Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Yoruba Bata Goes Global: Artists, Culture Brokers, and Fans. Debra L. Klein. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. 220 pp.
the 1980s, Yorubaland (Southwestern Nigeria), like most African societies, continue to experience a mixture of a depressed economy, increased encounter between modernity and tradition, and the challenges of globalization. Yoruba Bata Goes Global analyses these issues. Undoubtedly, a book on a Yoruba art form, bata drumming, it situates this old but esteemed vocation within the context of local, national and global studies. Rather than merely describing bata, a double-headed percussion instrument with one cone larger than the other, and used mainly for religious and secular purposes in Yorubaland, and its position in Erin Osun, nay Yoruba society, the book revolves around mini-histories of peoples, places and events: Lamidi Ayankunle, Iyaloja compound, Erin Osun, Yorubaland, art-tourism, client-p(m)atron relationship, Nigeria under the Structural Adjustment Program, ‘World Music’ and Euro-American fascination (curiosity) with African ‘tradition’ all of which are integrated to provide a grand narrative.
Members of the Iyaloja compound, Erin Osun pride themselves as bearers of a family heritage that dates to the heyday of Oyo kingdom in the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Following the collapse of Oyo, people who survived the evacuation of Erin-Ile during the early nineteenth century Yoruba wars took refuge in the southern forests and established Erin-Osun safe from marauders. In this new location they continued the family tradition of entertainment: drumming, dancing, and masquerades. These are some of the few Yoruba vocations perpetuated in specific lineages thus the prefixes ‘Ayan’ and ‘Oje.’ As Klein points out, contrary to the perception in the West, not every African is a drummer. Indeed there are degrees and processes of becoming an ‘Ayan.’ A good Iyaalu drummer might not play the
In the mid-1970s, Nigeria was so swollen with petro-naira that a Nigerian ruler declared ‘money was not Nigeria’s problem, the problem was what to do with it. One way of disbursing ‘excess’ money was to encourage ‘local tradition’ as epitomized in the much celebrated 2nd Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77). After FESTAC provincial administrations in Nigeria periodically sponsored ‘cultural’ shows at which Lamidi made his primary ‘public’ appearance and which he sees both as a dialogue between tradition and modernity but also his recognition/acceptance as a culture conductor. This recognition builds upon Lamidi’s awareness that the world is interested in Yoruba ‘custom’. In the 1950s, Ulli Beier and Susanne Wenger, two German artists cum cultural revolutionaries settled in Osogbo, near Erin Osun. There they developed and encouraged local artists and trained new ones. This was the beginning of a lasting global collaboration of Yoruba and Euro-American artists and cultural brokers. While Wenger revived and reinvented Osun grove at Osogbo, Beier opened doors for Yoruba artiste to perform in Germany and other European capitals.
The adoption of the IMF/World bank induced SAP by the Nigerian military-led government in 1986 set in motion a spiral decline in the quality of life. The Nigerian currency depreciated rapidly against Western currencies leading to skyrocketing commodity prices. Those who thrived during this period were people with access to the dollar, sterling, and other high value currencies. Access to money depended partly on establishing links with ‘Ilu Oyinbo’ (overseas) and there many artists and non-artists went—many permanently.
The book identifies, rightly, that the outcome of global artistic collaboration and economic depression redefine Yoruba ‘tradition’ in various ways. For instance, Osun Osogbo grove, as it currently exists, is tradition as imagined by Wenger. Similarly, Yoruba artistic performance overseas is structured in ways that appeal to Western buyers so as to repackage this art form. In effect, cultural brokerage becomes a two-sided mirror with which ‘whites’ reinvent Yoruba traditions in ways akin to Yoruba’s representation of European behavior.
In some ways, global collaboration is beneficial to the parties involved. It provides valuable market and sorely needed income for Erin artists and raises the demand for and value of successful cultural brokers. These are genuine needs in an era when the internal Yoruba market is incapable of supporting local art forms. Individual, especially young bata performers were willing to circumvent tradition and negotiate their own path to stardom. With diminishing market for bata, young Erin artists favored the incorporation of Fuji, a more popular and youth-oriented music tradition and American hip-hop dress. Meritocracy took ascendancy over hereditary privileges as in the Yoruba proverb owo ni so egbon d’aburo (money turns the senior into the junior kin.) The local saying aso nla ko ni eniyan nla (big cloth/dress does not make a big person) was stood on its head. Overseas travelers usually had enough money (at least temporarily) to live ‘big’ and appropriate senior status. The importance of clothes as physical manifestations of status and socio-economic inequality is shown in the quality, cost, size, and the design of clothes. Therefore, more than an exploration on an art form, anthropologists Klein gives insights into Yoruba material culture, the politics of representation and how people make ‘fashion’ statements.
Yet there are problems and perceived bastardization of ‘tradition.’: More than a few people became ‘emergency’/‘overnight’ cultural traditionalists to smoothen their overseas visa applications and foreigners and diaspora Nigerians became ‘beautiful brides’ with countless local suitors. Brokerage also resulted in: the exploitation (real and imagined) of Erin-Osun art/ists by local and global bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and collaborators in the name of cultural and global advertisement; the endangerment of bata drumming by the encroachment of ‘World’ music—okuta-percussion and Fuji music; the breakdown of social relations whenever culture entrepreneurs chose to circumvent kinship norms; and the over-commercialization of culture.
Overall, Klein provides an insightful description of the persistence, invention, and transformation of tradition, opportunities and problems of collaboration, generational tension, family life, apprenticeship, and the challenges of everyday life in an era of socio-political transition and economic depression. Of particular interest are the glossary (pp. 191-93) which provides information on local terminologies that many readers might be unfamiliar with as well as a long list of primary and secondary sources, especially photos, encoding various aspects of the narrative and interviews conducted over nearly a decade with Erin Osun artists, their clients and patrons and local chiefs. This book will appeal to a broad audience of scholars and lay people.
Olatunji Ojo Brock University, St Catharines, Ontario