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Nigerian Drums Festival bursts onto the scene



The first ever Nigerian Drums Festival, which held over four days in the Ogun State capital, Abeokuta, from 19th to 22nd April, 2016, has been the country’s most significant cultural event of this year so far. Organised by the Ogun State Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the festival was staged in the open-air setting of an amphitheatre that welcomed rich and poor alike, in the generous grounds of the June 12 Cultural Center in Abeokuta.

A large number of dignitaries attended the opening ceremony on April 19, as the festival burst into colour and a cacophony of sounds. Several foreign ambassadors were in attendance, underscoring the international reach of the festival. Also present were top government officials including: Mrs. Dayo Keshi; DG of the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC), Dr Barclays Ayakoroma; Executive Secretary/CEO of the National Institute of Cultural Orientation (NICO); and Ms Sally Mbanefo, DG of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC).

Speaking through a representative, the Federal Minister of Culture and Tourism, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, commended Ogun State for the festival, while calling for its sustenance, and for other states to “borrow a leaf from the Gateway State.” The minister noted that the festival was of particular importance “because of its focus on an aspect of our cultural heritage that we have either taken for granted or one that is gradually fading away. This is an aspect of our culture that we must not allow to die, or to be overshadowed by the contemporary strain.”

Royal fathers at the opening event, led by the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, lauded the initiative of the festival and issued a clarion call for the revival of culture. “This is what we own. We should be proud of our heritage,” said the Ooni. The Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo, spoke eloquently to discredit the idea canvassed in some quarters, that a return to culture equates idol worship.

The monarch said, “Not since FESTAC of 1977 have we made an attempt to go back to our roots, to find out the attractiveness in our culture, those things that will make people to come and see how we were before the white man came. The white man came, he found that we already had a society that was well cultured. They had nothing to add to the civilization that they met here. The culture was never abrogated as some historians would like us to believe. So, we are back to what we should have been doing over all the years.”

Another recurring theme of the festival was the potential of culture and tourism as significant revenue contributors, especially in the current economic downturn. “Oil is gone and gone for good,” Oba Gbadebo declared. “We cannot expect to find as much money as we got from oil before. But we cannot go on moaning our fate. We have to go to what we have and use what we have to get what we want. We have so much to offer the world.”

The NCAC DG struck a similar note in her goodwill message, touching on the role of festivals in “injecting extra revenue into the economy of the host community” through local transportation, hotels and hospitality, food vending and the empowerment of artists. Mrs Keshi called on the private sector and other stakeholders to invest in the Nigerian Drums Festival, to enable it “achieve its laudable goals of stimulating grassroots development, especially with our youths and women.”

The theme of empowerment would be amply demonstrated by the end of the four-day programme. But first, the festival had to be declared open. And there was history to be made, with the unveiling of the tallest drum in the world, aptly named ‘Isokan’ (Unity). The setting for all this was a drum-themed stage with giant percussion set-pieces, designed by Teju Kareem of Z-Mirage Multimedia. The lighting, sound and recording equipment were top notch, including a drone camera with flashing lights that held much fascination for Ogun citizens at it hovered over them during evening performances.

Chief host, Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State, mounted the stage along with his wife, Olufunso, and state officials, to declare the festival open. The highlight was the beating of the Isokan drum, measuring 16 feet from the ground. “This is a work of art,” Amosun was heard saying, as he marveled at the monolithic wonder, made of hardwood and covered at the top end with deer’s skin. Isokan was one of three giant drums commissioned for the festival by the Ogun State Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Produced at Femi Art Warehouse by a three man team led by Femi Coker, it took three months to carve.

Officials were suitably reverential, and did not want to use a crane to facilitate Amosun’s beating of the drum. An appropriate natural method was preferred. And so the drum had to be gently coaxed till it leaned at an angle from which the governor could render the ceremonial drumbeat, his wife rushing over to hold a microphone to capture the sound. As Ogun Deputy Governor, Mrs Yetunde Onanuga noted at the closing ceremony days later, “The beating of the 16ft drum, which was the first of its kind, has not only added glamour to the festival, but has shown the renovative potential in our cultural heritage.”

