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Interview: Túndé Adégbolá Talks With Ned Sublette

 London / Brooklyn, Dec. 19, 2015

Language specialist Túndé Adégbolá worked with our guest scholar Amanda Villepastour in the complex work of deciphering the speech of Yorùbá bàtá drums. I had some questions for him.

Ned Sublette: What exactly is it that you do?

Túndé Adégbolá: I’m a research scientist, cultural activist, and consultant engineer. They call me Dr. Túndé sometimes. I am basically a human language technologist. I work in areas of speech technologies, natural language processing, making African languages usable on computers. We work with a wide range of languages—at the moment, we’ve been involved with localizing Microsoft software into Hausa, Igbo and Yorùbá, which are the three most widely spoken languages in Nigeria, but we’re also working on speech synthesis for Yorùbá. We’re working on developing spellcheckers, keyboards, in various languages. I am Yorùbá myself.

As you know, our program today is about language, drums, and music—in particular, about the work of Amanda Villepastour, as represented in her books and in the more recent work she’s been doing. Can you tell me how you got to know Amanda?

Well, I’ve always been interested in drum languages. It intrigued me. When I was studying for my Ph.D. I was working on automatic speech recognition of Yorùbá, and I realized that the fact that Yorùbá people speak using drums means that there is a significant quantum of information contained in the tones of the Yorùbá language. So in proposing my thesis, I thought I should look solely at the tones of Yorùbá, because that’s what happens in drum language, forgetting about the consonants and the vowels. I was able to achieve my aim, recognizing speech and Yorùbá using just tones. So that’s where my background as a human language technologist comes in with drum language.

I met Amanda at a screening in London of one of the films of Mainframe, the company I’m involved in, in Nigeria. The film was titled aworo Idé, which depicted the relationship between the community and its leaders, and funny enough, that relationship is sealed with the drum. Because if the leader misbehaves, and a certain drum is sounded, the leader will die of headache from the pulsating sounds of the drums, because the drum speaks. So Amanda and I met at the screening and talked about drum language, and we’ve been talking about drum language ever since.

Did you grow up understanding drum language?

Every intelligent Yorùbá speaker understands drum language. Because drum language in the sense that we’re talking about is not a coding system, it is the sounding of the melody that is inherent in Yorùbá speech. Because Yorùbá is a tone language, there is inherent melody in the language. And that’s why it’s not possible to translate an English hymn into Yorùbá and sing it to the same tune. You might be saying the wrong thing. Because the consonants and vowels of Yorùbá speech are not the only meaning-bearing unit of speech. The consonants, the vowels, and the tones combine to produce the meaning. For example, if in Yorùbá I say [demonstrates] it means I’m not going; if I say [demonstrates], it means, I am going. So there’s a very very heavy meaning load in the tones of Yorùbá.

Every Yorùbá child grows up understanding the drum language. In fact, children play tone riddles on each other as they grow up. They speak humming and the friend is supposed to be able to decipher what they say. But I should qualify the idea that drum language does not take consonants and vowels into account; some drum language applies some consonants and some vowels to help the listener disambiguate the statements that are made. To put it in a way that a person who does not speak a tone language can understand: if I write a sentence and I take away the vowels, you might still be able to read the sentence, that’s the kind of thing that happens.

How do dùndún and bàtá speech differ?

The dùndún is a tension drum. It has a set of strings that give more tension to the membrane when you pull, and releases the tension of the membrane when you release. That way you are able to change the pitch at which the membrane sounds with the dùndún, whereas the bàtá does not have that capacity.

The bàtá is a set of drums. You have the iyá ilu, roughly translated into English is the mother drum, you have the omelé ako, you have the omelé abo, and with these three you are able to create various combinations of tones. Each of the iyá ilu bàtá has two faces, two sides. Each side is tuned to different pitches.

Yorùbá has three tones. The low, the mid-, and the high tone. When you play bàtá, you can mute or apply a bit of tension to the membrane with your striking hand, and that way you are able to modify the tones a little, and with the support of the other drums in the ensemble, you are able to make the different pitches. But the dùndún facilitates glissandi, because you can hit the drum head and there’s still tension, like when you bend the strings of the guitar to change the pitch after having struck the string. So the difference between the bàtá and the dùndún is that the dùndún can be tensioned while playing it, whereas the bàtá is pre-tensioned before performance.

I have heard it said that the dùndún is more widely understandable, and the bàtá is more of a specialized skill.

