Nigerian festival drums the future

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ABEOKUTA, Nigeria – The drum is certainly one of the oldest and most widely used musically instruments; perhaps only the human voice is older. It is practically ubiquitous in modern pop music as well as Pagan music. Whether played as an actual stretched membrane over a hollow core or as synthesized beats from the latest drum machine, their use ranges from soft beats for contemplative ceremonies to the heavy, fast, and deep sounds of raves. They are used for recreation, therapy, and religious ceremony.

Drums have even been used to symbolize military, priestly or kingly authority.  Drums play a central role in African Traditional Religions, as well as their syncretic forms, such as Lucumí, Vodoun, and Candomblé.

Since pre-history, drums have been created out of shells, bones, sticks, hair, and animal skins. Drums made of alligator skin stretched over clay pots were found in the northeast region of modern China and dated to the Neolithic period, some 4,500 BCE. But less ancient drums have been found all over the world and across the diversity of human cultures that lived thousands of year ago, long before written records.

Some culture wove drums and drumming deeply into the fabric of daily life. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of those places. The region also exported its instruments – regrettably, as a result of force and colonization – to Latin America, where the drum also integrated into the daily life and music of places like Brazil and Cuba. Prof. CK Ladzekpo, director of UC Berkeley’s Center of African Studies and founder/director of the African Music & Dance Ensemble, notes “the profound similarity of approach” in the drumming of these regions. “You realize that it is the same West African rhythmic techniques that were carried over the Atlantic that are still the basic ingredients in the various musical styles of the Americas: sambas, furro, maracatu, and coco in Brazil, Afro-Cuban music and Afro-American musical genres such as blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, soul, reggae, hip-hop and rock and roll.”

Drummers attending the African Drum Festival in Ogun State (Ogun State Governor’s Office)

In late April of this year, Nigeria celebrated its impact on drumming and the power of Nigerian rhythms around the world. Sponsored by the Ogun State Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the African Drum Festival wrapped up its fourth annual celebration of drumming, not only as a it applies to Nigerian culture, but the importance of drumming to the world as a means of entertainment, communication, and worship.

Originally called the “Nigerian Drum Festival,” the event expanded quickly as it fulfilled its vision of gathering “drummers around the world and motivating them to do the business of beats creation.” As they state in their mission, they aimed to strengthen the enthusiasm, innovation, and drive of the drumming community with “great deference for our culture and tradition which will in turn, help to preserve, protect and advance our cultural values and artefacts.” They did so quickly, and this year’s theme was “Drumming the Future.”

The three-day festival was held in Abeokuta, the largest city in the state of Ogun, just north of Lagos in southwestern Nigeria. This year 23 countries joined the festival as well as 18 Nigerian states and 71 independent troupes. The festival outgrew its previous venues and moved in 2019 to a 10,000-seat amphitheater in Oke-Ilewo at the center of the city. Among the nations represented were Benin, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, and South Africa.

Last year, the transition of the festival from a local to an international event was also commemorated with a new Nigerian postage stamp to raise more awareness of the event. Since then, the festival has maintained and gained significant sponsorship. The South African mobile telecommunications company, MTN, sponsored the event, along with local breweries and pop musicians as well as the Government of Ogun State. A spokesperson for MTN-Nigeria noted that “MTN as a brand is wholly African, and it is committed to ensuring that the African story is shared with the rest of the world. Drums are symbolic in the African tradition. They project our strength, tell our story, protect the people and promote our legacies.”

This is particularly important because the future of the festival was uncertain. But the growth of the festival has almost certainly cleared the way for its future.

This year’s festival also included more artistic, cultural, and academic opportunities for conversation and collaboration. At the opening roundtable, chairman Luc Yatchokeu, founder and director of the Africa Music Market “Le Kolatier”, posed the central question, “What do we mean by the future of the African drum?”

Dr. Sylvanus Kuwor of the University of Ghana responded, “If we desire a vibrant future, the drum must be the instrument driving that future. The reason this is possible is because the drum is not just an instrument but also a repository or archive of knowledge and African tradition.”

Former Governor Ibikunle Amosun and First Lady Mrs. Olufunso Amosun of Ogun (Ogun State Governor’s Office)

There are, however, concerns about how the traditions of drumming will be supported in the future. Prof. Jeleel Ojuade of the University of Ilorin, leader of a Bata drum ensemble, noted that “fathers do not insist on transferring the art of drumming to their young.” Lamenting that youth are driven outside of the arts to what are perceived as more financially lucrative professions, he added that “our culture and tradition will be eroded if we cannot transfer the culture of drumming to future generations.”

Still, the festival organizers were hopeful. During the opening of the festival, various dignitaries spoke, but Ogun State Governor Ibikunle Amosun reinforced the event’s importance and that it would succeed him, as he left office on May 29. He said “discussing how to educate the youth to understand the importance of drums in the drive for cultural sustainability” would help to use drums in creating national identities. “The festival has become a rallying point for Africans from within and in the Diaspora,” he noted, “as well as participants from across the world to explore and propagate our cultural heritage in drums.”

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, was a festival consultant. He was born in Abeokuta and noted, “There is a strong connection between rhythm and productivity, which awakens deep things in us as humans. The drums help our sense of rhythm and immerse us into our culture.” He added that poetry, rhythms, and drums are deeply interconnected, and that proficient drummers let us hear “true poetry”.

Editorial Note: Parts of the festival are available on YouTube through Channel TV.