chacha took his place before the king to hear his words, alongside his most esteemed companions and the tassinons, who sang his praise. After this message of welcome, the king’s musicians played two pieces, “Agbadja” and “Houngan,” and the women danced. The Burrinha musicians stuck coins on the dancers’ foreheads as an expression of appreciation.

The king then asked the oldest Adjaho, or religious minister, to solemnly offer the symbols of power that represented the position and function of the Chacha in the court of Abomey. The Adjaho then handed Francisco Félix de Souza’s great-grandson a sculpted cane with an elephant handle, under which an antelope sheltered, showing that the animal that follows the elephant is not wetted by the dew. The elephant represents the Chacha, who protects all those who follow him. After this, he was given a large parasol, a symbol of nobility and authority.

Next, the tassinons of Ouidah chanted praise to the Chacha and he, standing before the king and his ministers, took out a piece of paper and read his speech in French. Speaking in Fon through his intermediary, Migan Gnigla, the king confirmed their reforged bonds of friendship and his reciprocal protection of the Chacha.

The women from the Chacha’s group then put on a performance of “samba” to music played by the Burrinha musicians. They were soon followed by the court dancers performing traditional Fon dances to the sound of the court musicians, and so forth. The differences between the two cultures were expressed more eloquently in the movements of the two dances – the “Brazilian” and the Fon – than in the music itself, and especially in the attire of the “Brazilian” ladies.

As tradition dictates, the Chacha then handed out presents. He gave the king two neatly wrapped packages whose contents were not revealed, seven bottles of drink, and twenty thousand CFA francs. The griots received two thousand CFA francs, and the musicians received seven bottles of drink and ten thousand CFA francs.

Finally, at the head of a smaller royal delegation, King Agoli-Agbo led the Chacha and the De Souza family to the tomb of Ghezo. They were preceded by two griots, who intoned words in praise of the first conquests of the Dahomey kingdom. At the entrance to the courtyard containing the tomb, the king and the Chacha took off their shoes and the king removed the great pagne from his shoulders, rolling it around his waist.

At half past twelve, a select group of people gathered in King Ghezo’s house for a drinks reception in honor of the Ouidah delegation. The king and the Chacha made a toast. The king drank a carbonated beverage much appreciated in the country called Fizzi Pamplemousse, splashing some of it on the floor several times.

Downstairs, at the entrance to the palace, the television journalist interviewed the king, who declared:

“Yes, they have come here to show he who will be enthroned. We are content. Now he has visited us and we are joyful and this is an honor. It will be a peaceful kingdom for him. Everything will be prosperous for the family. Trade will prosper, men will have good wives, the unemployed will find permanent employment. They will return in peace. The kings will accompany them.” After this, the Chacha spoke solemnly in French: “Chacha is very happy to have come to Abomey. He has paid his respects to the king and all the chiefs for the friendship they have nurtured. The whole De Souza family salutes them. There will be peace everywhere here and the friendship will be lasting.”

The king then waited a little with the Chacha at the palace entrance while he took photographs with his whole family, and then he accompanied him amiably to his car in a sign of consideration and friendship.


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