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Abeokuta Drum Festival: Stirring Africa from economic, cultural abyss

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Ekemini Performing Troupe from Akwa Ibom State thrilling at the foot of Olumo Rock as part of the drumming workshop


A tangible product, the drum, and its intangible output, the sound, became the twin celebratory offerings that kept Africa on the edge of its seat for three days last week in Abeokuta, Ogun State, when the third edition of African Drum Festival 2018 was held. It was paying tribute to the ingenuity of a continent’s ancestors, who fashioned, with animal skin and wood, instruments that are at once modes of making music and communication. It had ‘Reviving our Culture in Drums’ as theme.

Indeed, the evening skyline of Abeokuta throbbed thunderously on Thursday night as the drums rolled and rumbled in the rocky plains behind June 12 Cultural Centre, Kuto, with the city’s numerous hills paying heed to a unique carnival of colours and sounds. The usual magic of Zmirage Multimedia Ltd was visible, particularly in the mold of a huge drum intricately fashioned to provide the centre stage of the drum performance showpiece. Two smaller stages adorned both sides of the drum stage that allowed multiple performances; it allowed one performance group to set up while one is exiting.

What was more, the presence of many prominent royal personages lent the festival special grandeur. Ooni of Ife, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, Ojaja II, Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, Alake of Egba, Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo III, Obong of Calabar, Edidem Ekpo Okon, Abasi Otu V and many others lent their royal present and weight to the event. These personages all spoke the language of the African drum and drummed it on the ears of all on the need to go back to the African roots and ways of being. They all commended the people of Ogun State and their governor, Sen. Ibikunle Amosun, for organising the cultural fiesta to exhibit the continent’s undying drum legacy.

The Alaafin of Oyo stressed the need for cultural revival and how culture could be appropriated as a unifying force, “Through culture we can mentor and inspire all our people to be one.”Obong of Calabar, who worked in Abeokuta as his early years, also noted that Amosun was leading the people of Ogun State in the right direction by instituting the festival that spoke to the soul of a continent.

According to him, “Culture is the beginning of every African. Europeans came, met our unique traditions and sought ways to break them. I have seen something different here. This one (festival) is spectacular because it goes straight to our traditional institutions. I encourage other governors to look into our traditional values and industries and showcase them to the world. Next year my state will be represented at this festival.”

On his part, host royal father, Alake of Egbaland, who wore a resplendent dress he said was handed over to him by his ancestors, canvased the need to preserve African culture and not throw it away as has become the fad, noting, “We cannot throw away our culture. What belongs to us we must preserve it. Our drums are means of communication. I encourage people to get a drum in their offices or homes and use it to motivate them when they are tired or depressed.”

The royal father also castigated parents, who prevent their children from speaking their mother tongues and advised them to emulate Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature, Prof. Wole Soyinka, who he said speaks English better than the English man, but is still able to speak his native Yoruba language effortlessly.

On the first evening, many drum troupes performed and drew loud applause from the huge crowd. Kwara State art council kicked off the drumming and dance session, followed by Katsina State’s troupe, which added a lot of dramatic flare to spice up its performance. But the evening performances came to a climax when two children’s groups performed to stun the audience with their skill and brilliance. First to take the main stage was Lagos-based children’s troupe, Footprint of David, and its counterpart from Akwa Ibom State, Ekemini Performing Troupe. These young groups of drummers made drumming look so easy and charming spectacle. The sheer calisthenics display of Footprint of David on the drums, the ease with which these children alternated on the various drums and their sheer enjoyment of their craft wooed the audience endlessly.

Ekemini Troupe showed equal class in its craftsmanship on the locally made xylophones. Even in their tender ages, they thrilled the audience with their skills and pelted out popular tunes that got the audience singing and rocking along. The children’s handling of Flavour’s Ada was particularly telling and it showed that they are a young group of promise. The group from Benin Republic also showed class, as it had tortoise shells as part of its drumming instruments.

