Yoruba Drums and Drummers – Tola Adenle

Drumming is a vital part of the cultural heritage of the Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria.  Generally, whenever there is a big occasion:  weddings, funerals … there must be drummers around.  In big cities like Ibadan, there are always drummers plying their trade on weekends even without having any specific invitation to big occasions.  These drummers could stop by and many celebrants allow such drummers – with restrictions on their performances – to join the celebration so that they can make some money.   This way, the tradition of passing the art of drumming which often appears effortless, but which involves very difficult process and long apprenticeship, to live on.

Yoruba drummers generally start learning early in life which explains the mastery they acquire by the time they reach as early in life as their late teens. And it runs in families, with fathers taking their young sons along on engagements where a sort of apprenticeship begins.

Yoruba place so much significance on naming children that the circumstances surrounding a child’s birth can almost always be understood from the child’s name: Malomo is a child believed to be abiku, that is a child who dies often in infancy but returns to the same mother over and over again. When you meet an adult with the name as a first name, her story is told in that name while Ejide is the name of either twins with Kehinde, the second to be borne, is actually supposed to be the older child while Taiwo, the first, is taken as the younger child. Taiwo is shortened form of Tọ aiye wo – a child supposedly sent by the older child to go ahead and sample the world so that he/she would know whether joing him/her is worth it! Both names are not gender specific.

It is not surprising therefore that Ayan is a drumming family-specific name.  Families with long histories of playing the Yoruba drums are often easy to recognize by their names which often include  ‘ayan’ as in Alayande; yes, Oga Alayande, the late Principal of Ibadan Grammar School was from such a family.  He said he played the drums for many years before starting elementary school! Any name with ‘Ayan’ as part of it – given or family names:  Ayandele, Ayandipo, et  cetera,  means the person who bears that name is from a family with a history of drumming.

While most drummers in a town/city pays homage to their traditional rulers by stopping by the Afin (Yoruba Palaces), all Oba have their personal drummers who have the personal signature tunes composed with the talking drums for individual Obas.  In the past, talking drums woke Obas up in the morning.  They were also used for communication, and were very useful in wars.

The Talking Drum, as the name signifies, is a drum that is often played to mimic spoken words. It is a drum made out of wood with animal skin used to cover the top head and the bottom while lether strips link both ends. To make the drum “talk”, the middle is squeezed in certain ways and a sickle-shaped stick is used to hit the leather top to produce required sounds.
During the many years of Yoruba wars, these drums reportedly played vital roles in sending messages to the war fronts by the Obas, especially the Alaafin (of Oyo).
There are different kinds of Talking Drums but the most popular ones are the Gangan and the Dundun.
While most drummers in a town/city pays homage to their traditional rulers by stopping by the Afin (Yoruba Palaces) when they go on outings, all Oba have their personal drummers who have the personal signature tunes composed with the talking drums for individual Obas.
For the different Obas in Yorubaland, the gangan is played in different ways to wake him up in the morning, to praise him,  to announce the arrival of important dignitaries, et cetera.

About 2010, I had a personal experience that brought above vividly to mind. My spouse had not visited the Afin Osogbo since his father died in 1975, and even though he and the then reigning monarch,Ataoja, Oba Matanmi are distant cousins, he did not stop by even when occasions called for it unlike many of his siblings, especially his immediate senior sister, Abimbola Oladejo, now late, better known in the city by her Christian name, Rhoda. She was close to Late Ataoja Matanmi.

One of Ataoja Matanmi’s daughters was getting married and an invitation came to us from a person that we had to honor. The moment the drummers waiting outside saw Dr. Adenle, they started the talking drum that everybody at Osogbo recognizes as Oba Adenle’s praise drumming:

Mo r’ẹni gb’oju le, mor’ẹni f’ẹhin ti, Adenle f’ẹhin t’Ọlọrun/o duro gbọin, gbọin, gbọin, o duro … mo r’ohun t’odun, ẹja ọsan …

Of course Oba Matanmi knew one Adenle had to be around although he would not know which one but the drumming told him homage was being paid to one of his own, so to say, one of the children of the Ataoja who reigned before him. When we went to pay our homage, the first thing he said – may his soul continue to rest in peace – was Depo, ṣ’ọ da’a bayi? [Depo, ṣe o dara bayi?]

In that single simple question, the Ataoja asked why Depo had not visited him since he ascended the throne of their fathers in 1976 – over thirty years – and whether what he did was good, et cetera.

Depo immediately gave a dignified bowing. Everybody in Yorubaland prostrates for the Oba and it crossed my mind whether this was why this guy who is one of the sons of the last Ataoja did not go near the Afin for a long time even once that he made me realize we would stop by; he did not want to have to prostrate; he did not!  I’m sure both of them understood.

The personal drummer for Late Oba Samuel Adenle was Late Shittu, a.k.a. Shittu Okanjuwa – Greedy Shittu! His son (sort of) inherited the name and its connotation.

The lead drummer, below, learnt from his father and continues the tradition of playing at all Adenle functions when invited. He must have another name but he’s generally known at Osogbo as Shittu Okanjuwa!

The passion in his eyes is incredible!


The Yoruba Drums and Drummers

Shittu Okanjuwa, Jr. doing his thing at Ibadan, December 2004. [ Photo Credit:  Biodun Ogunmola]

Here he does what he knows best at an Adenle wedding. He knows the praise songs, the special beats, et cetera which gets Adenle descendants on their feet and hands in their pockets and pocket books (hand bags) to shower him with money.

Another important “drum” is the Ṣẹkẹrẹ which sounds a bit like its name. It is made from a gourd whose innards are scooped out and the gourd dried before it is dressed in cowrie beads and strong threads. While the ṣẹkẹrẹ is not as flamboyant as the gangan, a single ṣẹkẹrẹ player can hold its own amidst several gangan players.

There are also usually other instruments, especially percussion instruments.

These days, most Yoruba musicians have introduced Yoruba instruments to the Western-influenced beats that most have gravitated towards; the gangan is particularly popular.

No theatrics drummer lets his drum do the talkingAnother Oba Adenle’s drummer; no theatrics but equally effective, Ibadan wedding, December 1998.  [Photo Credit:  Biodun Ogunmola]


They had travelled to Ibadan with Late Oba Adenle’s Ẹgbẹ Ero Mimọ of All Saints’ Cathedral, Osogbo – Picture 1 – to honor the memory of the late Ọba at the public presentation of Samuel Adenle I, Ataoja of Osogbo: Portrait of a Yoruba Ọba by Depo & Tola Adenle at the Premier Hotel, Ibadan on October 21, 2006.





In the second picture of the pair, above, a single ṣẹkẹrẹ “drummer” holds his own amidst three drummers.


Today, Yoruba drumming lives on in the Diaspora, in Cuba where ṣẹkẹrẹ is called chekeré, and Brazil, Yoruba tradition of drumming is alive.


WEDNESDAY, JUNE 4, 2014.  1:40 P.M. [GMT]

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