The rise of juju music

Juju is a popular Nigerian music that developed from the 1930s. It combines elements of Yoruba vocal and percussion traditions, Christian congregational singing, other African styles, and, in recent decades, Western popular genres like rock music.

In the late 1940s, a crucial instrument was added to the sound: the batá. It is one of the most important and representative percussion traditions of the people in southwest Nigeria, and is now performed around the world. There are five sizes of this double-headed drum, which can be played either by hand, or using a leather play strap. Although the batá is one of the oldest known Yoruba drumming traditions, the drum and its unique language are now largely unfamiliar to many contemporary Yoruba people. 

The batá is a key instrument in the tradition of the “Yoruba talking drum”. With its ability to "talk" by imitating the tones and rhythms of Yoruba language, the drum brought with it an instrumental repertoire of traditional proverbs and praise-names (short descriptions of the honourable characteristics of a person) that were inserted into juju performances, often as commentaries on the song texts. Call-and-response choruses (a feature of much traditional West African music) and electric guitars were introduced within the next few years, as was additional amplification to ensure the maintenance of a sonic balance between voices and instruments within the expanding juju ensemble.

“Talking drums” have interested ethnomusicologists for a long time. Traditionally there was no written language in West African countries. In Nigeria in particular, batá drums served as a method of communication – as a surrogate for Yoruba, the language of Nigeria. It was a coded speech between drummers that not all people could understand. Since drum sound carried for relatively long distances, the batá was used historically to communicate war strategies in code. But Yoruba is a tonal language with an inherent melody, and the pitch-flexible dundun (or talking drums) could better imitate it: every Yoruba speaker can understand what dundun drums are “saying”. Drums like the batá are now used more for music than for communication, though for 500 years they were the primary linguistic communicators in Nigerian villages.

The emphasis on ancient rhythms and call-and-response vocals represented a kind of “re-Africanization” of juju music that paralleled a mid-century rise in nationalistic feeling. In the years surrounding Nigeria’s achievement of independence in 1960, I.K. Dairo was the country’s most prominent and influential juju musician. Although he added an accordion to the ensemble, Dairo ultimately strengthened juju’s ties to Yoruba culture, primarily through emphasizing the use of Yoruba talking drums and traditional song repertoire. With his band the Morning Star Orchestra (later the Blue Spots), Dairo released many hit recordings in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Younger juju artists and innovators include Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade. Obey, most significantly, increased the number of guitars in the ensemble, injected the repertoire with Christian religious messages and social commentary, and pitched his music primarily to the urban upper class. Ade, who had a more populist appeal, further expanded the ensemble to include five or more guitars, an enlarged percussion section, and an electronic synthesizer, in addition to several vocalists. From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, Obey and Ade competed for the largest and most novel ensemble. In the process much of juju’s Yoruba character yielded to a style more heavily influenced by rock and other international popular music genres.

©Adolphus Opara