Yes. The dùndún uses a lot more of the tone of everyday speech. The bàtá is still to a large extent a ritual òrìṣà drum, even though it’s found its way into popular music. And most of the people who use the bàtá in popular music today in Nigeria don’t really speak with it, they just use it to establish rhythms. Some musicians do speak with it. So the dùndún, because it uses a lot more of the tones of speech, is a lot more easily understood by the ordinary Yorùbá speaker. But the bàtá is a more complex speech surrogate. In fact, bàtá musicians use an intermediate language, described as the ẹná bàtá, to stand between human speech and the bàtá speech. So for a bàtá player, it’s a really high level of scholarship to become a bàtá player, whereas with a dùndún, anybody with a good ear for music will be able to make some basic statements after messing around.

How does this ẹná work?

The ẹná works by coding not only the tones, but also by coding some of the consonants and vowels, particularly the consonants. When the player strikes one face of the drum, it means something. When he strikes both faces, it means something else. When he strikes at the middle of the membrane, it means something. When he strikes at the edge, it means something else. When he strikes with his palm muting the other face of the drum, it means something else. And this way the bàtá drummer is able to give some information about the consonants in the speech, rather than just the tone. So in a way, you could say the bàtá is a much more eloquent speaker, but the bàtá’s eloquence is shrouded in scholarship.

And this means that the receiver has to be knowledgeable as well, and the transmission has to be interpreted for a vernacular listener…

Yes. Both the bàtá drummer and the bàtá dancer who usually communicates with the drummer understand the bàtá coding system, the enà bàtá. And bàtá, like I said earlier on, is still relatively more tightly tied to òrìsà worship, and the insiders of the òrìsà group understand the language. They study the language and they understand it.

In fact, earlier on in Yorùbá life, during the Yorùbá wars, the bàtá played a very important role in communication of war strategies, because it is assumed that everybody does not understand it. So it’s a kind of encryption system in which information was transferred over distances using a public channel, because not every member of the public has access to that information.

How extensive is the òrìsà worship community in present-day Nigeria?

The òrìsà worship community in present-day Nigeria is not as it used to be. In the sense that you now have Yorùbá Christians, you have Yorùbá Muslims, and to find the Yorùbá today who is solely involved in òrìsà worship is a rarity. So what you will find in the dimensions of òrìsà worship today is to a large extent vestiges of what it used to be.

Most bàtá drummers today are more likely to be Muslims then be solely òrìṣà devotees. But this must be understood within the religious system of the Yorùbá, in which a devotee to an òrìsà is not devoted solely to that òrìsà In Yorùbá understanding, it is perfectly normal to have devotion to more than one òrìsà. So that makes it very easy for the Yorùbá Muslim to be the ritual drummer of Changó. The religious upbringing of the Yorùbá does not present any contradiction in that situation.

I recently read a study looking at some of the traditional eulogy arts of Yorùbá that proposed that if this art is not going to die, then it is going to be sustained by its use in Christian liturgy. So you find that the way Yorùbá life is evolving, òrìṣà worship as a distinct part of Yorùbá life is not very prevalent anymore. It’s all evolving into the new religions that have come into Yorùbáland.

As a speaker of the Yorùbá language and as someone who has studied the bàtá of Nigeria, what do you hear in Cuban bàtá?

Oh, I hear the same things that I hear in Yorùbá bàtá. Because one thing that I find really interesting is that Cubans don’t speak a tone language. They speak a stress language. And that’s why you say bàtá, you apply stress rather than tone. Because you grew up speaking a stress rather than a tone language, and my children who grew up in England sometimes tell me that I’m putting the stresses in the wrong place, because I’m applying tones rather than stress. So that the Cubans are able to continue to play the bàtá I find really interesting, because the tones that support what they are doing are not really available in the language that they speak. What they have done is that they have studiously kept what they were taught, probably from the time that the bàtá came from Yorùbáland in West Africa to the Americas during the period of the slave trade. But when I listen to typical bàtá performance in Cuba, I can relate to the various rhythms and the various tone sequences they’re performing. I can say, well, that is Oyá, that is Oshún, that is Obatalá. So they’ve managed to retain the tones, even though they don’t speak a tone language.

So does Yorùbá not have stress?

