The Nigerian Talking Drum Ensemble
The Nigerian Talking Drum Ensemble was founded and is directed by Francis Awe, a Master Drummer from Nigeria. He is not just a drummer, but a philosopher and an African traditional spiritualist. Aside from being a philosophical and religious drummer he was also born into a royal family. In Nigeria, particularly within the Yoruba ethnic group, anyone with this birthright is uniquely Recognized. The four principal elements of African life, (philosophy, religion, politics and morale) are highly reflected or manifested in the music performed by this ensemble.
According to Mr. Awe, there are three types of musicians: (1) those who are born into the family of musicians; (2) those who learn music by rote; and, (3) those that are chosen by the drums. Francis belongs to two of these categories. He was born into a renown drumming family and also sees himself as a "drum-chosen-man." As a result of this, Mr. Awe always says the talking drumming is his life, his mission and not a trade. "My music goes beyond entertainment. It is a revelation of hidden myths." The music is destined for the re unification of all human races whatever their color and the language they speak.
Consequently, Mr. Awe tells his students that if they come only to study the sounds and patterns on the talking drum, he may not be the proper person to learn from. Music to him is more than a sound product, it requires observing and practicing what is played on the drums. Thus learning the talking drum demands a lot of discipline from whoever is called to study it. No discrimination, racism, prejudice is allowed within the group.
The Nigerian Talking Drum Ensemble was employed in August of 1989 by the Performing Tree to perform in different schools from kindergarten to the university level, to share its rich Nigerian tradition and cultures, through music, dance and song with its audience of different categories throughout Los Angeles County. The performances take different forms and shapes, ranging from lectures, lecture-demonstrations and full performances.
The following are the sequence of the different dances for the school performances:
(1) "Ekaabo se daadaa le de." This is a processional number in which the group welcomes its audience. After welcoming the audience, they ask, "How was your arrival? Hope there was no problem on your way here." They ask and also assure them that there will be no problem on their way back. This number is performed to show the audience the importance of greeting in Nigeria, especially among the Yorubas. Greetings are the first symbols of love. Therefore, when people greet, they greet from the bottom of their hearts. The greeting is done cheerfully, happily, and submissively and the answering takes the same characteristic. After the speaker tells the audience the meaning and the purpose of the Yoruba greetings, she asks her audience to look at the people sitting beside them and with their faces, say, "E kaab o." When this is done, everybody feels great and happy. They all have a sense of belonging.
(2) "Obatala" is the Yoruba god of purity and peace. Obatala is the god who is second in command to Olodumare (Supreme Being). He is the oldest deity and the most experienced among the divinities. The speaker explains the qualities of Obatala. He does not take any bloody sacrifice, does not fight, does not cheat, does not steal, does not tell lies, does not drink alcohol, does not smoke and finally, does not take any kind of drugs at symbol of his purity, the dancers use white cloths called Ala. For the adults, this number is also used to invoke the spirit of Orisha for blessing, peace, and prosperity. Obatala's qualities include bringing all people together regardless of their differences. It is he who molds everyone and he brought the earth to the world for human survival. On the land, there is water, plants and animals. Through the land, all humans are sheltered, fed and nourished. From it, we all come and into it we shall return. Therefore, we are all connected and belong to one very large family.
(3) "Drumming and Interpretation". This number is performed for two reasons. The first is to show how the "dundun" drum is used as a speech surrogate. Mr. Awe tells the students that the talking drum was invented a long time ago when people could neither read nor write. There was no radio, television, newspaper or telephone. The talking drum was used to send messages.
The second reason is the message in the piece itself whose theme is "A tree cannot make a forest." Everything played here is a proverb whose translation and interpretation is full of meaning for the whole audience. The lesson of the piece is than nobody is self-sufficient. We all rely on one another to succeed in life. Our colors, races, languages, or property do not make us superior to any other person. We need to help one another and share with all people.
(4) From number one to this point, the group works alone, while the audience is asked to watch and observe because they will be asked to participate. After the "saabada" dance, it is time for students to show how much they understand what they observed. In this section, Mr. Awe teaches the student audience how the drum talks, how to recognize what the drum says, and plays some of the costumes names, which have also been taught through the performance, for them to translate. The students answer through the raising of their hands. And soon the right answers are given. There is always hailing, cheering and excitement.
Everyone get up and dance!
The next item is the playing of drum patterns: Simple patterns are selected from the "aluda" to teach the student how music is learned in Nigeria. Mr. Awe teaches the assembly including their teachers by dividing them into three groups, each group will play one pattern separately first, and later, they will play together, but with individual groups playing its own patterns. The reason for this is to show the students how simple it is for one person to play a pattern and the difficulty in relating one pattern to the other. But when time is taken to relate, there will be mutual joy, harmony and oneness. The lesson here is true of life. If all people can forget their differences and accept individuals for what they are, what a progressive world we could form. There would be unity, joy, harmony, and everybody would be happy.
(5) The last of this series is the participation of students and their teachers in dance movement. Here, a dancer teaches all the simple steps. The crowd is always excited here. It is the beginning of the climax of our performance. Before the last dance, we ask the students a few questions about what was taught them through the performance. These include the geographical location of Nigeria, the two types of seasons in Africa, the way the Yoruba dress and why they dress that way. There are also questions about the talking drum and the costumes the group wear.
We end the performance with the "Shango" dance, which is fast and strong. This number shows the students the clash of power between the African drummers and dancers. Each of them claims to be greater than the other. After this number, the audience feels reluctant to leave. We conclude with the introduction of the individual members of the ensemble through a soft and wavy music.
copyright 1999-2001, Francis Awe