Talking drums in West Africa imitate the rhythm and melody of language. Yorùbá in South Western Nigeria and Ashanti-Twi in Ghana, for example, are tonal languages. In a tonal language, the pitch of a syllable in a word changes its meaning, even if the pronunciation otherwise is the same.
language uses three pitches, which are indicated by diacritical signs on the
respective vowels in the written language; dò
is the lowest, re the middle, and mí the highest pitch. Thus, the vowel
“a” can have three pitches: à, a and á. Depending on the pitch, a word can have
entirely different meanings. Bàtà (both vowels spoken in a deep pitch, dò dò) means “shoe”, while bàtá (the
first vowel spoken in a deep, the second in a high pitch, dò mí) is a type of drum.
The bàtádrums of the Yorùbá imitate the pitch
and rhythm of speech to cite proverbs, praise dignitaries or convey messages. These
drums have two heads. The larger head is hit with the palm of the right hand
and produces a low tone. The smaller head is played with a leather or plastic
batter and produces a piercing high tone that contrasts with the bass of the
fact that the Yorùbá language uses three pitches, the setup of the bàtá drum
with only two heads makes it difficult to imitate speech. Therefore, drummers
use different hand techniques such as open, mute and slap, or beat both drum
heads simultaneously to produce different pitches.
times, a new combination of smaller omele drums in a set of three (called omele
mẹ́ta) has been introduced, which allows for easier imitation of the three
tones of spoken Yorùbá. In the video above, bàtá drummers Kolajo Mufutau Ayinde
and Onaolapo Morufu Ayangbeni from Ibadan demonstrate how to use the omele mẹ́ta
to play a counting rhyme.
Ení bí Ení
One like one
Èjì bí Èjì
Two like two
Ẹ̀ta n tà agbá
Three to make the sale
Four wore and hung the words
Àrún n gùn ódó
Five for mortar pounding
Èfà ti èlè
Six of èlè
Bí róhun bí ro
If you see something, see something
The melody of bàtá
I hear the ninth one
Ten is in the open
are used to teach bàtá drum students how to get their instrument to speak.
In Ghana, too, many languages are tonal and can be imitated on drums. The Atumpan drums of the Ashanti are played in pairs and can emulate the tonality of spoken Ashanti. In a drum ensemble, Atumpans are usually accompanied by smaller drums. The smaller Apentemma and Petia drums and bells such as Dawuro provide steady and interlocking rhythms. The drummer playing the Atumpan usually takes on the role of the master drummer. He leads the other drummers and, once the ensemble is in sync, drums out praises and proverbs on his drums, or improvises and gives instructions to the dancers.
drumming, singing and dancing tradition of the Yorùbá has been described as one
of the most prominent markers of pan-Yorùbá culture. Bàtá drummers’ skills are closely
associated with the old Yorùbá religion of Òrìṣà
worship. In religious rites bàtá drummers recite the biographies and histories
of the Òrìṣà and direct prayers to them.
According to Nigerian musicologist Ademola
Adegbite, each of the more than one thousand Òrìṣàs
has her or his specific rhythm, praise songs and dances. These repertoires are practiced and preserved in families who
specialise in the art of bàtá music. Within such families, drumming skills are
passed on to male descendants, while females learn the songs and dances of the
Lamidi Ayankunle (1949 – 2018) was a bàtá drummer from Ẹ̀rin-Ọ̀sun in South Western Nigeria. His extended family is respected as an important lineage of drummers and musicians who safeguard and further develop the musical and spiritual culture of the bàtá drums. The American anthropologist Debra Klein has worked with Lamidi Ayankunle and his family since the 1990s. She asserts that the Ayankunle family exemplifies how the bàtá tradition has been reinvented from generation to generation.
Around the time of Nigerian independence, Lamidi Ayankunle and other
drummers of his generation could establish themselves as “traditional” bàtá
drummers. Whilst self-identifying as Muslims, they practice and teach the
musical and rhythmic repertoires of the bàtá and view themselves as proponents
of the “classical” tradition which they aim to preserve for future generations.
In the 1980s, during the military dictatorships of Muhammadu Buhari and
Ibrahim Babangida, Lamidi Ayankunle was able to travel and to forge networks
with musicians in the US and Europe, thus establishing himself as a traditional
bàtá drummer on the newly developing “World Music” scene. He also taught at the
Department for Performing Arts at Nigeria’s University of Ifè and became an
expert on Yorùbá culture, collaborating with numerous international researchers.
The bàtá repertoires considered as “traditional” comprise numerous modes
of speech. Drummers such as Lamidi Ayankunle can recite oríkì praise
songs, greetings and prayers, or make provocative comments on their drums. Oríkì commemorate those individuals,
events and actions that a community considers important. They can be dedicated
to important personalities in a community as well as to inanimate things,
specific places and cities and, of course, to Òrìṣà and other ancestors. In that way,
bàtá drummers are custodians of oral histories, biographies and narratives.
Bàtá drums are played in ensembles
that are conceptualized as families. The biggest drum in the ensemble is the “mother
drum” Ìyá Ìlù. It is accompanied by the ẹ̀jìn, a similar-sized drum that
provides a deep and regular grounding sound. The Èjìn can also switch roles
with the Ìyá Ìlù to allow the master drummer to rest. The omele abo is considered a female
supporting drum. It holds conversations with the Ìyá Ìlù, playing cross rhythms
or duplicating pitches to support speech phrases. Omele akọ, the male
supporting drum, and omele kúdí, the “child’s voice” in an ensemble, often
provide steady patterns and ostinatos that drive the music forward.
A skilled bàtá drummer plays a range
of speech forms on the drum: oríkì praise songs, signals, greetings, prayers,
and provocative commentary. In an oríkì, histories and biographies are recited,
important events in a person’s or community’s life commemorated, and the
specific characteristics of a person, place or deity are recalled. In this way,
bàtá drummers are custodians of the histories, biographies and narratives that a
given community deems worth preserving.
The worship of Òrìṣà has generally been declining in Nigeria over the past decades.