For the rest of the festival, only performers on stilts could be elevated enough to beat it, accompanied by dancers and a folklorist chanting a cognomen to the monumental drums. Another highlight of the opening ceremony was a tribute to the late theatre impresario, Hubert Ogunde, one of Ogun State’s gifts to Nigerian culture. Ogun has cultural icons in spades, and many of these were celebrated during the course of the festival.

On the penultimate evening of the festival, April 21, a session by waka musician Alhaja Kuburat Alaragbo was followed by a virtuoso performance by 89-year-old Adewole Oniluola, famed Gangan drummer to the late Ayinla Omowura. The octogenarian performed while seated, and held the audience spellbound with his drumbeats. He played many percussive standards and soon the largely young crowd was singing Ayinla Omowura’s lyrics along with the old man. The generation gap seemed to melt away as the young ones, usually more in tune with Lil Kesh and Olamide, grooved and sang along to music that had already passed into the realm of history. Coming from an era when indigenous music tracks played nonstop to the end of the record, Oniluola appeared more energized the more he drummed, clearly in his element.

A competitive segment featured hosts Ogun, and Kano, perhaps the most prominent of states, including Niger and Edo, that participated at the festival. Kano Troupe’s group performance was an exuberant display of agility, dexterity and physical coordination – all centred on their drums. They were best described as a drum orchestra, and their ‘conductor’, a gentleman in white djellaba, could be seen pacing back on forth unobtrusively in the space between the audience and the stage, putting band members through their paces. The Kano troupe’s special offering was a lone performer beating a quartet of drums, who enthralled the audience with hypnotic drumrolls. “Ilu merin, eniyan kansoso,” said one of the emcees in Yoruba – ‘Four drums, one person.’

From lone drummers to ensembles, the Nigerian Drums Festival had it all. And it didn’t get any bigger than the blistering performance by Eko Samba Community, which brought a touch of Rio to the amphitheatre, and set the place alight. “We play music from Brazil, which has its roots in Africa,” said Seyi Ajeigbe, coordinator of Eko Samba Community. The project teaches children in the Satellite Town community in Lagos to play Samba drums and express themselves creatively while also developing core life skills.

Photographers rushed to film audience members that had suddenly transformed into hot salsa dancers, as the band, numbering at least 15, struck up a rollicking carnival beat with the sound of many kongas. The audience went wild. It didn’t get hotter than this at the club. “I am enjoying myself,” said a gentleman photographing the spectacle with his iPad; he turned out to be Femi Coker, creator of the 16ft drum.

Not to be outdone as the host state, the Ogun Drum Troupe threw everything into their own performance on the night: young gangan and sakara players, female drummers, acrobatic displays, rapid-fire bata dancing, elements of contemporary dance, a bilingual monologue, and songs to the glory of ‘Isese’ (traditional culture).

Before the vote of thanks at the closing ceremony by Basorun Muyiwa Oladipo, Ogun State Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, the festival hit an emotional note with the raffle draw. The Second Prize, a brand new saloon car, was won by a local woman who gave her address simply as ‘Itoku Under Bridge’. The name on the winning ticket, Christiana Bello, belonged to the infant she carried on her back. The extreme good luck moved many in the audience, as Ogun Speaker, Prince Suraj Isola, presented her with the car keys, even as he prayed in Yoruba for providence to continue to shine on the lucky baby.

“This is socio-economic empowerment. This is adding value to the lives of the citizens,” said one of the emcees, effusively.

For this and many other reasons, the Nigerian Drums Festival will linger on in the memory of Ogun citizens, visitors and participants, even as many are already calling for the festival to become an annual event, one that will spread across Nigeria, and beyond.

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