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Òkè Ìbàdàn

24 Mar

I apologize for the lack of entries. I attribute my decrease in correspondence to a combination of culture shock, heat, preoccupation with school work, and a slight loss of inspiration. For quite awhile after I arrived in Nigeria I was constantly mesmerized by new and shocking things I saw. Now hardly anything surprises me. I do, however find my self thinking, “wow the western world is so boring,” from time to time. There is never a dull moment in Nigeria that’s for sure. Although things rarely go as planned and are almost never on time, it is definitely always an adventure.

A good example of this is the first traditional cultural festival I have attended in Nigeria, the Òkè Ìbàdàn festival which occurred last week Wednesday. The origins of the festival go back to the 1800s during the Yoruba civil wars after the fall of the great Old Oyo Empire. One particularly noteworthy war took place between the towns of Ibadan and Ijaye from 1860-1865. During the war, when enemies would begin to charge the city of Ibadan, all of the people of the town would run up the highest hill in the town (the center of Ibadan is quite topographic) to take cover. Due to the fact that this was typically done in an emergency situation, there was no adequate time to prepare food for the stay. Sometimes the stay on top of the hill (in Yoruba òkè) lasted for over a week. Mangoes, oranges, and whatever else could be found in season on the trees at the top of the hill was what the entire town was forced to survive on. When the danger was gone and the citizens finally returned to their homes, they had a big feast to replenish themselves and celebrate. Men and women also began to copulate as they were unable to do so in the crowd of people for such a long time. Often times, due to lack of nutrition, their bodies didn’t respond properly so people went to visit babalawo’s (traditional herbalists/priests) to fix their problem. For this reason, the Òkè Ìbàdàn festival is characterized by heavy eating, drinking, fàájì (enjoyment), and singing songs about ojú ara (private parts). It is celebrated once a year in Beere, a neighborhood on top of a hill in the center of Ibadan-one of the oldest parts of the city.

I had heard a lot about the history of the festival before I arrived. For some reason I was expecting showy dances and musical performances. When I arrived around 4pm, I was instantly swarmed by a crowd of 10 people yanking and tugging at me asking for money. Some of them were desperately trying to please me by doing everything from playing bata drums to fanning me with a piece of paper the size of a post-it note. I gave two bata drummers who I was previously acquainted with 200 naira each and as soon as I dug the first bill out of my pocket an old lady screaming behind me grabbed it and it started to rip. I pushed her back and made sure it got to the person I wanted. After five minutes, it was evident that the chaos would not let up as long as I was there. Musibau, my bata teacher took me by the hand and led me down the hill into the “agbolé” (compound, a seemingly endless network of one story simple and ancient cement buildings tightly packed onto of a red-brown dirt on the hillside with the occasional water well in between). We sat under an awning of someone’s house he knew and within five minutes the entire crowd had found us and was screaming, those who got money were demeaning more and those who didn’t get any were demeaning something. Speaking Yoruba to them was mildly amusing and got some of them to go away. The stubborn ones didn’t respond to Musibau’s initial requests that eventually turned into insults. After a few more minutes, we started to hear a lot of commotion from the hilltop-a mere 25 yards away. People came running down claiming there were gunshots on the hill. A group of politicians was driving around campaigning in the typical style of a motorcade of old vans driving recklessly, blasting music through a crappy speaker system turned up way too loud powered by a generator, and hanging out of the vans with machetes, guns, and in this case brooms. We didn’t hear any gunshots but decided to leave just in case. We descended further into the agbolé until we reached the bottom of the hill and took cover in a dive bar for a while.

We returned around 7pm once it had gotten dark out and less people would quickly notice me. Things were a lot more tame. The festival itself looked like any other Nigerian outdoor party whether it be a wedding, funeral, or birthday party. The standard issue event tent, plastic chairs, plastic tables, rice and amala, and a highlife band filled the streets of Beere. We took a seat, ate and enjoyed the company of àwon elésin ìbíle (those who practice traditional religion). The traditional worshippers sat at tables and were grouped by which orísa (deity) they worship. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy observations I had was all of the women who were worshipping the deity Yemoja had goatee beards thicker than mine. Musibau took me around to greet everyone he knew and we also played bata drums for everyone. All and all I had a good time but it wasn’t quite the learning experience I expected it to be. I am going to Osogbo this weekend for another festival so maybe that will turn out to be more exciting.