Under the influence of Islam and Christianity, bàtá drummers have had to
constantly reassert the relevance of their skills and update their repertoires
to respond to the changing situation. Almost all bàtá drummers today identify as Muslims and their musical
practices are influenced often by Islam. Most
contemporary drummers earn a living by performing at secular events of Muslims
and Christians alike, such as naming ceremonies, weddings or funerals. Formerly
sacred repertoires of rhythms and speech modes for the worship of Òrìṣà are
increasingly peripheral in today’s drummers’ performances.
Debra Klein has described the generation of Lamidi Ayankunle’s children
as the “bàtá fújì generation”. Growing up in the 1980s during two military
dictatorships, they constantly had to reassert the relevance of their bàtá
skills. They had less opportunity to travel and to establish themselves as bàtá
drummers abroad than their parents’ generation. Although they have managed to
establish the bàtá as an integral part of many secular festivities, they have
to compete with dùndún drummers for patronage at such events. The
hourglass-shaped dùndún is a widespread talking drum that is also played at
social events to praise guests and to recite poetry and prayers. But, since the
dùndún is not associated with Òrìṣà worship, it is more popular with Christians
and Muslims, who often regard the old Òrìṣà religion as being backward. In
addition, the dùndún’s speech modes are easier for audiences to understand.
In many urban centres, such as the metropolises of Lagos and Ibadan,
bàtá drummers have joined musical bands playing popular music such as Fújì, Jùjú,
Highlife or Afrobeat. In this way, some bàtá drummers have found income
opportunities outside of “traditional” settings.
In recent decades, a new audience interested
in the bàtá has emerged in the transatlantic African diaspora. Since their
abduction to the so-called “new world”, Africans in Latin America and the
Caribbean have developed religious practices with strong ties to the worship of
Òrìṣàs. In Candomblé in Brazil or Santéria in Cuba,
drum rhythms, songs and dances of Yorùbá origin are combined with Christian and
indigenous American religious practices.
Since the 1990 many practitioners in
Latin America, the US and the Caribbean have shown an increased interest in the
“authentic” West African roots of their belief systems. Some religious
communities are seeking to revitalize their African heritage by tapping into the
sources of Yorùbá culture in Nigeria. The emerging transatlantic exchange
between Òrìṣà priests and worshippers in the diaspora and in Nigeria has
revived some aspects of Òrìṣà worship in Nigeria as well.
The end of military rule in Nigeria in the late 1990s opened up opportunities for artists and musicians to work for, and with, state and local government institutions. Today, some democratically elected leaders are increasingly drawing upon their cultural resources to communicate with their people. Some state officials have even hired bàtá drummers as members of their travelling troupe of traditional performers to announce their arrival and sing their praises, as they do for traditional kings and chiefs. This has led to an increased public visibility, relevance and respect for bàtá drummers in some parts of Nigeria.
Klein, D. (2007). Yorùbá Bátà goes global: Artist, cultural brokers, and fans. Chicago, London, University of Chicago Press.
Klein, D. (2011). Lamidi Ayankunle. Dictionary of African Biography. H. L. J. Gates and E. K. Akyeampong. New York, Oxford University Press.
Omojola, B. (2012). Yorùbá music in the twentieth century. Identity, agency, and performance practice. Rochester, University of Rochester Press.
Villepastour, A. (2010). Ancient text messages of the Yoruba bata drum. London, New York, Routledge.
Villepastour, A. (2015). Asoro Igi (Wood that talks). The Yoruba god of drumming. Transatlantic perspectives on the wood that talks. A. Villepastour. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi: 3-32.
The name of
the dùndún itself spells out the sound of the drum; in the tonal Yorùbá
language, the first syllable “dùn” is pronounced in a low tone, the second
syllable “dún” with a high tone. Dùndún. The hourglass-shaped drum plays not
only rhythms, but also melodies. Dùndún drummers imitate the melody of human
speech on their instrument. In this way, they recite praise poetry and prayers
or make comments on the proceedings of a festive event.
drum is part of a larger category of talking drums that is widespread in
Western Africa from Senegal to Cameroon. It was introduced to the south of
Nigeria together with Islam by the Hausa from the north. In some Yorùbá origin
myths the dùndún is called the “drum from Mekka” and thus associated with Arabic
Unlike the bàtá drum, the dùndún is
not rooted in the worship of Òrìṣàs that many Muslims and Christians today
regard as backward. As their instrument is not associated with un-Islamic or un-Christian
practices, dùndún drummers are more often invited to play at wedding
ceremonies, child-naming and house-warming festivities, and at Islamic
festivals such as Eid-el Kebir and Eid-el Fitr, than their bàtá colleagues.
authorities and some politicians have their own personal dùndún ensembles. At
public events these praise their status and deeds by reciting their oríkì on
their drums and thus helping them to attract attention. Successful dùndún
drummers know the notables of a city or entire region. They know their family
lineages and histories as well as important events in their biographies. In
order to be able to earn money, it is crucial that they keep their knowledge on
important societal events and dignitaries up to date. This knowledge allows
them to appear at public events, often uninvited, to earn some money by playing
the oríkìs of the present notables on their drums.
communities where the annual festivals of Òrìṣàs are still celebrated, the
characteristic rhythms and oríkìs of the deities are nowadays often played by
dùndún drummers. Even though the dùndún is not clearly associated with the
religion of Òrìṣà worship, the talking drum in many cases has replaced the
older Ìgbìn drum ensembles that used to perform for the Òrìṣàs in former times.
drummers can imitate human speech more easily on their instrument than bàtá
drummers. The two heads of the drum are connected through leather strips. If
the drummer manipulates the leather strips while beating on the head with a
flared stick, they can change the pitch of the drum and even create glissandi,
which also occur in spoken Yorùbá. The two fixed pitches of the bàtá drum, on
the other hand, requires great skill from a drummer to imitate the three tones
of spoken Yorùbá. A dùndún drummer can play a wide range of tones with a
uniform, open sound, which makes it much easier for a listener to understand
the recited oríkì, proverbs and prayers.
