This involved the use of masks to disguise their identity during evening parties and other festive ceremonies, often using expensive, elegant, historical or fanciful costumes. It also enabled some to flirt with anyone without being recognised. The first point of contact was Saltpond and its environs. Around that time, artisans from Winneba who were working in and around Saltpond eventually copied the fashionable costumes but without any amorous intentions. They then introduced this to their kinsmen in Winneba. The people who initially patronised the masquerade art in Winneba were artisans and fisher folks.
Before then the syncopated melodies played by the West Indian regimental bands stationed at Cape Coast and Elmina influenced brass band music played by well-trained Ghanaian musicians. As a result, according to Prof Ata Annan Mensah, a world renowned musicologist and native of Winneba, claimed that the Fanti musicians created a local proto-highlife known as ‘adaha’ which subsequently added impetus to the dance forms of the masquerade in Winneba.
The Nobles Group adopted this name just for the show of it, as if they belonged to a special group of artisans; an elitist group. It is said that the Yamoah brothers were very much involved in the formation of this group.
This group consequently became the Number One Masquerade Group. Later, some members broke away and formed a second group and named it “Egyaa” which also popularly became Number Two. It is believed that the then Chief of Winneba, Nana Ayirebi Acquah III had a hand in the formation of this group and hence the use of the name Egyaa that referred to his Palace.
The third group was formed around 1930 as a breakaway faction of Egyaa, this was named “Atumbu Rusu” shortened, Tumus.
Atumbu Rusu has its significance to the formation of the group. The ‘atumbu’ is the anvil used by the blacksmith. In Ghanaian adage, where the blacksmith hammers constantly is where he intends to smoothen or improve the shape of the object being forged. By implication, the departure of the leaders of the groups; Nobles and Egyaa, to form that group caused the two groups to ‘cry’, as they were teased. They felt that the newly formed group was better off than them. This group was led by Arkoful and Nkebi and they operated from Donkonyiem in Winneba. This group attracted a number of scholars and working-class people as well as school children in their final grade.
The last group to be formed, Number Four, was christened “Red Cross” in 1933. It is said that Papa Yamoah and the Paintsils were very good friends and part of Nobles No. 1 Group. Papa Yamoah, then a merchant and doing business from Liberia imported masquerade items: masks, hats, fabrics and other clothing for sale to the groups apart from his main trading items. When he brought in the first brass band instruments to be used by the Nobles No. 1 Group, it is said that most of the elders of the group objected to its use. Under those circumstances, Papa Yamoah left the Group and formed the fourth group with the support of his very good friends like Opanyin Paintsil, Onso Mitchwel and Acheampong.
The group was named the Red Cross because Papa Paintsil travelled a lot by M.V. Benjamin, which hoisted a white flag with a red cross. To link this to the ship, the group added an anchor to the design of their flag. The Red Cross was therefore the first of the masquerade groups to use brass band music in Winneba. Since the formation of the fourth and final group, Winneba has had four masquerade groups and have remained traditionally the only four masquerade groups recognised in Winneba to date. It is customary that during Christmas, all four groups campaign through the town, especially to the homes of their ardent supporters and patrons to solicit for funds for their activities, particularly making of costumes and fees for the hiring of brass band group for the competition. This also serves to entertain the public during the Christmas holidays. The specific days used are the 25th and 26th days of December. Where the 25th day occurs on Thursday, Saturday 27th December is also added. After the competition on 1st January, the groups also go out on 2nd January to show their costume and dance forms used during the competition to the public.
An exciting part of this masquerade campaign is the special evening performances at the “Nkwantanan” junction. The four groups converge at the road intersection at the old market around 5.00pm after a day’s performance through town. The groups entertain the gathering with brass band music and dance for some time before departing to their various bases. Each group comes in and leaves through their allotted routes to avoid squabbles associated with masquerading. Brass band is the main source of music for masquerading in Winneba; over the years they have come up with distinctive dance patterns. Most important feature is the performance by the stilt walkers. The height of the stilt depends on age and experience. The shortest could measure up to six feet. They provide special displays that give glamour to the whole event.
The masquerade performance organised as part of the celebrations for the 1957 Independence activities resulted in the institution of an annual competition. This was the result of public appreciation and support for the excellent organisational work of the Entertainment Committee of the Urban Council. Key persons involved and worthy of mention were Messrs J W Impraim and Henry Acquah Mills-Robertson and the co-opted representatives from the four groups. The first ever Organising Committee for the Masquerade Competition was formed and the first competition was held on January 1, 1958 at the then Major Humphreys Park. The expatriate personnel of the U T C Motors then resident in Winneba officiated as judges for the competition. The patronage was great and this saw the growth and development of the masquerade festival we have today.
From the very early hours of that day, members of the groups don their costumes and assemble at the meeting grounds of their respective groups. The donning of these costumes, in most cases, requires assistance depending on the design and therefore a number of them go to their meeting grounds in order to be assisted. When all are gathered, the group parade through the principal streets on the way to the competition grounds. The competition is usually billed to start around noon and lasts till the last dance form is done and results announced followed by awards of trophies and certificates. The groups then march out through their allotted routes to the Nkwantanan market junction for a brief display before proceeding to their respective bases.
Winners of the various dance forms, costume and marching are declared and an overall winner at the end of the competition, each with cash prizes and trophies. Though originally an all adult men’s affair, today much younger boys and girls participate. In their expensive costume, it is at times difficult to differentiate between the boys and the girls. The outfit of the groups in Winneba is distinctively marvellous and outstanding in Ghana. A typical masquerade costume includes a hat, the main dress, the mask, wig, cape or jacket, depose, singlet trousers, shoes and gloves. Costumes may be designed to represent nurses, cow boy/girl, police officers, among many others to add a touch of every practical aspect of life in their presentations during the annual competition.
The masquerade groups are coordinated by a Federation consisting of three representatives from each group with co-opted members that regulate activities of the groups as well as organize the annual festival/competition.