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Review of Yorùbá Music in the Twentieth Century


By Debra Klein

Yorùbá Music in the Twentieth Century: Identity, Agency, and Performance Practice. Bode Omojola. University of Rochester Press, New York, 2012. Pp. 285. ISBN. 978 158046 4093 (hb). $77.99

Yorùbá Music in the Twentieth Century: Identity, Agency, and Performance Practice by Bode Omojola is a unique and refreshing take on the study of Yorùbá music, grounding a wide range of Yorùbá musical genres in Nigerian history as well as in the experiences of specific ensembles and artists. This study coheres as a narrative journey that begins with a nuanced analysis of indigenous drum music and moves into analyses of women’s vocal, church, popular, and Islamic music genres. While the structure of this narrative follows the chronological development of these styles, each section stands alone for those who are interested in a particular genre. The accompanying CD of 13 carefully chosen songs—each track demonstrating specific arguments about technique, aesthetics, and style—allows the reader to listen to and appreciate these distinct genres in their diversity and complexity. Offering a historical, ethnographic, and musicological approach, this text analyzes how and why artists create particular musical genres within particular political and economic periods during Nigeria’s transition from a colonial to a postcolonial nation.

Omojola positions himself as a “native scholar” who has conducted over two decades of ethnographic research with Yorùbá musicians, acknowledging the methodological challenges of cultivating an “outsider mentality” while drawing from his vast insider knowledge about and experiences with Yorùbá music throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. While growing up in the small town of Ìkò.lé-Èkìtì, Omojola enjoyed participating in cultural events and performance groups. He later trained, performed, and composed with Anglican church choirs and highlife bands. Omojola’s lifetime of commitment to Yorùbá indigenous, church, and popular music enriches this study.

Omojola begins his narrative with bàtá (ensemble of conically shaped drums associated with the pantheon of Yorùbá spirits, particularly Sàngó) and dùndún (ensemble of hour-glass shaped drums played for a variety of occasions) drumming because of the historical and iconic status of drumming in Yorùbá culture and scholarship. Omojola’s survey and analyses of the existing scholarship on Yorùbá drumming is poignant and helpful to those with and without expertise. Omojola builds upon this body of scholarship by contributing new arguments about the relationship between these two styles and practices of drumming, based on fieldwork conducted in 2006-7 with Ìbàdàn-based bàtá drummers and Òsogbo-based dùndún drummers, in addition to other ensembles from southwestern Nigeria throughout the 1990s and 2000s. One of Omojola’s claims is that tension exists between these two groups of drummers due to the fact that bàtá drumming is less popular and relevant than dùndún in contemporary Nigerian music contexts. He argues, however, that bàtá drummers are aware of their marginalisation and have thus been organizing themselves in order to reclaim their status as relevant musicians. Omojola’s focus on only a few ethnographic examples, of course, leaves room for future research and debate about the issues he raises.

Chapters three and four focus on two genres of Èkìtì women’s vocal music. Significantly, Omojola puts Èkìtì vocal music on the map and shows how two genres—the music of the king’s wives (Olorì) and female chiefs (Aírégbé)—challenge some key assumptions about Yorùbá music and gender that have been reproduced in scholarship dominated by ethnographies of Ò.yó. Yorùbá cities and towns. Èkìtì music departs from, and thus adds new data and dimensions to, the existing literature “in terms of the role and status of women, performance practices, and compositional style” (80). Building on scholarly discussions of gender in Yorùbá culture, Omojola argues that “gendered allocation of musical roles does not necessarily suggest male superiority or translate into an advantage for the male” (74). While his analysis of the Èkìtì examples, in addition to an Ò.yó. Ò.s.un festival example, leads to a compelling argument for the complementarity of gender roles and authority, I would caution against an over-generalisation about how gender works in Yorùbá culture. As Omojola points out, his examples are limited to elite and elder women who participate in rituals supporting their towns and kings. Omojola’s arguments about gender and music would be enriched with his artist interview data as well as with audience interviews. While focusing on the process of composition leads to interesting insights about artist creativity, attention to how these songs were received by their intended audiences would further our understanding of the meaning of these musical genres.

Chapters five and six exude the richness of the author’s personal and ethnographic expertise, making this section a pleasure to read and listen to. Omojola’s biographical portraits of the pioneers of Yorùbá Christian music reveal the music’s shifting social relevance and diversity from its inception in the late 1800s to the present. Omojola develops a compelling argument that the tonality of the Yorùbá language is at times compromised for the sake of musical aesthetics, arguing against previous assumptions by scholars that Yorùbá music (tone, melody, intensity) is always true to (and thus confined by) the tones of the language. A composition by classically trained, diocesan organist and choirmaster (track six) illustrates multiple ways in which African and European forms are synthesised in the genre of liturgical music reflecting the tastes and agendas of an educated elite class who came of age during the early colonial period. This chapter provides a wonderful background against which we come to appreciate the “countercultural movement” of Aládùúrà (prayer bands), dating back to the early 1920s.