Yorùbá does have stress. What you will find is that the way each language uses sounds differs. English, for example: if you say that is my book, you are making a statement. If you say that is my book? You are asking a question. There are some elements of tonality in the difference between the two renditions of that sentence. So you find that tones and stresses kind of get interwoven sometimes. Sometimes you achieve stress by tone, and sometimes you achieve tones by stress, because at the end of the day, a difference in tone is a difference in the frequency of the sound. And sometimes, to create a higher frequency, you need to apply some higher intensity to cause the air flow from the lungs through the articulators out of the mouth to go with higher speed, which means, to achieve a higher frequency, sometimes you need to apply higher intensity, which is beginning to go in the direction of stress. So you find that the two of them are interwoven.

In Ancient Text Messages of the Yorùbá Bàtá Drum, Amanda talks about the function of bàtá as communicative, and says that the drummer’s role has been challenged by the rise of cell phone messaging. What’s your take on this?

We’re talking here about evolution of culture. To the Yorùbá, culture is intrinsically dynamic. The Yorùbá word for culture is aa. The word aṣa comes from the verb a, meaning “to pick.” Aṣa is the noun meaning “what is picked.” So to the Yorùbá, culture is the totality of what has been carefully considered and chosen. With time, when you get information from other cultures, when you even learn new things from within the same culture, you tend to leave some of the ones you had already chosen and choose new ones. So intrinsically, Yorùbá culture is dynamic from this aṣa point of view.

There was a time when the bàtá was used as a mode of communication. You play the bàtá, and over distances going to a few miles you can hear it on a quiet night, and you’re able to send messages like that. But as technology evolves, you find that some of the things that were used before are not used anymore. I figure nobody uses the Pony Express in the United States anymore, for the same reason. So the bàtá which was used as a kind of telegraphic system, is not needed now is a telegraphic system because we now have the cellphone, which can send messages much further, which the recipient of the message can understand even if he is not an insider to a specialized language, yet still provides the capacity for selectivity so that it is only the people for whom you intend this message that get it. So when you have this kind of multiplicity of advantages, definitely what we refer to as a disruptive innovation has come into play.

In Cuba, where the drums don’t have a direct linguistic significance, they have a great ritual importance, and the idea that they represent language is very important in Cuba. Do you see the bàtá of Nigeria undergoing any kind of transformation like that?

It’s going to become more and more an instrument of popular music, and I also feel it’s going to become more and more an instrument used in Christian worship. Islam does not take on music in worship the way Christianity does. But all the same, because of the dynamism of Yorùbá culture and its use of music, it’s interesting that at least four or five Yorùbá music genres have evolved out of Yorùbá Islam—music like Fuji, like wéré, like awurebe—all genres of music that have evolved out of Yorùbá Islamic communities. So even though Islam does not use music in worship—in salat—Islamic communities are taking in Yorùbá traditional music and bàtá is some of the instruments that are going into that, in the social dimensions of the Islamic community. But in Christianity, for a long time, drums like bàtá were seen as ritualistic, as paganistic, and they were not to be touched. But recently, there have been changes. People are admitting traditional drums more and more, and I’ve seen bàtá played in churches. So I see the bàtá evolving in that direction in Yorùbáland in Nigeria.

Could you tell me a little bit about the oriki?

The oriki is a system of cognomen, of praise speech for people. Every Yorùbá child has an oriki, based first and foremost on the circumstances of his birth, the circumstances of his forebears, and the character that the child manifests. So when a child is born, the child automatically inherits the oriki, the praise names of his forebears. His or her environment observes his behavior, and then they describe his behavior, and that becomes his own personal oriki, and it becomes added to the oriki of his forebears, and he transfers that oriki to his children. So you find that in most aspects of Yorùbá life, you have oriki. All the òrìṣà have their oriki. Even phenomena in Yorùbá have oriki.

Interestingly, it’s not only the Yorùbá that use oriki; the Zulus in South Africa have exactly the same system, described as izithakazelo, which is a system of praise, of description, sometimes even of admonition to a person, and most people who use the drum to speak, they usually start by using the oriki of the person they want to talk to to attract their attention.

How does that work?

I, for example, my name is—well, you call me Túndé, but my full name is Olatúndé. I am Olatúndé, the son of Adégbọlá. So if I go out to a party and the drummer spots me, and the drummer goes [demonstrates], that means [sings] Olatúndé, omo Adégbọlá́. So when I hear that, I know he’s talking about me.