ALREADY in its third edition, the overarching influence of Festival Consultant and Africa’s foremost man of letters, Soyinka, was unmistakable in the overall festival planning and execution. This year an intellectual discourse was introduced in the form of a conference consisting of drum experts and performers and a workshop. An exhibition that showcased the works and times of foremost music maestro, Fela Sowande, was also part of the programme. If anything, this aspect dispelled any notion of viewing the festival as a mere jamboree. Soyinka urged Amosun to retrieve and own this other older Fela before Lagos swoops on him as they did the younger Fela Anikulapo.

The conference component of the African Drum Festival (2018) was “conceived as a new dimension to the annual event, specifically to bring intellectual flavour to the character and content of the project. The main objective is to begin to position the drum as a tool for education, socialization, cultural and economic advancement.” Therefore, ‘Drumming for Advancement’ became the apt theme for this section.

The intellectual aspect of the festival took place at the foot of the historic Olumo Rock for which Abeokuta is renowned. Indeed, it seemed a glorious return to the ancestral roots with drum offerings. Arrayed at the foot of the huge rock that towers into the sky were various performing groups with their drums as if on a mission to summon the gods from their abode. Sir Peter Badejo, Mr. Isioma Williams and Mr. Emmanuel Ikwue were in charge of the workshop at the foot of the rock.

Meanwhile inside the hall, the conference and intellectual part of the festival was in full gear, as drum and dance scholars from across Nigeria and Africa were ready to give scholarly impetus to the fiesta. But it was not the usual conference where only theorising holds sway. It was a demonstration conference where theory marched practice. The conference demonstration session had Salisu Mashi, Abegwa Alu, Goiserey Louoba Landry and Mukanyandwi Claudine – all master drummers from various parts of Africa. The session also had honoured performances given by Pa Anthony Odili (nonagenarian ex-drummer of late Rex Jim Lawson), Ajewole Oniluola (octogenarian ex-lead drummer of Ayinla Omowura Band) and Mallam Magaji Mahuta (octogenarian ex-drummer of Mamman Shatta Band).

Also present were governor Amosun, his deputy, Chief (Mrs.) Yetunde Onanuga, Ooni of Ife, Obong of Calabar and Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed and representatives of Edo, Kaduna and Katsina State governors.

Soyinka set the tone for the conference and gave an engaging background to the heart of African musical experience as exemplified by two men – Babatunde Olatunji and Wynton Marsali, who plied their trade in America, in what he titled ‘From Olatunji to Marsalis.’According to him, “What else is of relevance here? Simply that rhythm is an endless field of exploration. Today’s music video explosion enhances, but also banalises that resource. The possible permutations and combinations of major and subsidiary rhythms in any one piece of composition will drive any mathematician to distraction. The African polyrhythmic tradition is of course unmatched in the entire globe – I challenge anyone to contradict me on that, I simply won’t listen to you! Most of us here, I am sure, grew up with those interfoliating rhythms that appear to wander all over the landscape during traditional performances, then progressively come to rest in unison, only to take off all over again, it seems for ever. After the unbelievable polyphonic bravura, once again, your ears pick up the homecoming – the bembe, omele, iya ilu, gudu-gude, the sekere, bata, and these days even wind instruments, especially royal bugles and trumpets during grand processions, the heavy society weddings in the traditional mode or titled funeral procession – the beats seem to dialogue with one another, responding also to verbal chants and the swell of stamping feet in choric possession. Gradually, once again, it’s all re-converging, and with that indescribable sensation of emotional purgation, the various elements are assembling towards a sequence of pauses, ready to take off again… and so it continues…

“That is what today’s Big Bands – not just in the U.S., but all over the world – attempt to emulate these days, with various degrees of success and richness. Every musicologist or simply music historian has his or her theory of the origins of jazz – one aspect I believe all are agreed on is that it all began from the rhythms imported from this continent – I like to narrow that down not just to the rhythm, but specifically to the polyrhythm – where the drums converse, just as jazz musicians do these days when saxophone or trumpet sets up the conversation, and improvisations follow, to be joined in by other instruments until the groundswell of sounds burst into an impassioned tapestry of animated sounds and virtually overwhelm the senses.”