“Yorùbá” encompasses a number of ethnic groups in the south west of Nigeria and
in the neighbouring republics of Benin and Togo. Around 40 million people speak
a variant of the Yorùbá language. The cultures and dialects subsumed under the
term Yorùbá are rooted in the ninth century kingdom of Ilé-Ifẹ̀. Since then,
many local variations of Yorùbá culture have developed. Before the advent of
Islam in the fourteenth and Christianity in the nineteenth century, the
religious practices of the Yorùbá were diverse as well. What is described here
as the “traditional Yorùbá religion” of Òrìṣà worship is in
fact a spectrum of local religious complexes. They varied from town to town but
nevertheless had some common points of reference.
Òrìṣà represent natural forces and deified
personalities. The mythological founder of the Yorùbá, Odùduwà, who descended
from heaven to the city of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ is worshipped as an Òrìṣà. So, too, is Ṣángò,
the third king of the Ọ̀yọ́ kingdom, a powerful ruler in the fifteenth century.
Posthumously deified and worshipped, Ṣángò became an Òrìṣà associated with
thunder and lightning. Other important deities are the god of creation Ọ́bàtálá,
the goddess of the sea Yemọja, the river goddess and wife of Ṣángò, Ọya, the
god of war and metals Ògún and the god of twins Ìbejì.
Spiritual practices of Òrìṣà worship include
communication with the deities through divination, prayer and sacrifice.
Sacrifices are offered when individuals seek oracular advice, during the annual
festivals of particular Òrìṣàs, or on occasions when exceptional sacrifices are
felt to be necessary to appease an Òrìṣà.
According to Nigerian scholar Ademola Adegbite, nearly
every Òrìṣà has their own special drum ensemble with their respective
repertoires of rhythms, songs and dance. Drums therefore often play a central
function in the worship of an Òrìṣà. Apart from accompanying songs and chants,
drums also provide the medium through which the worshippers communicate with
the Òrìṣà. Musical practices can trigger spirit possessions when the Òrìṣà
temporarily communicates with humans through a possessed devotee.
In past times, the class of drums associated with Òrìṣà
worship were the ìgbìn drums, single-headed, fixed pitch pedestal drums. Highly
decorated ìgbìn drums were used for the worship of individual Òrìṣà in their
respective shrines and during their annual festivals.
That many ethnographic museum collections in Europe
and the US today only have single ìgbìn drums in their collections belies the
fact that these drums were originally played in ensembles. Just like drummers
in bàtá and dùndún ensembles, ìgbìn drummers played interlocking rhythms on
their differently tuned instruments to create layered and complex drum music.
One reason why only individual drums have been collected may be that “retired”
drums were sold off to foreigners when the dùndún gradually took over the role
of the ìgbìn drums in the declining religious practices of Òrìṣà worship. The
actual complexity of ìgbìn drum music, however, can hardly be appreciated or reconstructed
with just the individual drums in collections.
Many drummers worship the mythical first drummer Àyàn
Àgalú as an Òrìṣà. He is remembered as the first drum maker and drummer in the
service of Ṣàngò, while he was king of the Ọ̀yọ́ in the fifteenth century. Àyàn is
the ancestor to all drummers, and drummers who were born into traditional
drumming families reflect their devotion to Àyàn Àgalú in their names, which all
begin with the prefix “Àyàn-“ (pronounced “anyo”). The material artefact
identifying Àyàn is the drum itself, and his worship is aural and performative.
Thus, drumming is both a form of worship and a way of facilitating the worship
of others, and musical expertise equals ritual expertise.
With the growing dominance of Islam and Christianity in
Nigeria since in the nineteenth century, many practices of Òrìṣà worship have
lost their importance. Many Muslims and Christians view them as inappropriate or
even backward. For many people of African descent in the diaspora outside the
continent, such as in Cuba or Brazil, the worship of Òrìṣà is an important way
of asserting their African identity. Here, many elements from Yorùbá religious
cultures have undergone transformations and have been merged with Christian and
local religious practices and symbolisms. In the religious practices of
Brazilian Candomblé and Cuban Santéria, drums also play an important role.
Adegbite, A. (1988). “The drum and its role in Yorùbá religion.” Journal of Religion in Africa 18(1): 15-26.
De Silva, T. (2006). Symbols and ritual. The socio-religious role of the Igbin drum family. Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland. Master’s Thesis.
Ojo, O. (2009). “‘Heepa’ (Hail) Orisa. The Orisa factor in the birth of Yorùbá identity.” Journal of Religion in Africa 39(1): 30-59.
Peel, J. D. Y. (2016). Christianity, Islam, and Orisa religion. Three traditions in comparison and interaction. Oakland, California, University of California Press.
Villepastour, A. (2009). “Two heads of the same drum. Musical narratives within a transatlantic religion.” Journal of Transatlantic Studies 7(3): 343-362.
Villepastour, A. (2015). Asoro Igi (Wood that talks). The Yorùbá god of drumming. Transatlantic perspectives on the wood that talks. A. Villepastour. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi: 3-32.
in the Americas and the Caribbean trace their ancestry to West Africa. Although
in West Africa so-called traditional religions such as the Yorùbá worship of Òrìṣà
have declined considerably under the influence of Islam and Christianity, religions
derived from West African cosmologies are predominant in the transatlantic
diaspora. Here ritual
practices in honour of Yorùbá
Òrìṣà have been blended with
diverse indigenous and Christian belief systems. While nurturing a diasporic
consciousness in a tribute to their African ancestry, American and Caribbean Orixá
religious traditions have, over
the years, transcended racial markers to accommodate just about anyone who wishes
to subscribe to its beliefs.
From the early
1500s, slave ships from Africa adorned with the flags of Portugal began to
arrive in the first slave port in the Americas, Salvador da Bahia, the first
capital city in a North-Eastern state of Brazil. In the nineteenth century, Yorùbáland became one of the major
slave-exporting regions in Africa. This enforced migration was the first phase
of transferring different forms of African religions – of which the Yorùbá Òrìṣà was
prominent – to other regions of the world. Following the abolition of the slave
trade in the 1900s, the voyages undertaken by freed slaves as well as other
Africans between Bahia and the West African port city of Lagos resulted in the transmigration
of more Yorùbá-speaking people to Brazil. Through this transatlantic experience a
Yorùbá identity emerged in Brazil that also appealed to many people who did
not originally come from a Yorùbá heritage, but who subscribed to the Brazilian
Yorùbá religious identity through conversion.
