Yoruba talking drums: Beneath their sacred yet pleasurable nature

The extent and depth of Yoruba culture reveal the rich variations of the civilisation of the people. From music to fashion to arts, the evolution of the Yoruba people has been intriguing. One of these rich aspects is the place and prestige of the Yoruba traditional talking drums. KEHINDE OYETIMI, in this piece, writes that unlike other drums, the Yoruba talking drums have spiritual undertones, linguistic prowess and entertaining relevance.

I talk to you
You talk to me.
For once, you never stop talking,
You talkative goat-skinned spirit
With a rotund white countenance
All dressed up in five hundred leather straps.

You send me on errands,
Yet run swift errands for me too,
Flying on the wings of the air.
Your deep throbbing sound
Drifting and re-echoing
In the three hundred villages of our District,
Carrying eerie messages
Through open forest groves,
To farmsteads and distant hills.

I am possessed!
Talking drum,
Your piercing rhythm intoxicates,
Igniting my fragile waist.
Your ultrasonic sound
Jerks my brain to insensibility.
It makes the Chief Priest to leap in ecstasy,
Chanting incantations
And the young maidens to sway provocative hips
At the dancing arena
On festival days.
(Being excerpts from ‘Talking drum’ in Village Harvest by Bayo Adebowale)

The lines came alive as he read excerpts from his poem. His eyes lit in contagious excitement as he spoke about his ancestral heritage of the talking drum. There was an infectious ambiance that was hard to deny. For Dr Bayo Adebowale, culture enthusiast and one of the proud sons of a famous family of Yoruba traditional drummers at Adeyipo village in Igbo-Elerin, Ibadan, discussing the place, potency and prestige of the Yoruba traditional drums remains one of the most prized heritages of the Yoruba people.

“I come from a famous family of drummers – the Ayanlade family. Ayanlade, the head of the family and a popular Yorubaland drummer, gives the name ‘Ayan’ to all his children and all members of the family. Thus we have in the family, Ayannihun, Ayanbode, Ayanlola, Ayanniran, Ayanrin, Ayannike, Ayanyemi, Ayantooke, Ayanpeju.

“Africans in general, and especially the traditional people of Yoruba land, propitiate and worship the talking drum, through the mysterious divinity they thought, has brought the art of beating the drum to the world. They call the spirit ‘Ayan.’ The full name of the invisible spirit is Ayan-Agalu,” he enthused.

Across the span of Nigeria’s South-West, where the Yoruba people are largely found, and in distant places where they hold sway, one of the most privileged aspects of the varied layers of their tradition is the unique platform upon which the talking drum sits. While drums in other human settlements are employed for their rhythmic pleasures, the drum music of the Yoruba people is both tone-based and extends its functionalities to accommodate other uses. The drums have grown through the years of Yoruba civilisation to including their entertaining and social functions with the power to hold conversations.


Talking drums: Different shapes, unique uses

The Yoruba traditional drums are employed during funerals, celebrations, rites of passage, installations and even in palaces. In many instances, drum festivals are held in many Yoruba towns and villages to restate the power and prestige attached to the talking drum. There are drums that are also used for spiritual, esoteric engagements.

Across many parts of Yorubaland, the drums are pitched to have varied measures to mimic tone patterns of the Yoruba language. Usually, tension is placed primarily at the head of the drum. The tension is varied to achieve the mimicry of the Yoruba language. There is a central tension cord that connects the two base heads of the drums.

Identifying these drums, Dr Adebowale stated that “In Yorubaland, the main musical talking drums are the Iya-ilu which produces dun-dun music; and the Bata talking drums which produce traditional religious melody. Of course, we have the sonorous small one called kan-na-ngo and the one which talks as if through the nose, called gangan. Gbedu, Sakara, Ogido, Adamo and keri-keri are also drums which talk. These talking drums have remained a musical wonder to people of the African continent, but especially to people outside of the continent in Europe, America, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean. They marvel on how it talks, and what makes it talk; what makes it speak the language of the people.

“There must be a powerful spirit dwelling in the hollow of the drum, which makes it talk; which makes it sing; which makes it run errands for the people; and which makes it able to send people on errands. The talking drum has its entertaining and social functions. The various drums are ingeniously combined to entertain the Yoruba people during festivals such as traditional marriage ceremonies, funerals, house-warming celebrations, birthdays, coronations and convocation ceremonies.

“The linguistic function of the talking drum is unquantifiable. The drum speaks mostly the indigenous languages of the people. But don’t be surprised, it can also speak the English Language – at the instance of its drummer.

“In villages in Yorubaland, the talking drum can be used to summon people home from distant farms, from the brooks and from nearby hamlets. It can be used to deliver messages to the people and break news to them. For instance, news about the passing on of a notable community figure or news about the arrival of a dignitary can be passed across through the talking drum. Early in the morning, drums can be beaten to rouse people from sleep, to pray for them, and to get them prepared for the activities and toils of a new day.

“At Yoruba Oba’s palaces, the talking drum is used to communicate with the monarch. It is used to give warm welcome and reception to visitors to the palace. During inter-tribal wars of the olden days in Yoruba land, the talking drum was used to galvanise warriors, thus helping them to defeat opponents on the battlefields.

“And when the talking drum, in the hand of an expert drummer, traces the family lineage and ancestral history of their clients, currency notes would fly in the air and be pasted into the wet brows of the drummers. We have had occasions when excited members of the crowd remove their garments, shoes and wristwatches and freely donated them to the drummers.

