The Songye are said to be descended from the mythical ancestor, Kongolo. The Songye came either from the lakes in Shaba, or from the northeast. They suffered continual intertribal wars, and invasions by people such as the Luba have led to the development of different social structures among the eastern and western Songye.
Zaire (Republic of Congo)
The Songye worship the creator, Efile. Sacrifices were made to souls of ancestors and to the spirits, who reside in natural elements such as trees. Bukishi, or magic, gave rise to initiation systems, of which the Bwadi Ka bifwebe masking system formed a part. The Bwadi Ka bifwebe society functioned as an aid in the exercise of economic power by the ruling elite, and was said to invoke witchcraft or Buchi and magic or masende to this end.
The Songye economy was traditionally based on the farming of manioc, maize and millet, and the raising of goats and chickens. Hunting was reserved for the chief, and smithing and weaving was done by men, while the potters were female. Trading of these goods took place with neighbouring tribes, particularly the Luba.
The Songye were divided into about 35 groups or subgroups. The aristocratic core, from the North, was organised around a supreme chief, the Yakitenge, who ruled with the help of his advisors, the Twite. The large chiefdoms developed cities, spread over large areas, the largest being Kabinda and Pania Mutomba. The society was patriarchal and patrilinear.
The Songye have produced a great variety of statues, masks, panels and artifacts such as axes, weaving shuttles, bellows, and relatively few stools and neckrests. Their art style is expressionistic and detailed.
The Kifwebe masking tradition of the Bwadi Ka bifwebe society has become well known throughout the art world. It is associated with striated wooden facial masks, carved in great detail and coloured in red, white and black.
Female masks are coloured primarily with white pigment, although sometimes the eyes and mouth are accentuated with black and red. Male masks are striated with red, white and black, and, although they bear all three colours, red is the most predominant. Male masks have an upstanding comb, extending over the head into the shape of the nose. The size of the comb or crest relates directly to the power of the being represented.