Now if the drummer knows my oriki, he may then go on to say my oriki. My personal oriki, for example is [recites]. So if I hear [demonstrates], I know that’s me. And it gets more and more particular as he goes further and further and further. So having attracted my attention by using my oriki, the drummer can then start talking to me, and usually it’s a strategy to attract patronage from me.

Now, he wouldn’t know your oriki unless he knew you personally, right? There would be no way he could know.

Yes, well, these drummers are really, really clever, you know? It’s like going up a pyramid. If the drummer spots you, and he doesn’t know your personal oriki, he will ask the people around, “who is his father?” They say, “old so-and-so is his father.” “Mm, who is that one’s father?” By the time he goes two or three generations, he will most likely spot your oriki. So it least he will start from your great-grandfather, grandfather, father. If he fails, he will say, “what town, what village is he from?” And he will start with the oriki of that village. And if you really are in touch with your identity as a Yorùbá, you will resonate.

Are the oriki of famous people widely known?

Oh, yes. Everybody in the community knows the oriki of the oba—that’s the leader of the community, the king of the community—everybody knows the oriki. So when you hear the drums playing the oriki of the oba you know that something is happening, probably the oba is holding court in the village square or in his palace. Then the chiefs, the assistants, the consul that walks with the oba—the oriki of prominent families are known. The oriki of various quarters of the community are known. These days, with urbanization, with people looking for white-collar jobs, working in the oil industry, in Niger Delta, bringing up their children outside their natural habitat, you lose some of these dynamic relationships, but by and large for the Yorùbá person that grew up within his traditional community, the oriki is very much part of—it’s like an extended name. And every child in a typical Yorùbá community wakes up every morning to hear his or her oriki recited by his mother, or even the co-wives of his mother, other wives of his father, when the boy gets up in the morning, or the girl wakes up, the women of the homestead will chant their oriki.

So drummers know the repertoire of òrìṣà devotion and they know oriki. What else do drummers need to know?

The history of the community. They’re like griots. The scholarship, the Àyàn– the Àyàn is the name of the patron spirit of drummers, and Àyàn also is the collective of drummers. Part of the scholarship of àyàn is, first of all, to know the oriki of all the òrìṣà. Then you know the oriki of the oba, then the oriki of prominent families in the community. And then you know the history of the community. You know the series of kings, the series of oba, that have ruled that community, and from what period to what period.

Who or what is Àyán?

Àyán first and foremost is the patron spirit, the patron of the collective of drummers. The myths of origin of Yorùbá drumming says that Àyán was the first drummer. So Àyán is the representative, the embodiment of Yorùbá drumming. And Àyán also is the collective of drummers. So if you see somebody who is a drummer, and you don’t know his name, you can shout “Àyán!” And he will look your way. It’s just like you see a driver, and you say, “driver!” he will look your way. Every drummer is Àyán. Becoming Àyán is basically hereditary. You are born into an Àyán family. Of course there are ways you can become an Àyán if you are not born into an Àyán family, but generally, the way to become an Àyán is to be born into an Àyán family.

Which in Cuba is called Añá.


Can you tell me just a little bit about how you understand what Lágbájá is doing with masks and drums?

Lágbájá is a very interesting musician. Lágbájá is one Nigerian musician for whom art is not for art’s sake. Art is for life’s sake. And he takes a position of the artist as a social critic. And because of the difficulties of being a social critic in the environment of a military government—this is my interpretation—Lágbájá chooses to be faceless, and therefore he is able to speak with authority and with confidence.

In traditional Yorùbá societies, an Àyán cannot be arrested for what he says. An Àyán has the liberty to speak the truth, to speak the painful truth. But by the time Yorùbá society became part of Nigeria, and some of it became part of the Republic of Benin, and some of it became part of the Republic of Togo, the way the society is organized became different, and leadership did not respect some of the traditional respects that go to the Àyán. So in my understanding, Lágbájá went one extra step to reappropriate the kind of respect that goes to the artists, so that the artist can speak his mind, so that the artist can speak the truth of the situation. So that’s what I see Lágbájá do with the mask. He presents himself as a faceless member of the society, he presents himself as a voiceless member of the society, striving to be heard. And he uses the drum to provide the background rhythm to speak.

Do you feel that the use of the drum in Nigeria has an implicitly political significance?

