Cultural Reawakening

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The beats and rhythms of the African drum festival rocked the ancient city of Abeokuta, leaving a trail of cross-cultural reawakening, writes Yinka Olatunbosun 

A startling vibration ran through the surround sound system at the open-air venue named the June 12 Cultural Centre, Kuto Abeokuta.  Under the feet of the audience at the 2018 African Drum Festival, came the sensation of the beat emanating from the centre-stage. The source of the rousing sound was a king-size monster drum which was receiving sustained slaps from the excited bare-chested drummer, clad in sweat, whose infectious grin was competing for attention with the intersecting stage lights. That was just one of the scenarios at the three nights of energetic performances, with cultural troupes performing in quick successions while the audience yearned aloud for more.

Pushing past the human barricades formed by night crawlers who enjoyed standing, cheering or teasing others about their heights, it was an easier option to sit comfortably in one of the white chairs arranged before the quickly-built proscenium stage with a massive wooden drum on either side. Executed by Z-mirage productions, it took two days to complete the colourful stage design and the VIP platforms. From being a national cultural event in 2016 when it was established, the African Drum festival has earned an international status which compelled the organisers to select both English and French speaking comperes. No fewer than 84 participants were drawn from Franco-phone countries.

The drum, which is the major attraction at the multi-tiered festival has long existed in traditional African setting- as a symbol of information and entertainment, before the advent of technological advancement. The air of camaraderie that the African drum breathed through history was revived in Abeokuta when participants from at least 20 states in the federation as well as 70 private cultural troupes shared the stage with other entertainers from the West African region and beyond.

Headliners include Ara, Kudi Fagbemi, Lekan Babalola and the awe-inspiring, snake spitting Isese masqueraders whose performance pushed the timeline, to the fear of Yemi Shodimu, one of the comperes.

An intellectual tilt was given to the festival. The Nobel Laureate and consultant for the festival, Prof. Wole Soyinka featured his creative task force, 16-man strong, at the conference titled, ‘Drumming for Advancement’. The high-powered conference had as guests, monarchs such as the Ooni of Ife, Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi and Obong of Calabar, Edidem Ekpo Oto V. Interestingly, the 91-year-old Anthony Odili who is the ex-drummer of the high life legend, Late Rex Lawson performed during an interlude at the conference.

The talk session held at Olumo Rock was kick-started by Soyinka’s prologue titled, ‘Drumming Up Food Security’. Therein, he observed that the continuous killings of farmers by terror groups constitute a big threat to the nation’s agro-economy.

“Farmers are being chased away from their farmlands, their wives are being raped. If we are not careful, this country will face food shortage. We cannot do without food,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Soyinka paid tributes to the father of drums, Babatunde Olatunji, one of Nigeria’s cultural exports to the U.S. and then made an acknowledgement of Quincy Jones’ attempt to make his play, The Lion and the Jewel a musical, which in his view was bereft of a certain African rhythm. Soyinka must either be daring or truthful or both because Quincy Jones is known as the producer of the biggest selling album of all time, Thriller. To refuse his offer and suggest that he was “tone deaf” must have dealt an epic blow to the Grammy award winner. Of course, the master beat maker came to Africa as Soyinka advised and agreed that the Nobel Laureate was right to have not given the consent.

Also, Soyinka’s comment about an African American cast member being unable to dance during his own production of Death and the King’s Horseman in Chicago was a pointer to the reality that the African polyrhythmic tradition is unmatched across the globe. In his view, the only performer who has come close is Wynton Marsalis who has led a big band with traditional rhythms from bembe, omele, iya ilu, gudu-gudu, sekere, palongo and bata drums. Unfortunately, Marsalis does not fly. And the prospect of bringing his entire band on a ship cruise can be financially daunting as well. This thought made Soyinka express his desire to see the Nigerian state funding the arts, even if it means taking just a little fraction of the recovered ‘loot’.

“In the United Kingdom, a portion of the government share of the annual national lottery stake is dedicated to the arts. Some of our own expatriate artists have been beneficiaries of that policy so why should a festival of this international dimension not benefit, in return for spectacular collaborations across the Atlantic! Believe me, it would be an unforgettable experience. The very thought of it makes the eardrums vibrate and the heartbeat vie with the frenzy of Bata ensemble under Sango possession,’’ Soyinka said.

The Nobel Laureate’s wish is for the African Drum Festival to secure a place in the International calendar. A special collaborative drum session punctuated the conference where drummers from Cote D’Ivoire, South Africa, Uganda, and played as an ensemble, relying on drum cues to communicate and they were divided, albeit equally by the language and united by the rhythm of the drums. Also, Ajewole Oniluomo, the legendary drummer for the late Apala musician, Ayinla Omo-Wura gave the audience a whiff of the old wine with his display of dexterity.

In their interventions, the panelists raised issues around drum education, environmental threat to drum and its socio-economic importance.  For Dr. Sylvanus Kuwor, understanding the knowledge embedded in drumming can liberate Africa from socio-economic stagnation. Another insight was offered by Jelil Ojuade, a scholar who wrote his PhD thesis on Bata drum.

“Drums can create metaphor without talking,’’ he said as he called for cultural renaissance. Just as Muraina Oyelami lamented over the lack of academic books on drums, ace music producer, Laolu Akins emphasised the need for drum education. In his witty remarks, Akingbola called the period when Africans depended on drum for communication as “our wireless past’’. Tunde Kelani’s multimedia presentation affirmed his commitment to drums while Landry Louoba advocates for reforestation to preserve one of the sources for the raw materials for making drums-tree.

The three-day festival seemed so short for the variety of events involved. For instance, a special tribute exhibition in honour of a master composer and musician, Fela Sowande was paraded at Olumo Rock to celebrate the work, life and times of this great cultural icon who composed the Nigerian National Anthem, amongst others. His attempt to document aspects of Yoruba oral tradition of Ifa was thwarted when his priceless recordings were destroyed.

There was an outdoor workshop that was also curated to encourage a collaboration between local and international artists while creating an educational forum for people to experience contemporary forms of traditional music and arts.

African Drum Festival was declared open by the Executive Governor of Ogun State, the host state, Senator Ibikunle Amosun in company of the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed. The minister, in his remarks, promised that the festival will be adopted into the federal government’s cultural calendar.