African Music ~ Focus on Yoruba Composition (Nigeria)

A Yoruba song “T’ Olorun l’ awa o se” = “We shall do God’s will” attributed to late Rev. J. J. Ransome Kuti the grandfather of late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (The Afro beats musician)

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Yoruba is a language spoken by the people inhabiting the Lagos state of Nigeria, the Western states and the greater part of the Kwara state of Nigeria; part of Dahomey, and sometimes spoken by some of the descendants of the Yorubas taken across the Atlantic Ocean during the period of the slave trade to Bahia in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago and some other parts of the West Indies.

Many traditional Yoruba songs are formed spontaneously on special festive occasions during dances to praise, to abuse somebody, or to mark the importance of a special event. When such a song is taken up by a modern musician, he generally substitutes milder words for abusive tones, or merely uses the tune in composing his own song.

Yoruba is a tonal language, so a word can have several meanings depending on whether its tone is low, mid or high. One word may even have more than one meaning in the same tone according to the context. The monosyllabic word “ba” for example can be used in the following ways in the low tone.

NOTE: low tone is represented by ‘doh’ mid tone is represented by ‘ray’ high tone is represented by ‘me’.

1. Oju okuta ba mi = He threw a stone at me
2. Eiye naa ba sori igi = The bird perched on the tree
3. Ogbo l’o mu ki eyin re ba = Old age caused his back to bent

As the language is musical, so are the people! They sing working or walking, in joy or sorrow. The musical tone of the language enables message to be conveyed through it by means of a whistle or with the talking drum. By means of the talking drum, messages used to be communicated over long distances during periods of war in the olden days.

Those who brought Christianity to Yoruba land in the nineteenth century unfortunately taught their early followers to regard many Yoruba traditions, including their music, as paganish so that it was largely the non-Christians who continued to use traditional music. The Christians began to sing Yoruba songs translated from English hymns to English tunes. But as the language is tonal, the tone of the English music cannot in most cases agree with the tones of the Yoruba words translated from English into Yoruba; thus what is being read out in Yoruba is often different from what is being sung to English tunes as I shall explain later on.

Those who first started to break away from the English dominated system of singing at Yoruba religious services were the Cherubim and Seraphim and the Aladura (Prayer Warrior) churches. Other Christian organizations have, however, started to follow in their footsteps in their own way.

Vital Characteristics of a Yoruba Song

An authentic Yoruba song should exhibit two essential characteristics. First, the time of every word in the song should agree with the tone of the music and, second, it should be possible that the song can be accompanied with one kind of drum beat or another, or with the clapping of hands. Yoruba music like most other African music has characteristic rhythms almost second to none in the world.

The vitality of the accord between the tone of the word and that of the music can be further illustrated by changing the tone of the words and of the music in the following one sentence:

Oluwa l’awa o sin (We shall worship the Lord) Oluwa pronounced with mid (ray), high (me), and mid (ray) tones means the Lord, but if it is pronounced with mid (ray), low (doh) and high (me) tones, it is the title of a chief in Lagos.

“sin” in the Yoruba word above has three meanings
“sin” (low tone) worship
“sin” (mid tone) bury
“sin” (high tone) pierce

For example, taking the word Oluwa as the Lord and changing the tone of the word “sin” alone we have the following interpretations:

1. Oluwa l’awa o sin (low tone) = we shall worship the Lord
2. Oluwa l’awa o sin (mid tone) = we shall bury the Lord
3. Oluwa l’ awa o sin (high tone) = we shall pierce the Lord

Similarly, we have the same results if we change the tones of Oluwa to Oluwa, that is mid, low and high tones so that it means a chief in Lagos, and then vary tones of the word “sin” as was done above. Oluwa (a chief in Lagos) is often adored in singing many canticles every Sunday instead of adoring our Lord Jesus Christ, but the singers do not observe this error because it is more or less parrot-like singing.

When an English hymn is translated into Yoruba and sung to the English tune, it is often difficult for the singer to understand the real meaning of what he is singing and thereby get real spiritual value from the song. The meaning of the song is more clearly understood when it is read than sung. A typical example occurs in a verse in “All hail the power of Jesus’ name” where the “fo” meaning to float in the high tone is sung to the English tune of “Diadem” in a low tone where it means to fly. Thus, instead of singing “One who makes the earth to float”, the singer sings “One who makes the earth to fly”. This example is not an isolated case.

