- Yorùbá Bàtá Goes Global: Artists, Culture Brokers, and Fans
The Yoruba bata ensemble (of conically shaped double-membrane drums) is traditionally associated with sango, the thunder deity, as well as with eegun oje, a social masquerade performance. In response to the dynamics of the colonial and postcolonial environment in Nigeria, however, bata performers have been exploring new performance contexts through global networks and intercultural collaboration. Debra Klein’s book examines the effects of such collaborations on the lives and musical performances of a group of Yoruba bata performers from Erin Oshun in Western Nigeria. She discusses different “sets of shifting collaborations” between bata artists and foreign “interlocutors” like Susan Wenger, an Austrian artist, Ulli Beier, a German scholar, various Western researchers, and a German ethno-fusion jazz-rock band. Also discussed are collaborations involving local business entrepreneurs and government institutions in Nigeria.
The first of the book’s six chapters examines how the activities of contemporary bata musicians have been molded as part of a “Yoruba culture movement” that is fashioned to sustain the relevance of bata music within modern cultural and educational institutions. Chapter 2 focuses on the work of Lamidi Ayankunle, a prominent bata drummer and custodian of asa ibile (traditional culture). In chapter 3 Klein discusses the activities of Susan Wenger and Ulli Beier, both of whom initiated wide-ranging collaborative ventures that produced a new generation of artists, including Lamidi Ayankunle. Chapter 4 assesses the impact of local and global networks on Erin Oshun artists and discusses how their performances strike a balance between satisfying global and local tastes. Chapter 5 addresses the significance of performing and mediating bata drumming as part of fuji, a neotraditional musical idiom, while chapter 6 explores how “differently located participants have strategically worked dominant global imaginaries of The Africa” (129).
Klein acknowledges the ambivalent, even contradictory, disposition of “world music,” a movement with which performances of African music are often associated, and whose “hopeful vision” and “impetus for social change” are undermined by its strong attachment to Western capitalism and its disposition toward reproducing inequality. Klein’s discussion of Erin Oshun artists, however, draws attention to a contrasting form of collaboration that promotes “compromise and co-operation.” She characterizes this more hopeful dynamic as an “antipolitics,” a form of collaboration that challenges the “historically steeped relations of inequality” (134).
In spite of the overall success of this book I cannot but disagree with [End Page 216] Klein on a number of minor issues. For example, while the profligacy of “FESTAC 77” (The 1977 Lagos World Festival of African Arts and Culture) is unquestionable, it is not entirely correct to suggest that the event served mainly to promote Nigeria as a model of African or black culture; the diversity and scope of cultural activity at the festival do not justify this observation. And although nostalgia was palpable, many events at the festival clearly reflected and celebrated the existential reality of life in modern Africa. I also think that the significance of overseas collaboration has been exaggerated in this book. As the author admits, the sustenance of indigenous musicians and their art is more crucially dependent on a sustained local patronage than on sporadic gains from overseas trips.
Klein’s prose is readable, while her analysis is penetrating and refreshing. Her narrative is spiced with ethnographic testimonies that take the reader right into the heart of Yoruba life and culture. And by focusing on the practice of collaboration rather than on the products of that encounter, she privileges the processual nature of human interaction and the agency of local participants who construct survival strategies in response to the evolving nature of their social and political environment.
South Hadley, Massachusetts