Mr. Mufu Onifade moderated the conference presentations. First to present was Ghanaian Dr. Sylvanus Kwashie Kuwor, a master drummer, music and dance practitioner/scholar. Kuwor lectures at the University of Ghana, Legon. He has had a decade of experience in Britain as a cultural educator, where he used African drum, music and dance in inclusion education programmes aimed at integrating African refugees into mainstream society. He based his presentation on three main pillars of economic, cultural and aesthetic values and noted that drumming could be vocalised and textualised. He also added that education is not only about books because education is experiential and that traditional drumming should not be made to suffer on the altar of modernity, saying that both could be synergised to formulate a holistic aesthetic.

Solomon Terkura Adaa, a crowned Master Drummer (2004-2005) by the National Troupe of Nigeria, Iganmu, Lagos, with specialisation in choreography, spoke on ‘Swange Music and Socio-Economic Importance: The Jovena Swange Band of Gboko (Benue State) in Perspective.’ Adaa highlighted swange music and dance as tools for taking young men and women out of the streets into productive economic activity. He noted a paradigm shift in the music industry in recent years where youths have moved from disco nightclubs to concentrate on cultural dances choreographed for swange music.

He said swange music had been in existence as a form of socialisation but that it did not have a dance expression until a choreographer of Yoruba origin evolved the dance in the course of a workshop. Swange music, Adaa noted, has over 100 dance groups in the country and every evening they dance to entertain people. He highlighted the didactic messages passed through swange music, which helps in correcting youth to be of good behaviour. According to him, swange traditional performers entertain, educate and possess the potential to help the youth earn some income and contribute to the economy.

On his part, Laolu ‘Akins’ Akintobi, a renowned Nigerian musician, author, composer, artist, repertoire expert and consultant of international recognition, spoke on ‘Sustaining Drumming Culture via Structured Education.’ He began with a song to establish audience participation and the polyrhythmic nature of African music. He said African drums have names and their texture determines their tonality, adding that the procedure of making a drum determines the rhythm it produces. He emphasised the importance of education via drums, and advocated that drumming should be inculcated and entrenched into the younger generation so as to preserve the culture of drumming.

Akintobi also identified different types of drums and said African music producers use the rhythms and tonal sounds of African instruments to produce music that is commercial and globally acceptable. He commended governor Amosun for reviving the drumming vocation through the festival.Also, Muraina Oyelami, a first generation of the famous Osogbo Art School initiated by Professor Ulli Beier and his wife Mrs. Georgina Beier, a founding member of late Duro Ladipo Theatre Company as an actor and a musician, took his turn. With ‘Production of Digital Documentation of an Educational Audio-visual Facility and Publication of Bata Drumming Techniques and Notation, he identified lack of reference materials for teaching drum and drumming in schools as a hindrance to an effective transmission of knowledge about drums to the young generation while lamenting the lack of interest by publishers to publish his manuscripts. He gave a brief demonstration of the speech patterns of the dundun drum, which made his presentation unique and enriching.

Prof. Jeleel Ojuade, a master drummer and expert dancer, who holds a Ph.D in performance studies, with emphasis on Yoruba bata and dundun dances from the institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, spoke on ‘Drumming for Socio-economic Development: The Application of Dundun and Bata Drums.’ According him, culture is a way of life, as it includes the totality of the arts. He noted that drumming is one of the ways value is brought out of any socio-economic endeavour without words. He classified drums into three: ideophones as self-sounding instruments, aerophones as wind instruments such as flutes, trumpets, saxophones, etc, and membranophones as drums made from animal skins.

Ojuade emphasised the fact that Nigeria is yet to harness the economic capital of drums, saying drums possess innate language through which messages are transmitted in African societies. Drums, he stressed, possess ‘sound codes,’ which only the initiated could understand. He used Yoruba bata and dundun drums to illustrate the essence of drums in African cultures. Ojuade also appealed to the Nigerian government through the Minister of Information and Culture and other stakeholders to salvage African culture through the promotion of drums as tools for socio-economic development.

