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Charm of Omowura’s music… 35 years on

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The late Apala singer, Omowura

The late Apala singer, Omowura

The pertinent question on the lips of ardent followers of Yoruba music is how genuine sonorousYoruba music usually weaned on sensible meaning-laden lyrics and driven by coordinated percussion of different genres degenerated to this parlous state. What went wrong? How come nobody can continue the beat taking any semblance of a cue from the titans? Why do many fans at home and abroad never cease to lament the total evaporation of meaningful content from what is currently paraded as Yoruba music.

In a bid to find answers to these questions it might be necessary to examine the definition of what qualify as Yoruba music and its roots. The good thing here is the consensus on the ties between Yoruba music, culture and processes of socialisation of the Yoruba personage in all its ramifications. In 1924, Kolawole Ajisafe in his highly regarded History of Abeokuta cut out a graphic illustration of the Yoruba in his elements as depicted by his description of the Egbaman.

“From childhood to old age every Egbaman is considered superior to woman. He was a farmer, trader, hunter, weaver of clothes, canoe-man, jujuman, native doctor, drummer, singer, master of occultism, physician, judge, wood carver, warrior, house builder and statesman.

Each of these calling has its own communication parlance derived from everyday observation of interaction of attendant elements and people involved. Narratives emanating from such endeavours form the bedrock of proverbs and imagery associated with Yoruba usage.

Apala as a music form took its name from the small Apala talking drum. Its earliest exponents include Haruna Ishola, Kasumu Adio, S.K.B Ajao-Oru, Fatai Ayilara, Ayinla Omowura, Ojubanire Ajape. Accompanying instruments for Apala music included omele, akuba, gudugudu, igba and sekere. Among all these, a name Ayinla Omowura stood out and has since attracted the attention of academic researchers in terms of the content and arrangement of most of his music which has now gone evergreen.

Benson Idonije a leading music journalist and a non Yoruba speaker had this to say after requesting to witness an Ayinla Omowura recording session at EMI Studios in the 1970s “I saw raw talent and artistic motivation at their best…There were no music scores, neither were the songs written down for all to know the order of performance.The whole thing was written in the mind; and as soon as the first percussive note was struck, the session took off with the call and response pattern in which Ayinla moved from one chorus to another, establishing social commentaries with thought-provoking proverbial and anecdotal lines.”

This article itself grew out of a paper titled “Ayinla Omowura’s music as Journalism” and premised on an unpublished academic study showing every LP released by the late Egba born musician as a piece of journalism. Apart from informing, educating and entertaining a mass audience, Omowura’s record usually parade sections similar to newspapers and magazines.

At the beginning, he was not making much from music and had to engage in other chores while playing music for consummatory purposes. When the EMI Records got him through late Taoreed Adedigba, who was then an Artiste Manager, music became instrumental to relative wealth and living big.

He was also persuaded by the social responsibility school of thought in communication theory represented by devotion of a sizeable portion of many of his albums and even live sessions to free public affairs announcements and commentary.

A feature of his music is the inadvertent offering of free advertising or promotion while commenting on current affairs such as in a 1968 hit single (“Danfo O Siere”) in defence of the Volkswagen Combi People Carrier largely embraced by public transport drivers then but prone to road accidents.

In a stout defence of the vehicle, Ayinla argued there was nothing wrong with its engine or structure. His track record in public affairs promotion or commentary include the change from Left-hand-drive to the right in 1972 (April 2, lofin tunde, a change a tun gbo owo osi otun la follow se e gbo); Owo Udoji – nationwide salary increase (Owo Udoji odi sisan fun awon osise); Lagos State Rent Edict etc.

His lists of commentaries on obituaries include the death of Ayinde Bakare, a Lagos based musician who was murdered and the slain General Murtala Muhhamed in 1976. Chart bursting releases from his repertoire which could be classified as newspaper editorials include strongly condemnation of skin bleaching by women and armed robbery and general advice on how to manage a polygamous home. One of his most spectacular contributions to poetry was a piece on women owning and operating beer parlours.

A beer parlour of old is a restaurant form where beer/larger and other liquor are sold with lady owner as chief salesperson while the clientele is male. Omowura’s submission in this regard was that husbands of lady beer parlours operators, having consented to the trade, must not and cannot reasonably complain about their wives attending to too many male customers.

On sports commentary Omowura gave a vivid account of the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) Challenge Cup finals between Bendel Insurance FC of Benin and Mighty Jets FC of Jos 1972 and Mighty Jets versus Enugu Rangers FC of Enugu in 1974.

Other sections for information and entertainment in Ayinla’s music include Riddles and Jokes; poetic observation of interaction and interplay of nature and natural forces as well as intrinsic invocation of powers attributed by Yorubas to plants, animals, objects and other natural phenomena widely regarded as incantations.

On the dexterity and appeal of Omuwura as it appealed to Idonije during his stint with him in the recording studios in the 1970s “I stayed through till the end of the recording because I was carried away by the intricate complexities of his rhythms and the bluesy, down-to-earth voice that sang. I did not understand the message but the compelling sound of the ensemble and the artistic creativity of his vocal inflections registered an indelible impression on my mind.

On May 6, it will be exactly 35 years since this enigma exited this earth like an Iroko tree leaving a big gap in the forest. Since then, Yoruba music has never been the same again and it is looking like we have to settle for the mickey –mouse and at times mumbo-jumbo now being parroted as Yoruba music. Even Fuji after Ayinde Barrister has dissolved into zero-degree rendition of indecent sing-song.

According to my findings, what we have now is music as played by people bearing Yoruba names as opposed to indigenous Yoruba music as described above. To under obvious demise, use of the language in conversation and writing is declining by the day while no person, organisation or government seem to have a clue on how to redress the slide.

• Kola Adesina is Head of Department of Mass Communication, Crescent University, Abeokuta


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