African dance in diaspora. The Yoruba example from Nigeria Jeleel Olasunkanmi Ojuade (Nigeria) abstract

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African dance in diaspora.

The Yoruba example from Nigeria

Jeleel Olasunkanmi Ojuade (Nigeria)


This paper examines the Trans-Atlantic slave Trade and its aftermath in the new world. It therefore focuses on what is popularly can be referred to as the survival of African Dance and Music in places such as America, Brazil, Caribbean, Cuba etc. It equally compares those that had survived with the African forms.


In Africa, dance does not exist without music or a definite form of accompaniment. Traditional African dances are more than movements or a visual art that exists in time and space. However, traditional music that is designed for dance is bound to develop and stress those elements that can be articulated in bodily movements.

In other words, the African dance cannot be understood without the knowledge of the cultural values and concept of the people. The case example of the Yoruba in the south – western part of Nigeria is very significant. Many scholars had already written about the Yoruba religious culture in the diaspora. Of prominence is the work of professor Wande Abimbola2. Roger Bastide3, Janheinz Jahn4. Margaret Drewal5, and George E. Simpson6. The significance of Ifa divination among the Yoruba is the fact that it is connected with the ancient traditional Yoruba religion. Ifa is central to the issues of life among the Yorubas.

The phenomena of religion in control of several features of life namely culture, customs, sociology, politics and economy is what gives birth to the role of dance among the Yorubas. That, the roots of dance movements has it is today in the diaspora can be linked with Africa as a living testimony which the collective spirit of a people can never be destroyed, even though the bodies may die. Like seeds planted to germinate bountiful harvest, so are the elements of spirits that has been transplanted in the so called slaves transported from Asia across the oceans to South America e.g. Brazil, Bahia, Cuba, Argentua, Jamaica and even North America.

In traditional African society, slavery was an established institution long before the arrival of the Europeans, but slave was principally a domestic servant with rights and respect whose value depended more on the prestige that he accorded his master as a retainer than his economic value as a plantation field hand7. Moreover, slavery in Africa never involved many people except in regions where it required cheap labour. Little wonder therefore, that the dance movements are reflective of the original collective spirits. Though, they may have been altered by the forces of the ‘new’ environment, sociology, culture and so on.
The Yoruba case study

Yorubaland is located within the tropics, much nearer to the equator than to the tropic cancer. The roughly East-West coastline is on the average about 60221N. of the equator, where the coastline swings southwards towards the delta, the southernmost point is about 6001N8.

From the foregoing introduction, the case study of the Yoruba dance movement can be seen as a genesis to the link that the dance movement in the diaspora has in forms. Firstly, the Yoruba religion was carried along by the slaves when they were transported to foreign land. As already mentioned, religion is central to the role of dance among the Yorubas. It is believed that Olodumare, the Supreme being controls every features of life.

Therefore, the Yorubas are very much connected not with the supreme being which they considered too powerful and not reachable ordinarily but with the gods which they believe can serve as passage to their various request. Among the Yorubas, the following gods are in prominence; Ifa – the god of divination which has been mentioned before; Obatala – the god of creation; Yemoja – the river goddess; Ogun – the god of war etc. Each of this deities are invoked through particular corpus of music and dance. For instance, the music and dance for Ogun – the god of war is quiet different from the music and dance of Yemoja or Osun – the river goddess.

The Yoruba must be one of the largest homogenous groups among Africans. Those of them living in Nigeria are currently numbered over fifteen million. They inhabit a continuous territory and speak the same language though in some cases different dialects or inflections in their speaking habits. They are a town dwelling people who built empires and kingdoms along before they came in contact with foreigners. They possess high level of political sophistication and technological advancement.

The historical consciousness of the Yoruba people started at Ile-Ife, a town situated in the south-west of Nigeria.9 Taking all the traditions into consideration, a possible interpretation is that at Ile-Ife, long before the period of Oduduwa, a monarchical form of government had developed with perhaps a high degree of cultural attainments. The important thing about these identification through Music and Dance is the fact that the African in this case; the Yoruba Nigerian example’s performance is corporate in essence. What it means is that the performance of dance involve not only music but also songs, chorus, sometimes call and response, with drum language and participation by the entire community.

Yoruba drumming and dancing is a complex and difficult art that requires many years of study. The drummer is not only expected to possess great manual skill and sense of rhythms but equally a good memory for poetry and the history of the town. For instance, the drummers plays a vital role in every palaces in Yorubaland. It is their duty to announce each visitor as he enters the palace, in order to alert the king of his visitor’s entrance or departure. All these are accorded dancing and singing of praises.

For this purpose of this paper, I will concentrate on the following dance forms;

  1. The Yoruba Bata, and

  2. The Yoruba Dundun

Drums / Dance Description

Besides the diverse variety of traditions, musical culture in the south-west is dominated by two principal medium of expression, that is the drum and voice. Drumming and singing constitute the main forms of musical expression, while the dancer’s body interpretes the language of the drums. The drums however, does not exclude the use of other musical instruments such as horn, flute, bell and rattles as supportive or accompanying instrumentation.

