The role of drumming in Òrìṣà worship of the Yorùbá

Alexis Malefakis

The term “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.

An ipese drum from the Ulli Siebenborn collection /
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich (Kathrin Leuenberger) 2019
„Igbin Drums“ by n/a from the recording entitled Drums of the Yoruba of Nigeria, FW04441, courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (p) (c) 1953. Used by permission.

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.

An ìgbìn drum from the Ulli Siebenborn collection /
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich (Kathrin Leuenberger) 2019

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.

An ìgbìn drum from the Ulli Siebenborn collection /
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich (Kathrin Leuenberger) 2019

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.

The oríkì for Ṣángò played on bàtá drums.
With kind permission of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin/Andreas Meyer

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.


Header : Photo © Dierk Lange / Wikimedia commons (cropped)



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