Janggu’s Spirit of Christmas


If the word “Janggu’’ sounds a little strange, perhaps Christmas doesn’t; nor does mutual gifting. It was a moment to sit-back with an open mind to new artistic display of talents pouring in from the 2017 beneficiaries of the South Korean Cultural Centre’s annual tradition of cultural exchange which climaxes with Papa’s Graduation Ceremony.

Facilitated by “Papa’ that is the veteran dance choreographer, Isioma Williams, in collaboration with the Korean counterparts, the Janggu Drum Training Workshop is known to be rigorous and especially demanding for any artist with a busy time table.

Williams was struck by the traditional Korean hourglass-shaped drum in 2013 when he took part in the cultural exchange initiative at the National Museum of Krea in Seoul. Upon his return to Nigeria, he became resolute to share the knowledge with others, giving cultural values both ways. Hence, Janggu is intended to teach mostly traditional drummers and interested Nigerians basic percussion theory including to notation and scoring and ultimately to document the existing traditional beats in a written format.

As usual, the ceremony juts into the yuletide season. That afternoon, the smell of jollof rice dressed with salad was absolutely compelling, if not distracting. Instead of seeing Santa Claus, some colourful costume-wearing individuals arrived at Little Theatre behind the National Theatre, Iganmu. They were clad in very fascinating Korean-styled traditional garments as they mounted the stage, each carrying a distinct double-headed drum set – a percussion instrument made of long tube with leather on both sides, played with hands or drumsticks.

It was not a time for Bata, although the banters in the hall sounded like sheer mimicry of Korean accent. Could there have been a large population of Korean-speaking artists in the hall? Well, the prevailing language in the auditorium could have been Chinese for all a layman cared since only those on stage had been trained for months. That training was not just on the drums in their possession but the cultural context from which they are drawn. Invariably, they learnt the language, the tonality of the drums and privately tried to internalise their new found art.

The rhythm of the drums defied the normal sequence of the African drum. Dancing to it without some measure of foreknowledge will make the dancer appear like a possessed entity. For the participants, it took three months to learn it; perhaps a lifetime to master it. Not even Peter Yung from the Korean Cultural Centre prepared our minds for what was to happen next. It was completely breathtaking. Away from making the ears adapt to the unusually intense drumbeats, every Nigerian in the theatre smiled at the adaptation of the Janggu drums to Afro-pop, rap as well as Fuji. What a fine way to show a true understanding of cultural assimilation!
No one really saw that coming. The yoga-like sitting arrangement gave no sign of it. All eyes were initially focused on the Janggu. For the 50 Janggu workshop participants, the sitting posture didn’t come naturally but they were necessary and calculated to help the human metaphysics. Only the strongest made it to the grand finale on stage where the applause was reverberating.

Whilst the audience was still digesting the deep cultural flavours in Janggu, Segun Adefila, the undisputed front man for contemporary and radical theatre movement in Nigeria, led a group of young boys and girls from a less-privileged community in Bariga to give the sounds of the street under the name, “Banggu’’. The parody performance has the same routine as the Janggu except that the drums in use were yellow 50-litre jerry cans. And the drummers- instead of appearing in colourful costumes as their Korean archetypes, wore the tradition gele as head covering.

The Tiger Man of Africa led the group “De Great Tiger Cultural Dance Group’’ from Benue who appeared as guest artists at the ceremony which was in its fourth year. Their official travel vehicle was in itself an artistic statement with an enormous elephant tusk around the plate number. The dancers brought the wave-like Swange dance to life with their well-practised “dance steps’’ or better still, as the sensational American rapper Cardi-B would say, “money moves’’. Their performances were characterised by male dancers with decorated ankles. Then, a trumpeter in their midst dictated the pace of the beat and the dance.

For the convener, Williams, drumming has therapeutic function amongst other benefits.
“It gives the youths coordination and sense of rhythm and reasoning likewise brings them close to history through the adages and proverbs embedded in drumming. It gives them mental alertness and culturally and artistically empower them. It can be a viable source of employment,” he said.
The Korean Cultural Centre has been the “Santa Claus” for many Nigerians who have benefited from the fully-funded scholarship initiatives of the South Korean government.