“The influence of the Yoruba talking drum is presently spreading through Africa and its Diaspora. Curious foreigners visit the country to learn the secret of the talking drum and to be entertained, dancing to the rhythm of the Iya-Ilu and Bata talking drums.”


No longer a male preserve

Following its rich musical effects, the traditional talking drums are noticeably being used in the modern music industry within and outside Nigeria. There had existed boundaries occasioned by gender, as playing the talking drums earlier held as a male preserve. But a foremost female drummer, Ara, argued in an interaction that she took up the challenge to learn how to play the talking drum after she was denied been taught by male drummers.

“Many women believed that only men could play the talking drum but, today, it is not so. As far as I am concerned, I’ve given them that power, strength and inner energy,” she said.

40-year-old Kolawole Adeyemi, a drummer, was delighted when he spoke with Nigerian Tribune on his love for drumming and the power of traditional drums.

According to him, “I have been drumming since I was aged five. I play all kinds of drums. We communicate with the initiate by virtue of the talking drum. It is true that the talking drums can be used for evil purposes. In fact, in some Yoruba communities, drums are used to catch a thief. When a theft has been committed, the traditional drummer carries out some rituals and imbues the drum with spiritual powers. The drum is then beaten and the thief, wherever he is, begins to dance. He dances down to the place where the drum is.

“Sango worshippers and other traditional worshippers employ the use of drums for many purposes. It is that sacred. Every traditional drum has its spirit and they are worshipped with the performance of certain rituals. Some deities must be appeased before certain drums are made or even beaten. For instance, the Igbe and Koso drums are very powerful. They belong to certain traditional societies. Some of these drums must not be beaten in the open. Aside from the ears of the initiate alone, any other person who hears the sound from the drum automatically becomes deaf. This is so because the message encoded in the sound of the drum can only be decoded by the initiate.

“In fact, some animals must be killed and blood spilled before some of these drums can be beaten. If this is not so, there would be very grave consequences. Ideally, drums are meant for merriment. But what has a positive side has its negative sides.”

Foremost traditionalist, the Araba Awo of Osogbo, Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, argues that the place of traditional drums cannot be overemphasised.

“If you observe very well, you will see that the drummers are seated near the entrance of the palace. This may not make a serious meaning to strangers or non-Yorubas. I can tell you that the arrangement is deliberate to enable the drummer see visitors to the palace and send messages to the traditional ruler by beating his drum.

“The monarch understands the sound, decodes it and takes action. If the monarch is in public, the drummers are always vigilant and they read the mood of the environment to alert him of the goings-on around him. If the monarch needs to hurry up and leave the place, the drummers would pass the message to him.

“During wars, drummers are relevant in motivating exhausted warriors back to action. Through their drums they remind the warriors why they must not lose the battle to preserve the names of their lineage,” he said.

Blood must be spilled before making, playing certain drums —Amao, drum maker

Sixty five-year-old Adeyemo Amao is the chairman of Olorun Oba Nibo Asiri Musical Instruments. He has been in the manufacturing of traditional drums for over 50 years. His renown in the trade has grown with the years with his drums exported outside Nigeria. In this interview by KEHINDE OYETIMI, he speaks on the importance and sacredness of Yoruba talking drums.


When did you start making drums and what drove you into the art?

I have been doing this since 1966. When I was younger, my mates were able to attend schools to get educated formally but my parents could not afford to give me an education. Since this was a handicap, I decided to work as househelp for people who would pay me. I must say that I come from the family of drummers but I wanted a vocation that would give me a better future financially.

After a while I met someone who was ready to help me. He was into the making of drums. I observed what he did and walked up to him one day, telling him that I wanted to learn the art of making drums. He thought I was joking but I told him that I was serious. After a while, I made tremendous progress. I learnt to make Yoruba traditional drums and later became independent.


What are the kinds of traditional drums that you make?

I make Igbe, Koso, Iya Ilu, Bata, Gudu-Gudu which is the king of drums. There are certain drums that can only be made following special requests. In making some of these traditional drums, the process must be hidden. It is not meant for public viewing.


Do some drums come with specific mode of production?

Let me tell you that some drums cannot be made without rituals and divinations. They come with special demands. In fact, there are times we offer sacrifices before we commence making those drums. We kill animals for ritual purposes before we make those drums.

Again, there are some drums that can only be played when a new monarch is to be installed. Those drums are equally different from those ones that are exclusively beaten when a monarch dies. They have very esoteric, spiritual purposes. I must also emphasise that some trees are offered sacrifices before we cut them down to make drums out of them. Those trees have very spiritual powers that should we ignore carrying out the appropriate rituals, there could be very dire consequences.


We are told that there are some families whose stock-in-trade is drumming. They are referred to as Ayan. How do they establish connection with their drums?

It is very spiritual. For a drummer who is from the Ayan family, the Iya Ilu talking has its powers to the extent that it can tell the drummer what occasion would be profitable for the drummer to perform and the occasions to avoid performing.


How do you get apprentices?

Making foreign drums is not as difficult as making traditional drums. It is very common to find those who make traditional drums following the difficult process and, in some cases, the spiritual dimension to it but we are getting those who are willing to learn.


Is it true that some people can use traditional drums for negative intents?

Absolutely. Some drums can only be heard by initiates. A drum by an evil person can be beaten here in Nigeria and cause untold havoc to the person it is directed to in another place. Distance is no barrier as far as this is concerned. But I do not get involved in that. It is also possible that a person can purchase a drum and convert it to negative spiritual uses.


How difficult is making these drums?

Things are getting easier now. Before, we would get into the forest, cut the woods and start processing. That is not so now. The labour is divided and our apprentices are involved.

Different shapes, unique uses