Through forced migration religious
practices based on Yorùbá cosmologic beliefs developed not
only in Brazil but across the Americas. The worship of Orixás emerged in almost
every region where Yorùbá-speaking slaves were transported. Regional examples can be found in the Candomblé and
Umbanda religions of Brazil, Santéria in Cuba or Vodou
in Haiti, which derives from doctrines of Dahomey (located in the present-day
Republic of Benin).
African genus in the Americas and the Caribbean are territorially varied. What
many of them have in common, however, are similar sacred rites, dogmas, ritual
lingua and even reverence of the same gods, spelled and pronounced with slight
phonological differences that disclose a shared ancestry. Central to many of
them is the belief in Olódùmarè as the supreme deity, assisted by intermediary
deities called Orixás. That is also the case for Candomblé practitioners, known as povo
do santo (people of the saint). Orixás are believed to be affiliated to specific
elements of nature, who come to earth where they possess humans in a trance. At the same time,
the Orixás are characterized by emotions that bring them closer to human
beings. Orixás feel indignation, envy, they love excessively and are also
passionate. Each Orixá also has a specific symbolic classification composed of
colours, food, songs, prayers, locations, physical spaces and schedules. In addition to
the veneration of anthropomorphic deities, the Yorùbá ritual ceremonies
comprise spirit possession via music and dance, blood sacrifices and healing. Sacred drumming and
dancing are integral parts of Candomblé rituals.
In Brazilian Candomblé, the effort to retain religious practices under indigenous
configurations has led to the development of different sects (referred to as
naçãos). The Ketu faction,
named after one of the Yorùbá’s
ancient capitals in today’s Republic of Benin, is
the largest, followed by Jejé and Bantu. Following the introduction of a Civil
Code in 1890, the practice of
Candomblé was demonised and severely prosecuted by the
Catholic Church and practitioners encountered police repression as the
authorities described the practice of Candomblé as black magic, sorcery and generally
a menace to Brazilian society.
Its survival was partly by virtue of the persistence of worshipping Òrìxàs in
the guise of Catholic saints. For a purely oral religious practice with no
liturgical scripts, Candomblé is remarkably enduring, transcending its ancestral
markers to become one of Brazil’s most popular religions.
In Candomblé practices, drums are dominant and highly revered instruments. Moreover, outside the confines of African-extracted religious traditions, drums have permeated genres of Brazilian lifestyles and music into components that have become distinctively Brazilian. Candomblé and Capoeira – a fusion of martial arts drumming and music with origins in Angola – are said to be amongst the precursors of African drumming in Brazil. A progressive adoption of African elements into Brazilian music began from the beginning of the twentieth century with genres like Samba, Choro, Maracatu and Baião. Today, they have been further developed into sub-genres such as Sambalanço (a fusion of Samba and funk), Manguebeat (a fusion of Maracatu and rock) and Axé (samba reggae). Regardless of the variation, the idiosyncratic reverberation of drums in each cannot be missed.
Within both ritual and non-ritual settings, African drumming in Brazil is
associated with bodily movements in dance. In the ritual ceremonies of Candomblé,
dance can lead to a state of trance. Ritual songs and dances in Candomblé are
governed by the sound of drums from a set of three sacred drums known as the atabaqués,
made of wood and iron hoops that support the stretched drum skin. The skin is
derived from the animals sacrificed in the offerings to the Orixás. The rum is
the largest of the three and has the lowest tone, followed by the medium-sized rumpiand
and the smaller le, which has the highest tone. The sound of a bi-tonal bell
called an agogô or gã often accompanies the atabaqué, as well as other
instruments such as the piano de cuia (called xekeré in Bahia), a gourd rattle
covered with a net of cowries, or beads which are more commonly used today.
To become charged with ritual powers, these conical drums undergo a
ritual induction that has to be renewed every year, through offerings for the
sustenance of their spiritual power. As sacred instruments, the atabaqués are said
to be consecrated with healing powers assigned by Orixás. Along with
polyrhythmic music and call-and-response chants honouring an Orixá in Yoruba
language, the drumming produces a hypnotic state, in which the performer is
possessed by an Orixá in an ecstatic encounter. One of the fundamental tenets
of Candomblé is the deep-seated belief in the Axé – a spiritual force that
controls the contingencies of everyday existence. For the faithful, music is
the manifestation of Axé that guides the worshipper’s movements towards a
corporeal take-over by the Orixás.
According to their status as ritual agents, atabaqués are not considered
as merely inanimate objects. They have set obligations just like people, each
set of atabaqué representing a specific Orixá. The rituals are equivalent to
those performed by followers of the Orixá, to which the drums are consecrated. They
are dressed and undressed, gendered as either male or female, they can be
unhappy or cheerful and even get hungry.
Uninitiated adherents of Candomblé or visitors are not allowed to play,
or even touch the atabaqués. They may only be played by consecrated drummers,
called alagbês or ogân, who are also responsible for the sustenance and
preservation of the sacred drums. On feast days, the ogân must undertake a
purification process before touching their atabaqués by bathing them with
specific sacred herbs. They must also adhere to certain food restrictions and
abstain from alcoholic beverages. On days when rituals ceremonies are not held;
the Atabaqué are covered with white fabric or a colour dedicated to the Orixá
to whom the drum belongs, symbolizing respect. And when the Atabaqués need to be taken out
of the temple, the terreiro, for maintenance, the ogân has to take them to the
altar in order to perform rituals to prepare them for their removal.
Outside of ritual settings, the Rum, Rumpi and Le serve as inspiration for the name and music of Okestra Rumpilezz. The orchestra was created in 2006 by Letieres Leite, a composer and arranger from Salvador, Bahia who fuses scores for Atabaqués with jazz. The orchestra has always been vocal about their connection to the ideals of Candomblé.
