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'Talking Drums' on Rural and Global Stages
UCLA graduate student Jesse Ruskin with his teacher, Ayansola, southwestern Nigeria

'Talking Drums' on Rural and Global Stages

For his dissertation field research, UCLA graduate student Jesse Ruskin went to southwestern Nigeria to understand the local uses and global reach of the Yoruba 'talking drum.' He also performed with local musicians.

Cosmopolitanism and traditionalism do not appear to be at odds in this musical tradition.

By Jesse Ruskin

Oyinbo, oyinbo, kaabo!” (Whiteman, whiteman, welcome!)

As I walked through the palace gates, on my way to greet the king of a rural town in southwestern Nigeria, the elderly drummers were the first to approach me. One shook a bead-laced gourd, while another steadily struck two iron bells together. A third man, the leader, manipulated the pitch of his hourglass-shaped dùndún drum to produce the tones of a common Yorùbá greeting, adapting its content to the presence of a foreigner. I responded with a smile and the customary “dash”—a small gift of Nigerian currency. This brief encounter, in a simple way, encapsulates what I had come to Nigeria to study: how the traditional contexts, functions, and repertoire of the dùndún tradition were developing in relation to the wider world at its doorstep.

The Yorùbá dùndún, known in English as the “talking drum,” is a versatile speech surrogate instrument, capable of reproducing the tones and inflections of the Yorùbá language. As hereditary professionals who specialize in textual composition, talking drummers are rich repositories of historical, socio-ethical, and religious knowledge. Free from many of the restrictions that traditionally govern older Yorùbá drums, the talking drum has long been used in a variety of sacred and secular contexts throughout southwestern Nigeria. The postcolonial era brought increased opportunity and mobility for traditional drummers. Through arts organizations, university theatre companies, touring musical ensembles, and personal networks, talking drummers began to travel and settle overseas, as well as attract foreign students and collaborators to them in Nigeria. The roots and routes of the dùndún tradition’s global growth are the focus of my dissertation research.

With funding from the International Institute, I conducted nine weeks of field research in southwestern Nigeria during summer 2009. The first objective was to assemble a picture of the dùndún tradition in contemporary Nigeria. The last major book on the subject, written by renowned Nigerian musicologist Akin Euba, is based on research conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My aim was to discover whether Euba’s observations about the contexts, functions, and repertoire of dùndún still held today. Second, in response to recent literature on the global re-mapping of African performance traditions, I investigated to what extent dùndún drummers were participating in transnational processes and cosmopolitan projects.

Performance by members of the Iragbiji Cultural Troupe, Obatala Centre for Creative Arts, southwestern Nigeria

Performance by members of the Iragbiji Cultural Troupe, Obatala Centre for Creative Arts, southwestern Nigeria

The initial phase of field research involved six weeks at Chief Muraina Oyelami’s Obatala Centre for Creative arts in Iragbiji, Nigeria. A key figure in the Yorùbá cultural revival of the 1960s, Oyelami established the Centre in 1987 with the express goal of building an institution for the promotion of Yorùbá arts and culture that supports local artists while reaching out to an international clientele. I observed the Centre’s activities and interviewed Oyelami about his cultural work. He organized a workshop for me dedicated exclusively to dùndún drum-making and performance. While residing in the Chief’s compound, I studied with one of the town’s senior drummers (pictured above) and accompanied him to performances at numerous community events. In addition to audiovisual documentation of such musical events, I conducted interviews with the traditional heads of drumming families in the towns of Iragbiji, Ede, Ila-Orangun, and Erin-Osun. Following this, I spent three weeks in the historic Ile-Ife area, where I participated in and documented the work of a local drumming family.

The continued dominance of dùndún drumming in Yorùbá community life was clearly evident. I observed and performed with talking drummers in kings’ palaces, ritual events for the orisa (deities) and egungun (ancestral spirits), social gatherings associated with life-cycle events, Sunday church services, and a university theatre performance. The drummers with whom I worked commanded a dazzling array of musical and verbal materials, which they deployed creatively in a variety of contexts.

Of particular importance is the talking drum’s connection to Yorùbá sacred-kingship. Drumming families that carry the hereditary title of baale or aare onilu (chief drummer) maintain generations-old patronage relationships with families of Yorùbá obas (sacred kings). Some of the chief drummers I interviewed said that their ancestors’ migration patterns had followed those of the kings they served. Visiting palaces in four different towns, I observed some of the ways in which drummers function in the daily activities of the oba. First, they maintain the history of the oba’s lineage, as well as the praise names and attributes associated with him and his ancestors. The drummers’ praises, typically conveyed in a poetic genre known as oriki, serve to encourage the oba and allow him to demonstrate his generosity and hospitality by distributing money to the performers. Second, talking drummers serve as intermediaries between the king and townspeople, greeting visitors at the palace gates. This is both a demonstration of hospitality and a means of conveying information to the king about who is arriving. Third, drummers serve as the “stage directors” of social and ritual events involving the oba. They not only provide entertainment for the occasion, but also use the drum's verbal capabilities to guide the oba’s processions, recognize important guests, spur on dancers, and lead participants in song.

As for the issue of globalization, it was striking to note the overlap between the work of locally-oriented drummers and that of the cosmopolitan culture brokers who seek to bring this tradition to a wider audience. Chief Oyelami’s Obatala Centre, for example, depends on local drummers and craftspeople to lead workshops, to provide materials for drum-making, and to serve as demonstrators when Oyelami teaches. While the work of talking drummers is tied to the local contexts that give their music meaning, drummers also acknowledge that there is value in extending the purview of the tradition. A number of my interviewees, for example, had either performed overseas at some point in their careers or had hosted foreign students in Nigeria. Cosmopolitanism and traditionalism, in other words, do not appear to be at odds in this musical tradition. If true, this would support the claim that globalization, far from erasing local tradition, provides new opportunities for strengthening tradition by expanding its contexts. The extent to which traditional drummers in Nigeria benefit from such cosmopolitan engagements, and the degree to which it affects their musical repertoire, however, remain open questions.

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