It is 5.a.m and the cool harmarttan wind blows mild across the expansive landscape while few trucks ply the deserted Akesan market road long before the day’s trading activity begins. At the same time, the shrill cry of the Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, the Alaafin’s talking drummers could be heard from a distance. “ Adeyemi dide ko bosi sokoto, enikan ke fise igbese ran omo eni dide o bosi sokoto” meaning “Alaafin, wake up and gather your loins, the responsibility that tradition assigns to you cannot be delegated,” sing the drummers. Thus, every morning in the palace, the talking drummers energise the Alaafin, when they come out in the morning by singing his praises and that of past Alaafin who have ruled the Oyo kingdom.
Like they do every morning, the drummers energetically pull and squeeze the strings striking the drum with a curve drum stick modulating the pitch in the process. Prestigious and easy as their task may seem, playing a drum like the talking drum on a daily basis is not an easy task for these men coupled with the fact that most of them live in a somewhat abject poverty. This is a mystery which has left many people wondering if the trade is eternally cursed.
Ayantunde Ayanlabi is an itinerant drummer. He lives on the meagre sum he earns from performing at functions. Every day especially weekends, he wanders from one area to another in search of parties where he can for a small fee for attendees. “This is the trade my father did till he was 75 years old,” he tells me proudly. “I am also doing the same. I cannot run away from that reality. My lineage is Ayan, the drummers. Drumming is what we do for a living. I am also training my children on it.”
The talking drummers are must-haves at functions in any part of the Yorubaland including the Obas palace. Important as they may be to the Yoruba social milieu, they make little or nothing at all from their performance. In Yoruba land, the talking drum is a percussion to which people can rhythmically dance, but the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi says the cultural significance of the Yoruba talking drum goes beyond mere its entertainment value.
“The talking drum is an important cultural evaluation of the Yoruba people and it was given leap and pioneered by the Oyo Yoruba,” explains, the Alaafin, a royal father and custodian of Yoruba heritage. “When people hear of the talking drum, they believe it is just an instrument to be drummed for people to dance but it is not so, we can use it as a means of conveying message.”
One can convey messages in diverse forms, one can convey messages in a long or short distance, depending upon the situation. As an Oba or a traditional Chief like the Alaafin of Oyo, the palace would not be complete without the talking drum. The talking drum wakes up the Alaafin early in the morning from 5.00 am and starts with the reciting of the Oriki of the past Alaafins, telling the incumbent Alaafin the challenges they faced, how they overcome the challenges and problems as well as the methods, they used so the talking drum serves as an important instrument of history. The drum goes on to talk about particular songs, dance steps or mannerisms of a past Alaafin to enable the incumbent Alaafin know the history of his predecessors. And that is why in Yoruba land, especially in Oyo, every Alaafin is the representative of all his ancestors. And it is important that he knows all their history.
“Our history and oral traditions were handed down to us by purely non-literate people. So, the talking drum is an important source of history. Other sources aside the talking drums are poetry or what we call chants. Almost all the established Oyo families, compounds, lineages, can recite their Orikis, and these are done with the talking drum. The Oriki can’t be complete without the Sekere and talking drums. The Oyo empire which comprised the Bashorun, the Oyo mesi, the Agbaakin, Samo, Alapini, Lagelu, Akininiku and Asipa, etc.” Oba Adeyemi adds.
This class order is sub-divided into smaller units, and the drummers can identify each lineage through its traditional praise song. Nobody in Africa or Nigeria has been able to do an in-depth study of this aspect of our tradition/culture and put down the praise songs of each family lineage, but the drummers can do it.
This means that once you are crowned the Alaafin, you have very little private life of your own, your entire life would be centred on the service of your people, rain or sunshine, the drummers are always there till they close at close to 7pm on a daily basis. They also know the visitors who come to the palace and they always let me know if I want to see a visitor or not. In war, they use drums to energise, encourage and motivate the solders and in time of sorrow, they use it to console the people.”
Historically, the talking drum of the Yoruba originated from Oyo. It was first assembled for the Alaafin, as his musical outfit whenever he goes to war. He used it to motivate his army. Today, it is celebrated because it is one of the things the Africans, the Oyo people and Yoruba gave to the world and which cannot be done by any other. Talking drum masters could actually send messages to others.
Talking drummers play significant roles as the rhythm of the drum, the dancers’ steps are dictated by the rhythm of the drum. Also, before you are crowned Alaafin, you are taken to the shrines of your forebears and you are made to learn as you are made to learn the intricacies of the dance steps of your ancestors. And all the dance steps you see me displaying are mostly the dance steps of my predecessors, and the Alaafin would not be complete if he cannot display rich culture of his Yoruba people through dance, music, Oriki and so on.
By: FUNKE OSAE-BROWN