Yorùbá music is regarded as one of the more important components of the modern Nigerian popular music scene. Although traditional Yoruba music was not influenced by foreign music, the same cannot be said of modern-day Yoruba music which has evolved and adapted itself through contact with foreign instruments, talents and creativity. Interpretation involves rendering African, here Yoruba, musical expression using a mixture of instruments from different horizons.
Yoruba music is categorized based on traditional, Christian and Islamic songs, and it is further subdivided into ceremonial, praise, burial (dirge) and traditional religious songs. It traditionally centred on folklore and spiritual/deity worship, utilising basic and natural instruments such as clapping of the hands.
Historically, Yoruba music was seen as a medium which connected the physical world (aiye) of the living with the supernatural world (orun) of the gods (orisha) and ancestors (egun). Playing music for a living was not something the Yorubas did and singers were referred to in a derogatory term of Alagbe. It was this derogation of musicians that made it not to appeal to modern Yoruba at the time.
Although, it is true that music genres like the highlife played by musicians like Rex Lawson, Ebenezer Obey, Segun Bucknor, Bobby Benson, etc., Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, King Sunny Adé’s jùjú and the syncretic-hybrid style of Lagbaja are all Yoruba adaptations of foreign music. These musical genres have their roots in large metropolitan cities like Lagos, Ibadan, and Port Harcourt where people and culture mix influenced it by their rich traditions.
Some pioneering Jùjú musicians include Tunde King, Tunde Nightingale, Ebeneezer Obey, Why Worry in Ondo, Ayinde Bakare, Dr. Orlando Owoh, Dele Ojo, Ik Dairo, and Moses Olaiya (Baba Sala). There was also sakara played by the pioneers such as Ojo Olawale in Ibadan, Abibu Oluwa, Yusuf Olatunji, Sanusi Aka, and Saka Layigbade.
Apala, is another genre of Yoruba modern music which was played by spirited pacesetters such as Haruna Ishola, Sefiu Ayan, Ligali Mukaiba, Kasumu Adio, Yekini (Y.K.) Ajadi, etc.
Fuji, emerged in the late 60s/early 70s, as an offshoot of were/ajisari music genres, which were made popular by certain Ibadan singers/musicians such as the late Sikiru Ayinde Barister, Alhaji Dauda Epo-Akara and Ganiyu Kuti or “Gani Irefin”.
Another popular genre is waka music played and popularized by Alhaja Batuli Alake and, more recently, Salawa Abeni, Kuburat Alaragbo, Asanat Omo-Aje, Mujidat Ogunfalu, Misitura Akawe, Fatimo Akingbade, Karimot Aduke, and Risikat Abeawo. In both Ibadan and Lagos, these multicultural traditions were brought together and became the root of Nigerian popular music.
The main characteristics of Yoruba music are the prevalence of polyrhythmic drumming and repetitive call-and-response structures. These features are present from the earliest ceremonial traditions to contemporary neotraditional styles.
There are four major families of Yoruba drums which are used depending on the context or genre where they are played. The dundun (talking drum), which imitates the sound of the human voice, is the most common and is present in many Yoruba traditions, such as sekere, Apala, Jùjú and Afrobeat.
The sakara, also used in Hausa music, has a ceremonial role in royal settings, weddings and oriki recitation. It is predominantly found in Muslim-related traditions such as sakara, were and Fuji music.
The gbedu is used by secret fraternities and formerly in royal settings. Akuba drums (a trio of smaller conga-like drums related to the gbedu) are typically used in afrobeat.
The fourth major family of Yoruba drums is the batá family which is played in sacred rituals. Within each drum family there are different sizes and roles; the lead drum in each family is called iyá, while the supporting drums are termed omele.
Yoruba drumming exemplifies West-African cross-rhythms and is considered to be one of the most advanced drumming traditions in the world. Generally, improvisation is restricted to master drummers. Other instruments found in Yoruba music include the goje, shekere (rattle), agidigbo (thumb piano) and agogô (bell).
Agbe: a shaker
Ashiko: a cone-shaped drum
Batá drum: a well decorated traditional drum of many tones, with strong links to the deity Shango, it produces sharp high tone sounds.
Goje: sort of violin like the sahelian kora
Sekere: a melodic shaker; beads or cowrie shells beautifully wound around a gourd, shaken, beaten by fists occasionally and thrown in the air to create a festive mood.
Gudugudu: a smaller, melodic bata
Sakara drum: goatskin istretched over clay ring
Agogô: a high-pitched tone instrument like a “covered” 3-dimensional “tuning fork”
Saworo: like agogo, but its tone is low-pitched
Aro: much like a saworo, low-pitched
Seli: a combination of aro, saworo and hand-clapping
Agidigbo, a thumb piano instrument wound round the neck and stabilized by the player’s chest.
Dundun, consisting of iya ilu or gbedu, main or “mother” drum and omele, smaller drums, played as an accompaniment to bata drums to create a base for their sharp beats.
Bembé, bass drum, kettle drum.
In today’s world, genres such as juju, fuji, highlife, and afrobeats are still relevant and find their highest level of expression in gatherings of Yoruba people and mostly the elderly when those who ply their trade in Yoruba music are hired to play. But amongst the youth, Yoruba music is finding its place in contemporary hiphop songs done by popular Nigerian artistes who infuse it with English and create catching hit-phrases and slangs.