Great Dance: Introduction to Gule Wamkulu

The gule wamkulu masquerade of the Chewa people of Malawi, Africa

The gule wamkulu – meaning ‘great dance’ – is the spiritual masquerade of the Chewa people of Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

In the gule wamkulu (pronounced goolay wumkooloo), masked characters and woven structures perform in the villages. The masked and woven characters represent the ancestors of the people, who have come back to the land of the living to instruct the community in proper behavior.

There are many hundreds of different gule wamkulu characters. Each has its own carved mask and costume, or structure woven from grasses and bamboo. Each has its own message. The characters are accompanied by drumming and singing. Each has its own drum beat, song or songs, and each dances according to the nature of the character.

Providing advice and transition

The gule wamkulu is part performance and part morality play. This moral code is called the mwambo and can define many aspects of proper behavior.

The characters advise people to be hard working, loyal to family, respectful of parents, faithful to partners, and caring of children. They tell stories of people who have been good and bad. They advise against antisocial behavior, especially that worst of practices, witchcraft. Characters can bring more than advice. They can also bestow fertility on young people entering adulthood, so that they can have many children. Some can help in healing.

Many assist in periods of transition and rites of passage. By linking the living with the powers of the ancestors, gule wamkulu dancers help children become adults; assist a citizen become a chief; and most importantly, facilitate the transition of the recently deceased to join the village of the ancestors.

Owned by the men but shared by all

The gule wamkulu is produced by the male society called nyau. Boys must be initiated into the nyau, and in so doing, become men in the traditional view of the Chewa. They then learn the coded language of the nyau, and the secrets of gule wamkulu.

The masks and structures are made by men. They are also danced by men, with a few exceptions. These exceptions are some characters that perform at the initiation of girls into adulthood. Then, some of the characters can be performed by older women, who are instructors (called namkungwi) of the girls.

Characters are made and dressed in secret places – often near a graveyard - and come into the village for special events and ceremonies. They perform on an open space called the bwalo. They are typically accompanied by an assistant – often a boy – shaking a rattle that assists the masked dancers to navigate the crowds. There is much noise, dust and movement in a gule wamkulu performance. The women interact actively, singing, dancing with the characters, or running - laughing and screaming - away from them.

A gule wamkulu performance brings the community together in times of celebration and of mourning.


Photographs: Arjen van de Merwe Gary Morgan

Arjen van de Merwe is a professional photographer living in Blantyre, Malawi. He has been working on a major publication about the gule wamkulu, authored by Father Claude Boucher.

Gary Morgan spent two years in Malawi, working with Claude Boucher at the Kungoni Center of Culture and Art.

Video: Gary Morgan

The content of this exhibit is based on the research of Father Claude Boucher, a Catholic priest and Missionary of Africa, who has lived with and the Chewa people and studied the ‘great dance’ for 40 years. Boucher is the author of a major publication on the gule wamkulu, to be published in 2011.

Exhibit curator and author: Gary Morgan
Exhibit installation: Juan Alvarez
Image consultant: Howard Bossen
Masks courtesy of Doris Neilson and Gary Morgan

This exhibit was supported by the MSU African Studies Center.

For more information about masks in traditional practices, visit the MASK: Secrets and Revelations exhibit

1. The words in italics are from the Chichewa language, that is spoken by around 15 million people in East Africa.