There are many English songs, however, which, when translated into Yoruba, give an almost correct meaning, one of these songs is: “Let us with a gladsome mind, Praise the Lord for He is kind…”

But even then such songs would be better understood if the tones of the music were made strictly to agree with the tones of the words. In the case of sacred songs translated from English into Yoruba, it is not possible to substitute purely Yoruba songs for all of them for two main reasons.

First, it is not easy to compose Yoruba songs to the standard of spiritual depth to which many English hymns translated into Yoruba reached. Second, many Yoruba hymns translated from English hymns and sung to English tunes cannot easily be understood when sung.

Therefore the substitution of purely Yoruba songs for these hymns translated from English into Yoruba has to be gradual. A judicious use of the combination of the two at Yoruba religious services should serve as a welcome compromise. Some recent composers of Yoruba songs who have become victims of not allowing the tone of the music to agree with the tone of the word commit very serious errors in their compositions, although the rhythm is Yoruba, the songs do not convey the intention of the composers.

Many errors are committed in several places nowadays by those who have long been accustomed to singing songs translated from English into Yoruba and sung to English tunes. Even short lullabies composed by teachers for school children often become meaningless when sung to the music composed for them.

What to Observe when Composing a Yoruba Song

The first duty of a modern composer of any Yoruba song is to follow the footsteps of our forefathers who always saw that the tones of the music strictly agreed with the tones of the words of the song. This rule is not difficult to follow if the composer composes only one verse. But if he intends to compose more verses than one, or if he wants to get more parts than the soprano only, he is faced with three difficulties.

First, the composer should see that the tones of every word of every line of the second, third and subsequent verses agree with the tones of the words of the corresponding line of the first verse. If this is not done, the music for each verse has to be written separately. This is the main reason why it is easier to compose a Yoruba anthem for a special event than to compose a Yoruba song with two or more verses for the same music.

Second, since the tone of the soprano is higher than that of the Alto in the same song, and that of the tenor higher than that of the bass, the composer who wants more parts than the soprano must ensure that the other part singers sing the words with the same meaning as the soprano. This is the reason why only a few songs in Yoruba can be composed with three or four parts. Some cannot easily be formed with two parts.

Finally, the composer should ensure that when two or more parts are sung together, they produce a satisfactory musical harmony.

Many educated Nigerians who have studied English music have realised the importance of agreement between the tone of the word and that of music, but unfortunately they have not yet realised that an authentic Yoruba song must have its characteristic rhythm: that is, it should be capable of being accompanied with one kind of drum beat or another or with regular clapping of hands. Many of their compositions lack this essential quality.

To demonstrate that this essential characteristic is vital in a Yoruba song. Research should be carried out away from the coastal towns and far into the interior of Yoruba land, where foreign influence has less domination on Yoruba music. Even a funeral dirge or a recitative song in praise of obas (Traditional rulers) or chiefs has its peculiar rhythm which is generally regulated with a drum beat.

Segun Akinfenwa
Organist/Conductor
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
Odo-ona, Ibadan, Nigeria

3 thoughts on “African Music ~ Focus on Yoruba Composition (Nigeria)

  1. need full yoruba lyrics of this song sir:

    O God, our help in ages past,
    Our hope for years to come,
    Our shelter from the stormy blast,
    And our eternal home.

  2. kindly send me on my email the yoruba of this song

    O God, our help in ages past,
    Our hope for years to come,
    Our shelter from the stormy blast,
    And our eternal home.

  3. Here is the Youruba lyrics to the hymn “O God our help in ages past” (all five stanzas)

    1. Olorun, t’odun t’okoja
    Ire t’eyi ti mbo
    Ib’ isadi wa ni iji
    At’ile wa lailai

    2. Labe ojiji ite Re
    L’awon enia Re ngbe!
    Tito l’apa Re nikanso
    Abo wa si daju

    3. K’awon oke k’o to duro
    Tabi k’a to d’aiye
    Lailai Iwo ni Olorun
    Bakanna l’ailopin

    4. Egberun odun loju Re
    Bi ale kan lo ri
    B’iso kan l’afemojumo
    Ki orun k’o to la

    5.Ojo wa, bi odo sisan
    Opo l’o si ngbe lo
    Nwon nlo, nwon di eni ‘gbagbe
    Bi ala ti a nro

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