Unfortunately, due to the chaos, I didn’t take my camera out before it got dark out and I only managed to take one picture:

various fàájì provisions old market women were selling all over the place

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Recent adventures in drumming

16 Nov

One of my biggest personal goals in coming to Nigeria, especially as a percussionist, is to immerse myself in traditional music and drumming.

My teacher Musibau and his wife at their home in Yemetu

Thankfully, I’m off to a pretty good start. Since the first month I’ve arrived, I’ve been learning the talking drum from my friend Emmanuel. Recently, I’ve also begun learning bata drums from a teacher I met at the Oyo State Cultural Center named Taiwo Musiaubata. Musibata (his shortened name) has travelled all over the world (Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, England, France, and India) to teach bata drumming. His father and grandfather were both bata drummers. Traditionally, in Yoruba culture, children inherit work from their parents and start an apprenticeship with them when they are in their early teen years.

After taking drum lessons for close to ten years in America, the differences in the music, learning, and teaching styles have been really intriguing to me.

Plaing Iyalu for the king of old Oyo empire

Days when culture shock is getting the better of me and I’m feeling down, practicing my drum makes me feel completely rejuvenated. The fact that music is truly a universal language that the entire world understands (some more so and in different ways than others) has been extremely powerful and uplifting since my arrival.

I’ll quickly explain the two main families of Yoruba drums: the talking drums and bata drums. Each family is comprised of a set of three drums. My goal is to have a good understanding of all six before I leave, and be able to play somewhat competently. Talking drums are made out of a special type of tree (I only know the Yoruba word, sorry). The skin is made from cow or horse skin.

me playing an "iyalu" talking drum outside the King of Oyo's palace

Cow skin is also used to make the strings that run up and down the side. The drum is played with a stick/beater called an “òpá” and the pitch of the drum is constantly changed by squeezing the strings on the side of the drum, thus tightening the tension of the head. The talking drum and Yoruba language are inseparable. Due to the fact that Yoruba is a tonal language, the drum is literally used to speak. Prayers and proverbs are so well-known that whenever I play for a Yoruba person, they repeat the sentence I’m using the drum to say using words, even though the drum uses tones instead of words. The talking drum is a whole other medium of communication. It is impossible to learn the talking drum without an extensive background in Yoruba language The talking drum is made up of three distinct drums: the omele, the gángan, ati the ìyálù (translation-mother drum), in order from smallest to largest.

the various talking drums

The omele drum usually plays a repetitive pattern to keep time (similar to a cascara pattern in Cuban Rumba music). The gángan and ìyálu drums are used to literally speak over the omele pattern in a traditional ensemble. The gángan is played by squeezing your entire arm around the drum. The ìyálu, which is very large, is only played with your hands. One hand beats the drum and the other grabs usually four strings to change the tension. Ìyálu drums also traditionally have sets of bells on the front and back. The bata family resembles the talking drum family in the sense that there are three drums: omele bàtá, omelet LOOK UP, and the ìyálu (sometimes called bàbálu, or father drum), in order from smallest to largest. Omele bata drums (the smallest, group of three) are usually beat with flimsy sticks made of dried cow skin. The larger drums are beat with one stick on the small head and beat with a hand on the larger head. The video below explains in more details.

So far I’ve had the opportunity to buy an omelet bata drum and a gangan drum.

Jiroma, who made my talking drum

Both drums were custom-made by hand.They sound great and I’m really happy with them so far. I also have been fortunate enough to have two great teachers. Hopefully within due time I’ll become a true “àyàn” (drummer). I taped my first bata lesson and made a video (see below). Hope you enjoy!

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