Preservation of ijala cultural heritage: Chanters decry neglect

SUNDAY ADEPOJU, in this piece, reports the origin of ijala, how it has evolved in the promotion and preservation of the Yoruba cultural heritage, and the prevailing challenges.

One of the Yoruba culture aesthetics that is gradually disappearing is Ijala. Ijala is a song-text rendered by Yoruba traditional hunters and its history is traceable to Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron.

Worshippers of Ogun, predominantly comprising hunters and blacksmiths, render the chant to appease the deity and to pray for fortune in their endeavours, especially hunting and blacksmithing.

Jeemiisi Amuda Ogundare Foyanmu was a prominent promoter of ijala performance. Though he died in 2012, Foyanmu pioneered the digital documentation of ijala performance while alive. The astute musician was said to have produced his first album in 1956 and thereafter had about 20 albums to his credit.

Another prominent performer is the aged Chief Alabi Ogundepo. Since the demise of Foyanmu, Ogundepo has been a rallying point of reference in ijala performance in Nigeria and around the world.  Also worthy of mention is the only surviving member of Foyanmu’s ijala band, Chief Areo Idowu-Akataapa.

In all the six states of the South-West and Kwara State of the North-Central part of the country, Nigerian Tribune gathered that ijala chanters still exist. In Kwara State, there were misconceptions of the nonexistence of ijala chanters in Ilorin. Ogundepo, some years ago, cleared the misconception at an ijala event organised by an Ilorin-based ijala chanter, actor, radio and television presenter, Chief Sule Ayodeji.

There have been some disparities among the various versions of ijala in terms of rendition and this could be due to the dialects of the chanters. For instance, the version of the ijala of Chief Ogunyemi Elemure is different from that of Foyanmu, Ogundepo, Idowu-Akataapa, Ogunlade, Ayodeji. While Foyanmu’s reflects the Yoruba Oyo, that of Ogundepo has the colouration of the Yoruba dialect of the Oke Ogun area of Oyo State.

Tracing the origin of ijala, Ogundepo explained that “Ijala is called hunters’ chant. It was rendered in the past to praise and pay homage to Ogun. So, the followers of Ogun invented it.”

Another ijala chanter, Idowu Ogunlade, who is also a radio and television broadcaster, corroborated Ogundepo’s position on the origin of ijala. Ogunlade said: “Ijala is chanted to show reverence to Ogun, the god of iron. Hunters believe that wherever they see any animal in the forest or anywhere, Ogun is there.”

Apart from using it to pay homage to Ogun, a version of the history of the musical genre, ijala, is traceable to the chanting contests organised by/and for traditional hunters in the past. It is said that the chanters would try to outshine one other, using their poetic prowess and, if need be, the employment of incantation.

Ogunlade pointed out thus: “Before our generation, hunters would perform, using magical powers. Through incantation, they could ‘seize’ one another’s voices and carry out other forms of attack even while on stage. Each of them would be struggling to outshine the others. Then, some of these usually happened during Ogun festival and other traditional events. We were told that it was like war going to such performances. Some of the hunters would say that they were going for ija ninla or ija nla (great war of words) which may lead to attacking one another spiritually. It was shortened as ijala till today. Ijala is, therefore, a contraction of the Yoruba expression ija nin la awon ode which could be translated to English as “great war of hunters.”

Similarly, a stakeholder at the Theatre Arts and Movie Practitioners’ Association of Nigeria (TAMPAN), Sule Ayodeji, an ijala chanter, also told Nigerian Tribune that the name, ijala, came about as a result of heated competitions that used to happen among the chanters in the past.

“Ogun was the first to chant ijala. It was said that when Ogun was drunk with palm wine, he would sing and that the song he sang is now known as ijala. We were also told that whenever Ogun went hunting, he would charted ijala,” Ayodeji said.

Chief Ogundepo added that “After this and many other activities, the hunters would be competing for superiority as a result of the display of chanting prowess. For instance, a chanter might ask, ‘What type of raiment did Ogun wear on the day he was descending from heaven?’ One of them might respond thus: ‘He wore raiment of fire or of blood.’

Others might counter these responses. Questions on Sango might come up and so on. It is, however, pertinent to clarify that some of the questions, claims and counter-claims are not, in their entirety, true. The chanters would only want to defeat one another using their (other performers’) weak point.”

Chief Ogundepo explained that “apart from employing ijala to render the Ogun panegyric, hunters also use it to pay last respect to departed hunters, in form of elegy and that is called erinmoje, a kind of mourning song for hunters.”


Musical instruments used in ijala performance

Chief Idowu-Akataapa and Chief Ogunlade told Nigeria Tribune that ijala’s musical instruments include the following drums: gangan, omele, dundun iya ilu, gudugudu or even akuba. The duo clarified that the combination of the beat produced by the drums is called akitinpa (hunters’ beat).

Apart from being Ogun’s chant in the prehistoric period, Nigerian Tribune learnt that the various functions of the mass media in the society are also applicable to ijala as a genre of traditional poetry. Part of the functions include, but not limited to the following: to inform, educate, propagate history, entertain, teach morals, promote hygiene and render panegyrics of different lineages.

In his description, Chief Ayodeji maintained that Foyanmu was a legend of ijala performance who contributed significantly to its development.

“When we talk about Ojogbon Ogundare Foyanmu, he did a lot in the lives of so many ijala chanters. Many of the stories I tell about ijala were from the mouth of Baba Foyanmu. Is it language use, comic presentation, lineage panegyric rendition, wisdom in composition?

Name it, Foyanmu was a hero of high repute. I remember I was at a book launch written in honour of Ojogbon Foyanmu by Alagba Sayo Alagbe. Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, was in attendance. The bottom line is that the maestro deserved to be celebrated even by governments,” he said.

Despite the beauty and the place of ijala in the Yoruba culture, there are still challenges facing the genre and the chanters. Lamenting that many ijala chanters are not successful, Ogunlade posited that such stagnancy has not encouraged today’s youths in developing interest in it.

According to a promoter of Yoruba culture and writer, Alagba Sayo Alagbe, there has not been appreciable attention from the government and organisations on how to salvage ijala as a cultural heritage of the Yoruba people. He said while alive, Ojogbon Foyanmu was not celebrated by the governments despite his contributions. Alagbe, who authored a book on Foyanmu entitled ‘Ijala Ogundare Foyanmu: Ijinle Ohun Enu Yoruba’, told Nigerian Tribune that hope is not yet lost on what the government, organisations and well-meaning individuals can do on ijala.

He said: “The reason why most ijala chanters are so poor is the inability of our successive governments to give due recognition. Ijala chanters are recognised by few individuals who understand and appreciate them for the Yoruba language, culture and tradition they promote.”

Stakeholders have called on the government, organisations, academic institutions, philanthropists, among others, to come to their aid and rescue the cultural heritage from going into extinction.

Ogundepo advised that “To save it from going into extinction, departments of Yoruba language, theatre arts, mass communication, among other related field, in our higher institutions should collaborate with us so that young ones will learn and promote it.”

Ogunlade, in his submission said: “We want support from governments and their agencies in monetary terms. We also want the inclusion of ijala as special features of our festivals in Yoruba land.”

Ayodeji expressed dismay at the level at which youths neglect ijala. “The fear of the future of ijala grips us. There has not been any assistance and contribution from government and private organisations,” he said.



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