Cohen, Peter F. “Orisha Journeys: The Role of Travel in the Birth of Yorùbá-Atlantic Religions.” Archives de Sciences Sociales Des Religions, no. 117 (January 1, 2002): 17–36.
Henry, Clarence Bernard. Let’s Make Some Noise: Axé and the African Roots of Brazilian Popular Music. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.
Merrell, Floyd. Capoeira and Candomblé: Conformity and Resistance in Brazil. Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005.
Sterling. “Women-Space, Power, and the Sacred in Afro-Brazilian Culture.” The Global South 4, no. 1 (2010): 71.
 A taxi driver I rode with called Eduardo, who happened
to be an Ogân, said that atabaqués
are also tied in white bows, which is not for purely aesthetic reasons. It is because,
as spirit-filled entities, the spirits need to be contained.
For more than a century, urban music in West Africa has been shaped by a
continuous cultural exchange with Europe and the Americas, particularly caused
by the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. Yet the region, if not the
continent at large, is still strongly associated by many outside of Africa with
a notion of authentic traditions –
particularly when it comes to music. But, as this section will demonstrate,
tradition is not static – it is invented, interpreted and reinvented continuously,
and making up new styles and sounds is vital for keeping musical traditions
Lagos, the Nigerian megalopolis inhabited by around 15 million people, is one of the places where tradition and innovation have always gone hand in hand, and its popular music scenes are a prime example of this, like highlife, the dominant style of the 1950s and 1960s. It is difficult to define highlife solely as a music genre, as it was described by its contemporaries rather as a lifestyle, a popular culture involving music, dance and fashion. Highlife musicians were known for their cosmopolitanism, travelling frequently between Lagos, Accra and London. The exchange between Lagos and Accra in particular was vital for highlife and other genres that have developed up until the present day. A great example is the song “Bonsue”, which has been released in different versions by various musicians, over several decades, such as Joe Mensah in Ghana and Victor Olaya in Nigeria.
In London, highlife musicians from Lagos met other African and
Afro-Caribbean musicians and imported, among others, “Latin” instruments like bongos,
congas and maracas, which defined the sound of 1950s’ highlife, or the electric
guitar, which became important during the 1960s. Due to its multitude of
influences, highlife was associated with modernity and freedom and thus became
the soundtrack to Nigerian independence in 1960.
But the political relevance of music peaked about a decade later, when
Fela Anikulapo Kuti invented the afrobeat. Born to a middle class family in
Abeokuta, which is in the close north of Lagos, he studied music in London and
was the leader of a highlife band in the 1960s. But his music changed after a
trip to Ghana in 1967, and another one to the United States in 1969. Upon
return, he changed the name of his band from Koola Lobitos to Afrika 70
and their sound became drastically altered, infused with elements from funk and
jazz, which was a major innovation. But the creation of afrobeat was about more
than sound. In his nightclub, the Afrika
Shrine, Fela worshipped the Òrìṣà of the Yorùbá pantheon, played music, and
decried political and religious leaders on the same stage. Kuti declared his
private house, where he resided with up to 27 wives and an entourage of
musicians, political activists and opponents of the Nigerian establishment an
independent state, the Kalakuta Republic. Afrobeat was an amalgam of musical
innovation, religious neotraditionalism and a political vision for the whole
Despite its international recognition, the most popular urban music genre
in 1970s’ and 1980s’ Nigeria was not afrobeat, but jùjú music. Jùjú had already
been developed in the 1930s and its initial invention is commonly ascribed to
the band leader Tunde King, but the genre never really took off during its
first two decades. Its popularization began slowly after the Second World War,
parallel to highlife, and correlated with two stylistic innovations that would both
become genre-defining later. The first of these was the introduction of
hourglass-shaped pressure drums, like dùndún and gàngán, which up to that point
had been unusual in urban popular music. Many jùjú band leaders began to employ
players of these talking drums, thus
expanding their bands, but even more so their audiences. The interplay between praise
singing and drumming performance is what transformed jùjú concerts from a “contemplative
listening […] into a social dance” (Waterman 1990: 82).
The second innovation was the electric guitar, which quickly became the
lead instrument, in contrast to both highlife and afrobeat, where it mostly
played a minor part supporting vivid brass sections and other sounds. Yet it
took until the 1970s for jùjú to hit its peak and spawn its first two superstar
musicians: King Sunny Adé and Ebenezer Obey.
Today, Lagos is the home of Nigeria’s contemporary pop music, which is known in other parts of the world as afrobeats (with an “s”). The name was coined in the UK and, despite voices of criticism, many musicians embrace the term as a brand to market themselves and their music on a global scale. Like the majority of today’s pop music, their songs consist of digitally produced instrumentals and male or female vocals, although men dominate the scene. Pidgin English and Yorùbá are the most common languages of everyday life in Lagos, and they are just as widespread for singing and rapping. Many of them are also treated with Auto-Tune, an effect that Cher’s “Believe“ (1997) made famous before it became a staple of North American Rap and R&B in the late 2000s.
Thanks to digital technology, recording studios are relatively
inexpensive to set up today and can be found in all areas of the city. Their heart
is a desktop computer or laptop, connected to an audio interface and a pair of
monitor speakers for production and mixdown, and a microphone for recording
vocals. Soundproofing is done with (often colourful) revetted foam on the walls.
Like highlife, afrobeats is difficult to define musically and, within Nigeria, songs are often marketed using other genre names, like Afro-hiphop, or R&B. However, there are sonic features that clearly distinguish them from their American relatives. One example is the playing style (although often digitally emulated rather than actually played) of electric guitars, which heavily resembles the sound of jùjú music.
The second example, which might be the most striking one, is a percussion pattern that is frequently present in highlife songs and can be traced back to Caribbean music of the early 20th century. In highlife, it is usually played by a clave, whereas various types of sounds may take on this role in afrobeats songs, where the pattern is ubiquitous. In Mr. Eazi’s “Chicken Curry”, it is played by a duet of kick and snare drums, except for during the breaks in singing, where a rimshot takes over, while the kick and snare are muted.
