Dancing music in the C20: Yoruba music (1951-68)

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“Trying to illustrate the importance of dance in the Yoruba culture will be almost like trying to illustrate the importance of food in human existence,” explains the Nigerian dancer and drummer Adebole Olowe.

“Dancing, drumming, singing—they’re important for every aspect of life. If you’re a fisherman, you have special dances that you do and special drumming and songs. If something happens—you have a baby—there are special dances and songs that are performed. At kings’ coronations there are special dances and songs that are performed. Every aspect of people’s lives has special dances and songs that are performed.

“It’s really hard to even find areas of the Yoruba life where you wouldn’t have singing and dancing and drumming.”

Yoruba music is, put simply, the music of the Yoruba people of West Africa. The Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, and are largely centred around Nigeria, where they comprise 21% of the population.

In general terms, yoruba music could encompass legends like Fela and Femi Kuti and King Sunny Ade, modern singers like Angelique Kidjo, and even Sade and Seal – as all are considered part of the Yoruba diaspora, not to mention the central role that drumming and dancing has played in Yoruba culture for thousands of years.

What we are investigating here though are the first recordings of Yoruba music, which did not emerge until the 1950s and 1960s, and consisted of an intriguing mix of Folkways-style ethnomusicological sound studies of traditional Yoruba music and the LPs by modern Yoruba that formed a sonic precursor to highlife and afrobeat.

Spotify playlist: early Yoruba recordings (1951-68)

The traditional musics that were recorded around this time were often functional rather than recreational – made to accompany rituals, sport, funerals, marriages, births, war or the dances of the famous Yoruba masquerades.

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Occasionally, though, these ritual musics would take root in the popular imagination and spawn a genre free from the associations of their function. One such example is Ekassa, which had been originally been devised as a royal dance in the 16th century.

In traditional Yoruba culture, music – usually drumming – is almost inseparable from dancing, and genres were typically classified and differentiated according to the purpose of the dance rather than the musical ingredients. When music was fashioned for purposes other than dancing, it was less drummy – more thumb-piano-y – and used instead to convey narratives; griot oral traditions.

Nigeria: The Yoruba – Orishanla, Sacred Drumming (from Folkways’ African And Afro-American Drums)

Although violin-type instruments can be found in Yoruba music, like gamelan, Yoruba music is really all about the percussion. A wide array of percussion instruments – from cowbell-type drums to kettle-drum-type drums, drums that spark high-pitched tones, drums that belch out low-pitched tones, and most magically, talking drums. The famous talking drums of Yoruba are hourglass-shaped instruments whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and linguistics of human speech, and in particular, the Yoruba dialect.

The ‘talking’ is facilitated by squeezing and relaxing the drum while it is being played, which varies the tension on the drumhead. Using these techniques, the pitch, volume and rhythm of human speech can be emulated to such an accurate degree that Yoruba phrases could be translated from the drum patterns. Talking drums could therefore be used for neighbouring villages to communicate with each other, as the sound can reportedly travel for up to 5 miles!

Probably the biggest influence traditional Yoruba music bequeathed to its descendent genres – and to music as a whole – is its capacity for complex, conflicting cross-rhythms. The Afro-Cuban musician Mongo Santamaría would popularise the Yoruba cross-rhythms and hybridise them with jazz, first with his 1959 composition Afro Blue.

Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis would all develop their own interpretations of this Cuban-Yoruba jazz.

At the same time, a similar mix of Yoruba rhythms and Afro-Cuban jazz was also mined by the New York-born musician Tito Puente.

However, neither of these musicians – fine as they are – were part of the Yoruba people. In the 1950s, the leading modern Yoruba musician was Babatunde Olatunji.

Babatunde Olatunji – Akiwowo (Ah-Key-Woh-Woh) (Chant to the Trainman)

Olatunji was born in a Nigerian village in 1927, but like Puente and Santamaría, he spent the 1950s in New York. Unlike those two, he wasn’t there to make it big in the music industry, but to study public administration. While in New York, he started a percussion ensemble to help fund these studies. Somewhere along the way, Olatunji ended up performing with the Radio City Music Hall orchestra, which led to an album deal with Columbia records.

Babatunde Olatunji – Shango

Olatuji’s Columbia records introduced not just America, but the world in general, to Yoruba music for the first time. His first LP, Drums of Passion, even spawned a multi-million-selling hit single! The group at this time consisted of three male drummers and eleven female singers and dancers, though the Drums of Passion ensemble would swell to a drum orchestra featuring more than 20 percussionists.

Olatuji worked with many of the greats, from Cannonball Adderley to Stevie Wonder, and – more than a decade before Fela – he made a name for himself  as an impassioned social justice activist.