The bàtá drums of the Yorùbá

Alexis Malefakis

Bàtá drummers and dancers in Ẹ̀rin-Ọ̀sun play for the American anthropologist Debra Klein.
Video © Debra Klein 2007

The bàtá 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.

Lamidi Ayankunle (front) with members of his family.
Photo © Debra Klein 2005

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 different Òrìṣàs.

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.

The oríkì of Ṣàngó played by Lamidi Ayankunle and his ensemble during a performance in 1987 in Berlin.
With kind permission of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin/Andreas Meyer.
The oríkì of Ogun played by Lamidi Ayankunle and his ensemble during a performance in 1987 in Berlin.
With kind permission of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin/Andreas Meyer.

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 the video Lamidi Ayankunle talks about what bàtá music means to his family.
With kind permission of Debra Klein © 2007

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.


Header: Photo © Debra Klein 2005



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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.