These songs’ lyrics make use of their musical ancestry in a similar
manner. From subtle nods to the past, to sampling or partial covers, retaining
a strong engagement with previous works is a widespread practice in
contemporary lyrics which, in many cases, burst into life spontaneously, in
front of a microphone, without the intermediate stage of being [made
up/developed/devised] as the written word. Made up on the spot, singers and
rappers use aphorisms, proverbs and quotes that pop into their minds, and
oftentimes, these come from songs they know from their childhood days. A good
portion of these come from rap and R&B from the 1990s and 2000s, as
exemplified by Techno’s “GO”, which also prominently samples 50 Cent’s debut
hit, “In Da Club” (2003). The two individuals with the greatest influence on contemporary
lyrics are not rappers, however, but Nigerian afrobeat legends: Lágbájá and
Fela Kuti. Their songs have seemingly turned into an endless pool of
inspiration for today’s hitmakers.
No do, no do, no do gra gra for me
No do, no do, no do, serenren
No do, no do, no do shakara
No do, no do, no do gra gra for me
Wizkid’s “Jaiye Jaiye” (2015) is one of the most striking examples of a
tribute song. It features Fela’s son Femi Kuti playing the saxophone, and parts
of the video were shot in the New Afrika Shrine, which was opened by Femi Kuti
and his sister Yeni in 2000. The song is full of references to Fela’s afrobeat,
like the opening, in which Wizkid performs the traditional call and response
from the shrine:
But it gets even more intense towards the end, when Femi Kuti plays a saxophone solo, and Wizkid introduces the chorus of Fela’s “Lady” (1972):
If you call her woman, African Woman
no go greet
She go say, she go say ‚I be Lady
The rapper Falz, however, recently managed to surpass this homage by releasing an album titled “Moral Instruction”, which not only features a cover reminiscent of the iconic style of many Fela Kuti Records, drawn by Fela‘s original cover artist Lemi Ghariokwu, but also includes conspicuous samples of his hits in every song, trying to convey the message that music can have a meaning beyond pure entertainment.
Yet, afrobeat is certainly not the only classic Nigerian style to inform new music to such an extent. While the guitar lines reminiscent of jùjú and the clave pattern from highlife are ubiquitous today, a few musicians are daring to go further and use more ingredients of these styles of music, despite an overall contemporary sound that does not try to hide its digital origins. One of them is the singer Simi, whose album “Simisola” (2017) contains two songs that are inspired not just by specific highlife and jùjú classics, they even carry the same name; whereas “Joromi” only uses few elements of the original by Victor Uwaifo (released in 1969, it was the first African record to achieve gold status), “Aimasiko” is more of a cover of Ebenezer Obey’s version from 1987.
Even more popular for bringing traditional sounds into contemporary
music is Adekunle Gold, who calls his style of music “urban highlife”, and sees
himself as being influenced by highlife – obviously – but also jùjú, rock and
R&B. His instrumentals often consist of guitar sounds, brass sections and
drumming patterns that evoke those of previous decades; yet the songs are
somewhat compatible to the afrobeats mainstream, sometimes due to his style of
singing, and sometimes due to a stomping four
on the floor bass drum typical of electronic music.
The various musical genres of Ashanti-speaking communities and Ghana have captured the attention of European travellers and scientists since early on, but this interest was often informed by stereotypes based on grave misunderstandings. A British traveller in 1819 noted that the “wild” music of the Ashanti is “scarcely to be brought within the regular rules of harmony”. And, according to the writings of another traveller in 1899, “the West African” loved nothing more than to “abandon himself to the delight of a noisy demonstration of his instrument of torture” – the drum.
to Ghanaian scholar Kofi Agawu, many attempts by non-Africans to describe the
musical repertoires of West Africa were bound to fail. What the foreigners had
missed was that musical rhythms were part of a wider continuum of rhythmic
expression and experience in everyday life in West Africa. Contrary to what
many Western scientists postulated, drumming is not the basis of musical
expression in Africa. Instead, the rhythms of drumming are based on the rhythms
of bodily gestures and, especially, on language. In the tonal languages of West
Africa the relative pitch of syllables, but also the grouping of syllables in a
sentence, determines the meaning of an utterance. Without understanding the
significance of melodic and rhythmic expressions in spoken language, Agawu
argued, one barely stood a chance of understanding the layered rhythms in the
musical genres of the Ashanti.
publications by numerous African musicians and scientists (such as Kwabena
Nketia, Kofi Agawu and Willi Anku) it is possible for non-African scholars to
understand at least some fundamental principles of rhythmic expression of
Ashanti and other groups’ musical genres.
musical genres of the Ashanti are more than mere entertainment. At important
political, religious and social events drummers perform specific musical
repertoires on sets of drums that are associated with these specific events. At
funerals, for example, rhythms and songs from the Adowa repertoire are
performed. During events at the court of traditional kings, Kete-music is
played on Kete drums. Even though today these clear circumscriptions are not
always adhered to, drum ensembles still play an important role in political and
many drum ensembles of the Yorùbá, the drums in many Ashanti ensembles are
hierarchically organized and have clearly assigned roles. In the traditional
court music Kete, for example, the atumpan leads the ensemble as a master drum.
It is accompanied by the two stick drums aburukwa and petia, one hand drum apentemma,
one hourglass-shaped drum donno and, importantly, the slit bell dawuro. These
accompanying instruments each play specific rhythms that interlock with the
rhythms of the other instruments and thus create a steadily flowing
poly-rhythm. When the ensemble thus is rolling along, the master drummer will
talk with his atumpan. He will superimpose messages, praises and recite
proverbs that are appropriate to the occasion and audience of a performance.
The musical structure of such a drum ensemble is built on the principles of call-and-response and hocketing. In these, each individual instrument relates to the others in such a way that, when they perform together, a sequence of peaks and accents distributed among the individual phrases each instrument plays creates a continuous melodic pattern. The integration of the individual patterns creates a perceptual unity of the ensemble that guides the performers’ awareness and sensibilities with regard to the effects that their own part has on the music.