Research scientist, consulting engineer, culture activist and Executive Director of African Languages Technology Initiative (Alt-I), Ibadan, Dr. Tunde Adegbola, spoke on ‘Probabilistically Speaking: A Quantitative Exploration of Yoruba Speech Surrogacy.’ He stressed that the objective was to demonstrate that history is not a joke based on the use of musical instruments such as drums and flutes, which express the tonality of the Yoruba language. He also stressed that in the past speech surrogacy was the mode of communication in African communities, as they used the drums to talk to each other.He explained that the bandwidth needed to communicate in Yoruba language is 10 times less than what is needed in today’s communication models because the consonant and vowel sounds could be done away with and speech could still be understood. Additionally, he explained that the tonality of Yoruba drums is mathematically and scientifically demonstrable.

Public speaker and pan-Africanist, Dr. Bukola Bello Jaiyesimi, who taught cultural diversity awareness in schools and corporate organizations throughout North-east Scotland, United Kingdom through communicating her training through various art forms such as African drumming and dance, stated that drumming gives life and needs to be preserved just as culture preserves life. She also argued that drumming is not accorded a place of importance in society, hence people with talent in drumming engage in other more lucrative jobs while others migrate out of the country resulting in brain drain.

She questioned the place of gender in the drumming industry and reiterated that women could contribute to the socio-economic advancement of the country through drumming. She then cited the examples of schools such as the Women Drum Centre in the U.S., where drumming is taught. She also called on government and the private sector to continue to support the arts so they could contribute effectively to the economy.

THERE were also interventions in which other scholars and knowledgeable culture producers made valuable input to the sub-theme of ‘Drumming for Socio-Cultural Development.’ First was Dr. Olu Adewale Adeniran of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, who said he observed four points from the submissions of previous speakers to include tonality, gender implication, economic value and continuity of the drum tradition. On tonality, he cited the example of talking drums made in the west, which do not encapsulate all the tonal sounds of the indigenous talking drums. On gender, he noted the disappearance of certain types of drums in the Nigerian drum archive and cited the example of a particular drum used by an all-female ensemble. He promised to look up the band in his hometown and see if it was still in existence and how he could help resuscitate it.

On the economic value of the on-going festival, he urged Ogun State Government to investigate its impact on the economy of Abeokuta in terms of financial inflow. He then stressed the need to protect and preserve the array of Yoruba talking drums. Adeniran also advocated the extension of the period of the African Drum Festival to a weeklong affair so as to accommodate the abundance of drummers. He described Amosun as a cultural avatar for creating a festival platform for drummers.

Former Artstic Director, National Troupe of Nigeria, Akin Adejuwon, addressed the esoteric dimension of drums in terms of function and essence and stated further that drum goes to the very source of creation as visual arts. He located the origin of the drum in Yoruba mythology in odu oturupon through a contest that was stage managed by Esu. Being a visual artist, he explained the choice of materials for drum making such as wood, grain stalk or leather and reminded the audience that in the past, art was practiced by specific families of onisona (visual artists) and from then it got diffused into the community.

Adejuwon recommended that since drum is a metaphor of oro (word) the knowledge embedded in the word should be exposed to the youth via the festival. Lastly, he advocated that the country and all state governors should key into the mission to popularise and preserve African drums through such festivity.

Gregoire Kabore identified a particular drum made of calabash in his local Burkina Faso. He lamented the disappearance of some drum types and advocated that youth should be trained and carried along in the art of drum making as well as drumming for cultural preservation and continuity. Drumming and teaching about drums should be incorporated into the school curriculum, he submitted.

Cote d’Ivoire’s Landry Louoba made her intervention in three parts. She identified wood as a vital material in the making of drums. She lamented the depletion of the forest as a major ecological setback in respect of sourcing of raw materials for the making of drums – wood and leather. She then asked a potent question: How do we plant trees to replace the ones cut down to make drums? She suggested that instrumentalists should be properly trained in every aspect of the drum art so as to ensure cultural preservation. Louoba also advocated that professionalism should not be gender-sensitive.