Well documented by historians of culture and religion, Aládùúrà churches exemplify a blending of Christian and Yorùbá cultures, rituals, aesthetics, and symbolisms. What is unique about Omojola’s discussion, emerging from his focus on the movement’s music, is his sustained argument that Aládùúrà choir sessions are cathartic, therapeutic, and regenerative for choir members and thus, for congregations. Having attended many all-night sessions of the CCC’s (Celestial Church of Christ) Central Choir in Lagos, Omojola gives us a sense of what this movement is about for its participants: being able to inhabit a “zone of empowerment” (160) to deal with and heal from the “cruel conditions of life” (155). In contrast with European-centred liturgical music, Aládùúrà music is created by and reflects the experiences and aesthetics of masses of struggling Nigerians. In one of my favourite tracks (eleven), the Central Choir seamlessly blends multiple genres—choral, organ, highlife, funk, and fújì—illustrating the author’s argument about the diversity of Aládùúrà culture and musical liturgy.

Chapter seven succeeds in tackling the broad and diverse terrain of Yorùbá popular music by analyzing three distinct, yet related, genres through a framework Omojola terms “syncretic-hybridity”:

…a quality that speaks to the capability of Yorùbá musicians to constantly alter and reorder the intercultural language of their music to generate multiple meanings. In the process, global or Western elements are manipulated, undermined, demystified, minimized, and mirrored—in short, subjected to multiple facets and levels of signification. (164)

We learn about the history, structure, and content of: 1) highlife through an analysis of Olaiya’s music; 2) Afro-beat through an analysis of Anikulapo-Kuti’s iconic Zombie album; and 3) the syncretic-hybrid style of Lagbaja through an analysis of his song and video, “Skentele Skontolo.” Omojola’s historical and ethnographic discussions of each style are enriched by easy-to-follow and interesting tables (7.1, 7.2, and 7.3) detailing the “form and structural process” of songs representing each musician’s unique artistic vision. By presenting his material in table form, Omojola helps his readers who are not trained to read musical notation to appreciate these songs as musically technical and lyric-rich pieces. The appeal of this chapter is the author’s ability to illustrate how each style’s musical language works to inspire particular aesthetic experiences, political discourses, and conversations about everyday life in Nigeria. Despite the temptation to interpret these syncretic styles as “global,” Omojola takes pains to show how these styles ultimately reference “local” Yorùbá social, political, and economic issues.

The final chapter on Yorùbá Islamic popular music—a range of genres that fuse Islamic themes and musical styles with mostly indigenous Yorùbá drumming and vocal music—is the least developed, in part because it covers about half as much material as the chapters focusing on the other musical genres. Through analyses of two genres, àpàlà and wákà, Omojola argues that Yorùbá Islamic popular musicians are not a homogenous group and that they express particular politics of identity through the structure of their music. Perhaps because of the brevity of this chapter, Omojola’s discussions of class and gender risk reproducing stereotypes or simple dichotomies even though this is not his intention. While it may be generally true that Islamic popular music appeals to working class Nigerians while highlife and jùjú appeal to the elite, it would be helpful to hear how this is not always the case and how the production and consumption of Islamic genres has changed over time. For instance, an analysis of fújì—the most popular Yorùbá Islamic style for decades—would have opened up a more nuanced discussion of syncretic aesthetics that have crossed the lines of region, class, gender, and religion.

Omojola’s study is based on: his lifetime of dedication to Yorùbá music; participant observation of a range of performances; analyses of mostly ethnomusicological literature; musical transcriptions; recordings; and interviews. Had the author incorporated more of his artist interview data into his analyses, this work and its theoretical claims would be even more nuanced. While one of Omojola’s arguments is that individual musicians (as agents) reproduce and challenge collective structures, the reader rarely gleans the perspectives of the musicians themselves or their audiences; thus, the ethnographic analyses seem limited to the perspective of the author. Omojola argues that the significance of musical syncretism (a defining characteristic of twentieth century Yorùbá music) is not only how its elements are combined but also how syncretic-hybrid forms reveal and shape local economic, political, and cultural discourses and practices (15). While Omojola’s case studies reveal ways in which twentieth century musical genres reflect and critique colonialism, class, gender, religion, and local politics, the strengths of this study lie in its lively analyses of musical aesthetics and structures.

The sheer scope and goals of this project make it exciting! This text builds on insights from the rich body of scholarship on African and Yorùbá music, illuminates some key gaps, and pushes future research in new directions. Original ethnographic cases bring each chapter to life and illustrate the continuing relevance of each musical genre today. Bode Omojola has expertly synthesised a wide range of musical styles and specific performances in order to construct a history of Yorùbá culture through the lens of music.

Reviewed by: Debra Klein, Gavilan College.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 114-116]

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