In order for the individual parts to interlock, the musicians orient their playing by the pattern played by the bell. In the Kete-ensemble the dawuro-bell plays a continuous ostinato and thus serves as a reference for all rhythmic patterns in the ensemble. The other instruments start playing either simultaneously with one particular beat in the bell’s pattern, or they start their pattern with a short moment of silence between two particular beats of the bell. If all players refer their pattern to the pattern of the bell, their rhythmic figures will interlock in a specific way. Thus, when the ensemble has started playing, a drummer or listener can shift their attention away from the bell. Depending on which rhythmic pattern a listener focuses on, different rhythmic elements will come to the fore and different melodic and rhythmic figures will be perceived. In that way numerous conversations between different instruments in the ensemble can be heard.
rhythmic pattern of the bell and, consequently, all other instruments usually
refers to the movements of dancers and their footsteps. Yet, often bells and
drums do not play the same accents that the dancers’ feet mark. Instead, they
play around the dancers’ steps or in the gaps in between them. Drummers and
dancers thus complement each another to create an interplay of acoustic
impulses, gestures and steps.
of an Ashanti ensemble are elements in a continuum of gesture, speech and
music. The idea, however, that this interaction of musicians, dancers and their
audiences is exclusive to “African music” has been disputed by many African
authors. They argue that many of the musical characteristics described as
“typically African” can be found in musical genres in other parts of the world
as well – so, too, in the cultures of the mostly European and American authors
who had initially made the point.
Talking with drums therefore not
only entails the possibility of imitating human speech and thus conveying
poetic and formulaic messages. It also entails the interplay of drummers,
dancers and audiences and their shared bodily and cognitive experience of
meanings that transcend verbally-transmitted knowledge.
The Eʋe in Ghana live in the Volta, one of the sixteen administrative regions in the south-eastern part of Ghana. They are mainly grouped into Eʋedomeawo (Northern Eʋes) and Anlo (Southern Eʋes). The Eʋedomeawo include Asogli, Adaklu, Awudome, Gbi and Akpini, while the Anlo include Avenor, Tonu (Tongu), Bator and Mafi. Both groups of Eʋe have rich dance-drumming traditions. The Eʋedomeawo have musical genres such as adeʋu (hunter’s drum), gabada and bɔbɔɔbɔ.
Adeʋu (ade = hunt, ʋu = drum) is a warrior’s and
hunter’s dance that was performed in the past to welcome and honour hunters on
their return from a successful expedition. It was also performed to show
gratitude to the gods for protecting them from wild animals, because it was
believed that some of them had fearsome spirits that were capable of working
against the hunters in the forest. During such performances the hunter
displayed the confrontations and antics he had gone through before killing his
game. Today, adeʋu is performed by both sexes during functions such as a durbar
(procession) of chiefs, at installations of chiefs and traditional festivals.
While most of the musical genres mentioned here are
dominated by male musicians, there are some musical styles in which women play idiophones
and sing, accompanied by male drummers. Such female musical types among the Eʋedomeawo
include akaye and egbanegba. The Anlo musical traditions include recreational
ones such as agbadza and the women’s funeral music atibladekame. In
performances in these styles, women play idiophones, sing and dance, while men
usually play the drums. In modern times women also feature as master drummers
in ensemble performances, leading to discusssions about the changing
traditional roles of male and female in ensemble drumming.
The term ʋu (drum) symbolises all Eʋe percussion
instruments and emphasises the drum’s central role in Eʋe dance-drumming
performance. Drums and drumming serve as repositories and transmitters of
cultural knowledge and values. Drum texts may contain proverbs, maxims and the
names of towns, chiefs or titles which teach or remind the people of the virtues
they are expected to have. Through this, youngsters also learn the appellations
of the towns, traditional rulers and famous people’s good deeds in their
communities. It is also a way of re-enacting the historical, social and
political structure of the Eʋe people.
Eʋes are known for their complex rhythmic drumming
traditions, which are usually based on ʋugbe (drum texts). The ʋugbe rhythmic
patterns are based on mnemonic sentences that drummers use to memorize the
rhythmic part they play in an ensemble. Usually, one drummer will come up with
a new a rhythmic phrase for another to build on. Such patterns may be created
during rehearsal sessions or performances. They may also be generated from
happenings around the rehearsal or performance spaces. They range from
frivolous comments such as…
Zekpe doɖa, na bɔbɔ viɖe
Protrude your buttocks backwards, and bend slightly
Mieva ɖo za, za, za, mieva
We have arrived in our numbers, we have arrived!
Nadzedzi gbla, nadzedzi gbla
Kolo gbogbo ɖewo doafe ne ame
Engaging in numerous casual sexual affairs
leads to impoverishment
…and maxims and proverbs such as…
Ege metua xo na aɖaba o
The beard does not narrate historical events to the eyelash
…to appellations or praise names such as
Anlo kotsieklolo, naketsi ɖeka no dzome bi nu ame akpe wo ɖu
Anlo the mysterious, single
log of firewood in the fire cooks the food for thousands to eat
Eʋe drums are either carved from a log or constructed from
wood slaps fastened together with iron hooks. Drum heads are made from
different types of hide, of which goat, cow, and antelope are the most commonly
used. In the past the Anlo would use the skin of a fox (avugbe) found in the
coastal lagoon areas around their settlement.
The names of Eʋe drums reflect either the materials
used in their construction, the playing position, performance technique, the
sound produced, the performer’s location or the function of the instrument in
the ensemble. Drums such as ʋuga (big drum), lakleʋu (leopard drum), agblɔʋu
(curved stick drum), ʋukpo (short drum), atompani/atumpani (talking drums), and
adaʋatram (awe-inspiring sacred drum) are played as single instruments during
royal ceremonies and traditional religious ceremonies.