Filmmaker and cinematographer, Tunde Kelani’s intervention opined that drum could be used as an instrument of cultural diplomacy and cited the example of the logo and the sound at the beginning of his films, as a deliberate promotional icon to foster cultural diplomacy. He showcased a short documentary to demonstrate speech surrogacy through drums. In the documentary, Saworoide, the talking drum is a substitute for voice dialogue. The drum speaks and subtitles are used for the dialogue. The documentary also presents the correspondence between Sango, the dancer, and his drummer, Sate – thus the correspondence between dance and drum as symbiotic practices and aesthetic forms. This also underpins the idea of unity of purpose.

Also, South Africa’s Thandi Swaartbooi demonstrated her Xhosa click speech sounds as an accompaniment to music just like the drum. She noted that indigenous instruments are not taken seriously in South Africa, as elsewhere and lamented the tragedy of cultural theft whereby Africans fail to recognize their talents until foreigners adopt, develop and export them back to them. She spoke about gender problems where women were not allowed to drum, but to sing and dance only. She said she overcame the barrier by developing her skills in drumming, collecting instruments and starting a women’s drumming group called Marumba Band under the auspices of Women Unite.

For Bokossa Cocou Armel, the importance of drumming in Africa cannot be overemphasised. He stated that in the past, percussion was used to pass messages from one community to another and also to make announcements within communities. He said drums were used as telephones within communities because percussion drum sounds can travel for about 11km at the speed of 180km/h. he also stated that percussion is a very important instrument in African societies and that it is used for social functions such as birth, naming, death and wedding celebrations and other occasions such as harvest, call for meeting and announcing the onset of the farming season. It was also used during the colonial era to transmit information, he concluded.

Brenda Uphopho used Lagos Theatre Festival (LTF), which she jointly organises, as a case study, and described the procedure for festival management to ensure growth and sustainability. She outlined partnerships through collaboration with the participants, venue owners and stakeholders, ensuring all year round programming, organising workshops and other trainings for directors, and using participants as marketing tools. Uphopho also advised the drum festival organisers to work on the marketing partnerships so as to sustain and deepen the festival.

Tourism ambassador, Dr. Wanle Akinboboye’s intervention was mainly in the area of advocacy. He recalled the advise of a certain colonial officer, who said to conquer Africa, her culture must be taken away and replaced with European culture, and stressed the significance of culture in development. He said until Africa returned to its culture, the continent would continue to struggle in the darkness of underdevelopment. In this regards, he advocated the building of African Drum Festival resorts around the country, urged Ogun State Government particularly to ensure that the resort is realised within the next six months before the expiration of the tenure of the current administration, where all African cultures should be represented, saying that the current facilities are now inadequate to cater for the expected influx of tourists to the festival. Akinboboye also suggested that the proposed resort could be located around the beautiful hills along Shagamu-Abeokuta Road axis because of the availability of large expanse of land to accommodate hotels, arts centres and cinema houses that are necessary to drive tourism.

Two drum demonstration sessions during the conference by an eclectic group of drummers gave impressive testimonial of the universality of drum language. The two sessions were hurriedly put together a short while before the conference. In one of the drumming sessions made up of international drummers from five countries from English, French, with one member who neither spoke English nor French-country made the demonstration all the more alluring as they were able to drum in a harmonious way to the admiration of everyone present.

However, one lapse in the festival attendance make up was the absence of the local people within the vicinity of Olumo Rock, where the conference was held; not even the local children. The only children who were attracted to the spectacle looked on through the iron-gate leading into the walled premises of the rock. It was a wonder why school children were not also invited to be part of the festival, particularly given Soyinka’s partiality to children, at least to see their mates showing their drum skills such as in Footprint of David and Ekemini Performing Troupes. The need introduce children to drumming early was stressed at the conference and such inclusion would help in converting young ones who also drum on anything within reach at home and fire their imagination in different directions of creativity and ingenuity.


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