To the Yorùbá, nothing happens by accident. The drum definitely has a political role in traditional Yorùbá societies. Every Yorùbá oba has his own orchestra of drummers. Now Nigeria is something else—Nigeria is a collection of various peoples with various traditional cultural behaviors. When such people come together, there’s a need to evolve new ways. So in a sense, the drum is still available as a means of making political statements. Particularly because, although the drum speaks, and speaks clearly, there is always ambiguity in what the drum says. So the ambiguity of the drum provides plausible deniability, so if the drummer says something to authority and it is painful to authority, and authority chooses to fight back, the drummer at least has an alibi. Because easily the drummer can manufacture some other statements and say, “that is what I meant, this is not what I meant.” But everybody knows what the drummer means. Examples of this occur even at the height of the military regime, when people are able to use drums to say things that would have not been easy to say in plain language because of the draconian measures that the military government put in place.

That’s one of the things that the lyrics of songs do, too, is to say something vague or ambiguous that the listeners can put their own construction onto …

Yes, in a sense all of art provides that ambiguity. The fact that you can look at a piece of art, you can listen to a piece of art, and get a different meaning—that ambiguity is very, very powerful in art as it is used in society. But in the case of the drum language, it comes out even more powerfully, because the ambiguity is there, yet the meaning is clear.

Can we connect any of what we’ve been talking about to your film production?

Oh, yes. I talked earlier about aworo Idé. Ṣaworo Idé is the name of the drum. Ṣaworo Idé basically means brass bells. Dùndún drums [are] normally just membrane around an hourglass, a piece of wood is hewn out as an hourglass and they put membranes on both sides and use a line of hide to hold the membranes together so that you can tension the hide to tune the membrane. But then they put brass bells at the edge of really, really important drums, to put some—like, as an ornament, but also as an appendage to the music, because as you hit the drums, the brass bells jingle. So we had this film called aworo Idé, which is the story of the pact between a leader and his community. And you have the drum, the community, and the leader. Now each time the leader wears the brass crown, and the drums with the brass bells are sounded, if the leader is a wicked leader, then the pulsating beats of the drums will cause him headache. That was the film we did many years ago, and it was very, very clear that the film was talking about the government—very ambiguous, but everybody knew that that king was [Sani] Abacha. [Nigerian head of state from 1994 to 1998].

Is there anything else you would like to talk about relating to drums and drum language?

Well, as an engineer, computer scientist, human language technologist, I have drawn a lot of inspiration from some of these traditional ways of life. I find it quite interesting that somehow the whole of the academic community really gets everything that is not written in some book as knowledge that may not be of value. I contend that there is a lot of valuable scientific knowledge in some of the oral tradition of the Yorùbá, and it is important for scholars in Yorùbá society to look critically into this material, into these texts, because there is a lot of scientific information in them.

Like I said earlier, for me, it makes sense that if drummers are able to speak to people with tones, then there must be sufficient information in tones to be able to decipher what is said. And I presented that as a thesis in technology, and I was able to demonstrate that it is a matter of truth, using mathematics. These are some of the things that worry me about scholarship in Nigeria, that the tendency to ape scholarship from the West, whereas there is a whole lot of materials in our traditional behavior that deserve to be further explored. That saddens me, and I think it speaks to the reason why our scholarship is not affecting our society.

I’ve been wondering what scholarship is being done about these vast and transforming oral and performative traditions.

There is some engagement, but what I find is that these engagements are usually sentimental. They come from the point of view of, “oh, we should not let our cultures die, we should promote our culture.” I think it goes beyond that. The fact is, embedded in these practices is age-old wisdom. Whatever a people do over millennia and the people still exist, there must be something right about it that is sustaining them. So we cannot write off that body of knowledge just because we have encountered another body of knowledge that has produced wonders. What we need to do is look critically at that body of knowledge, all the performative processes, the performative parts of the Yorùbá. Look at oriki, ewi, and all of this, they are really important aspects of Yorùbá. There have been studies on them, but the studies need to transcend the pedestrian sentimental attachment to tradition. They should be engaged as the roots of knowledge that can be used to solve existing problems.

Are you concerned that bàtá speech might be endangered?

It is endangered. Very, very few Yorùbá people understand the bàtá, and with each passing generation, much less people understand it. Some of the things that Amanda knows about bàtá, she probably is one of fewer than 100 people in the whole world who know it. The average Yorùbá doesn’t know it. Yet when you read Amanda’s book, you find how deep the knowledge is. Amanda and I had to develop a computer program in PROLOG to decipher some of the meaning in the ẹná passages! This study definitely means something to the modern science of cryptography. This thing about throwing things of the past into the dustbin is profligacy, it’s philistinism.