Other drums are played in ensembles for recreational
purposes or during funerals and festivals, such as atsimeʋu, sogo, gboba, kidi,
and kaganu. Another set of ensemble drums played by the Eʋedome comprise the ʋuga,
ʋuvi, and asiʋui. The adondo (hourglass-shaped drum), and blekete were
instruments borrowed from the Brekete and Tigare cults from northern Ghana in
The late 1980s marked the beginning of incorporating Eʋe
drumming into Christian worship. Eʋe-dominated Christian churches such as the
Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Ghana (EPCG), the Apostle Revelation Society,
and the Roman Catholic churches in the Volta region have incorporated Eʋe
drumming into their liturgy. Congregational singing of translated Western hymns
and choral music compositions by Ghanaian art music composers are accompanied
with Eʋe drumming, and the church choirs enhance their processional and
recessional songs with bɔbɔɔbɔ drums.
During the General Assembly of the EPCG, the atsimeʋu and supporting drums such as kidi and kagan are usually used in a procession to usher the choir and clergy into the chapel for the service to begin. Call to worship is also sometimes done by the atumpani (talking drums) and the liturgist recites what is being played on the drum. The use of the ʋuga and adondo, originally from northern Ghana, are very prominent in the churches named above. The adondo is played to signal when congregational hymn or a choir group singing should start and when the various stanzas should start and end. To show appreciation to a speaker or excitement about an occurrence during the church services, specific rhythmic passages are played on the adondo to which the congregants respond with a unified rhythmic hand clapping. Furthermore, drum-dancing ensembles such as agbadza, bɔbɔɔbɔ, and akpalu also exist, which augment the music performances during church services.
Agbadza has been a popular dance-drumming
tradition of the Anlo-Eʋe since the late seventeenth century (Fiagbedzi, 1977).
Its etymology can be traced to a combination of two Eʋe words: agbe (life) and dza (fresh or pure) – meaning agbadza brings fresh life to the participating
people (Kuwor, 2017). Others believe that it is a funeral dance originating
from an older war dance, atripkui (Anku, 2009). Agbadza has many variations,
such as agba, kini, ageshie and akpoka, distinguished mainly by the different
temporal varieties of expression.
The Anlo-Eʋe consider agbadza
dance-drumming as a symbol of their culture and collective identity. Although
it was originally used by men to prepare for war and to celebrate triumph or
mourn defeat after war, today it is performed as recreational dance-drumming
open to both sexes, irrespective of age or social status. It is performed at
both sad and joyous occasions, such as funerals, church services, weddings and traditional
The agbadza drum set consists of the atsimeʋu
(master drum), sogo (a supporting drum that can take the role of a master drum
in other ensembles), kidi (the second supporting drum), and kagan (the first
supporting drum). It also includes idiophones such as gankogui (double bell), axatse
(rattle) and clappers. Eʋe traditional drumming may be explained as transformative
because, while the superficial aspects such as drum language texts may alter over
time and space, certain structural principles remain unchanged (Burns, 2005). So,
while the fundamental rhythms of agbadza endure, the drum language assigned to
the rhythm continues to change depending on the community, context or period. Moreover,
drummers also create new drum languages for existing drum variations. Hence, they are expressed in multiple
versions, at any time.
Drummers in the agbadza drum ensemble
employ stick drumming and various combinations of hand techniques. However,
particular techniques – such as muted strokes (very soft, almost inaudible),
stopped strokes (rather loud, usually one stick or hand pressing the drum head
while the other strikes at the centre of the head) are prescribed for each
respective instrument. The atsimeʋu master drum combines three main sets of
playing techniques, with each technique embodying a variety of playing modes.
These are the stick-and-hand combination technique, two-hand combination
technique, and two-stick combination technique.
Bɔbɔɔbɔ (pronounced “Borborbor”) dance-drumming emerged in the
1940s in Wusuta as an offshoot of older secular dances called konkoma, tuidzi
and akpese, but gained prominence in the 1950s in Kpando in the Volta region as
one of the creations of the independence movement in Ghana. Beginning as an ethnic
recreational tradition, it became party-political when the first Bɔbɔɔbɔ band was grafted into Osagyefo
Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s C.P.P (Convention People’s Party) with the brand name
Osagyefo’s Own Bɔbɔɔbɔ (Badasu,
1988) from the mid ’50s until Nkrumah was removed from power in 1966. ‘Osagyefo’ is an Akan title traditionally given to leaders who have been
victorious in battle. This title was spontaneously bestowed on Nkrumah by the
people of Ghana. Other people also referred to the group as Nkrumah’s
own Bɔbɔɔbɔ (Collins,
1996; 2018). This group survived the political persecutions because its
founder, Francis Nuatro, reorganised his band and started performing at non-political
events such as funerals and other social occasions. Bɔbɔɔbɔ ensembles may be loosely sorted into categories
such as community groups, hometown associations, church-based groups,
privately-owned groups and momentary groups.
Since the 1980s when Bɔbɔɔbɔ dance-drumming found its way
into the Christian church, it has been influenced by Christianity and Western
art music, which are evident in new dance movements, instrumentations, songs themes
and musical elements of the style.
Bɔbɔɔbɔ dance-drumming only employs the two-hand combination technique. In a sitting position, the ʋuga is held in between the player’s
thighs and intermittently raised off the ground to provide tone variations. While the ʋuga thus provides rhythmic and
melodic variations, the ʋuvi and asiʋui provide a continually repeated steady rhythm in alternation.
Bɔbɔɔbɔ dance-drumming has become one of the most popular indigenous
dance-drumming traditions in Ghana and neighbouring Togo. While pro-Eʋe
Christian churches employ bɔbɔɔbɔ drumming in their liturgy, others have
ensembles that complement the musical needs of the church. Such ensembles
usually represent the church at their members’ weddings, anniversaries and funerals,
and other occasions within and outside the church. Bɔbɔɔbɔ master drummers are currently
in high demand due to the growing number of bɔbɔɔbɔ ensembles and high demand for their services in
both rural and urban communities in Ghana. A number of ensembles who do not
have permanent master drummer(s) are compelled to decline engagements due to
their inability to engage the services of such expert(s). This has made some
master drummers reluctant to become permanent members of ensembles, in order to
earn a higher fee for their services. Thus, the sustainable future of this
dance-drumming tradition lies partly in the need to train more master drummers
to meet the demands of the booming bɔbɔɔbɔ industry.