Meanwhile, the generic name for drum in Yoruba – speaking area is ‘Ilu’ (that can be beaten). The drum musician is known as “Onilu”. In this area, drums are often made in sets of three, four of five with considerable varying lengths and sizes, which constitutes a family or a drum ensemble. Each of the drum in a family or ensemble is given a particular name that reflects its gender and the generic name.

For instance, the Bata gender names are; the largest is called Iya Ilu Bata (Bata mother drum). The next in line is Omele Abo, (Bata Female Omele) followed by a little smaller than the first two, known as Omele Ako (Bata male Omele). While the last which is the smallest of the four is called Kudi (the smallest drum). These drums with their various sizes have different pitch and contributions as well as musical roles in music making.

On the other hand, the Dundun ensemble comprises of Iya-Ilu (the mother drum), followed by Kerikeri, this is a bit bigger than the mother drum. It is used to support the mother drum. There is also the Isaaju, it resembles the mother drum but smaller. This is followed by Kannango, which is the smallest of all the drums which accompany the mother drum. Gangan is a small drum but bigger than Kannango. It is the one of the supporters of the mother drum. Gudugudu is like a bowl covered with a very thick leather. It is beaten with two strong but thin leathers. It is unlike the drums mentioned earlier on, which are beaten by curved sticks called ‘Kongo’ or ‘Opa ilu’.

The dance steps speak. They instruct and even drill. Bata / Dundun are music culture that are not confirmed to the phenomenon of dance. They translate to discipline, performance which both literally and otherwise are major area of emphasis of African art. Particularly, translating Bata into the aspiration of the present age of ‘iron and steel’ has been as vigorous as melting all the femous images that go with the hard metal. Mythopoeist have tried to use the archetypal evidences of form and content to establish new truths about contemporary African culture. Simply put, the movements, distortions and spatial illustration in dance performance are dictated by the drums, which have a language of their own and a language that is effectively interpreted by the dancers.

The illustrations above in Bata / Dundun dance had been logically demonstrated in the western world by practitioners like Ojuade and his Dance group, Lamidi Ayankunle’s Ayanagalu International Dance groups, our contemporary musicians such as king Sunny Ade (Sunday Adeniyi), ‘Lagbaja’ (Managed by Bisade Ologunde) etc. Through this medium in performance, they empahsise the fact that Yoruba believes, which simply indicate that the security of the future is tied with the issue of children. Also, the emphasis on the continuity of the spirit, and the fertility of the body is considered to enhance the fertility of the soil. And therefore, the survival of the people which translates to the dances as performed in the Americas and other parts of the world today.

On one hand, these has been various influences wielded by Africa on the formation of Brazil, Cuba and other parts of the world, which arose from the presence in those countries of large numbers of Africans who had been there as slaves to replace the insufficient and unsatisfactory labour force of the indigenous Indians. Equally too, there has been the influence of Brazil which made itself felt in Nigeria at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when freed slaves, Brazilianized, started a movement to return to their homeland. Today, we have Yoruba speaking people occupying the aforementioned countries and display such dances and music of Black Africa. Their dances plays social roles in the new world, while their society, its values, attitudes affects the dances.

In an effort to stem continuity, several performances has been organised to back up African influence in America showing contemporary choreography that exists in the New World today. Some of such are;

  • Ancient vibrations, New York’s premier Jamaican folk troupe, presenting African derived rhythms and chants of Jamaican folk religion in Peter Jay Sharp’s Theatre (Nov. 7, 2003 at 8.00pm).

  • Ologunde celebrate the rich Afro-Brazilian culture of Salvador, Bahia through a diverse repertoire of music and dance including the rituals associated with Camdomble, a synthesis of the Yoruba and Catholic religions, showing at Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (Nov. 8,. 2003 at 8.00pm).

  • Performances of West African Music and dance by the Kotchegna Dance company (Ivory coast) and Abdoulaye Diabate (Mali), at Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (Nov. 21, 2003 at 8.00pm).

  • Obini Ashe (The power of women) under the direction of Lisa Maria Salb organised by world music Institute on Africa in the Americas: women in Afro Cuba Traditions: Obini Ashe showing at Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (Dec. 6, 2003 at 8.00pm).


The dances of Africa, especially the Yorubas as shown in performances in the diaspora indicates its tie to the roots of African people. It then indicates that the people presence in the new world is not a misnormal but as ordained to foster unity of the world.

Therefore, it will be a welcome idea if the global community can as well emulate the spirit of the International Dance Council - CID, to come together, interact and exhume more truth as it relates to our dances. Also, a visit to the giant of Africa-Nigeria, will be of benefit to further develop our dances in performance globally especially as it functions in the diaspora.

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Mr. Jeleel Olasunkanmi Ojuade

Performing Arts Department

University of Ilorin

P.M.B. 1515

Ilorin, Kwara State



Research report

Presented at the 18th World Congress on Dance Research

Argos, Greece, 3-7 November 2004

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