Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 227-228
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Art, Society, and Performance: Igede Praise Poetry, by Ode Ogede. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1997. xix + 177 pp. ISBN 0-8130-1541-3 cloth.
As research into African oral performance continues to diversify, scholars are finding it increasingly useful to "showcase" individual performers in their studies rather than examining several and attempting to present a composite portrait of the oral artist. Ode Ogede's new book on Igede (Benue State, Nigeria) praise poetry, though broad in its examination of the features of traditional oral art in the community, actually portrays specific Igede oral performers. Ogede's work bridges the gap between a purely ethnographic study and a literary one by attempting to identify several cultural markers existing in the songs while pursuing a rigorous literary analysis of the texts, paying critical attention to the nuances of the texts within an oral performance mode. Being an Igede native and a literary scholar definitely has served him well in this project.
Ogede's thesis is clear enough: the analysis of what he calls "vilification" songs that censure bad conduct enhances the understanding of "praise" [End Page 227] songs, or songs that endorse or encourage proper civic conduct. Divided into four chapters, examines the function of satire, proverbs, and the dirge form in the performance of praise and vilification songs in Igede. In particular, chapter three, "Politics and Creativity: Using Praise for Conscientization," is a crucial segment in the book. There Ogede confronts the complex status of the artist as an individual, a "historian," and an entertainer. For example, Ichigbeh, one of the performers, in the song "Egoh Ny'Igede" (The History of the Igede), engages in myth-making where he recounts the origin of his people; though celebratory, the song also castigates the community for its lack of a "sense of self-preservation" (84).
This song, which Ogede predicts would "in time become a major event in the Igede literary tradition" (84), also exposes what appears to be a major critical problem in the book: the ambiguity in the use and meaning of one of Ogede's key literary terms—Praise Song/Poetry. In the book, to "praise" is to promote certain moral or political values in the audience. In other words, its function is didactic. But we also know that in oral performance, praise poetry refers tot hat highly cadenced outpouring of grandiose epithets or appellations celebratory of a hero, a patron, or any character and event that engages the artist's imagination. Even though it may praise attributes such as heroism, cunning, hunting skill, etc., the appeal of this form of oral art lies especially in offering the performer an opportunity for verbal showmanship. Ironically, it is in the author's narration of the performance context that we catch a glimpse of this eloquence. At the end of one of Ichegbeh's performances, "[t]he audience yelled in jubilation and rose in unison to roar out a thunder of applause so loud that it was heard many kilometers away from the site" (80); on another occasion, Ichegbeh's "performance extravaganza" "made a resounding aesthetic statement" (144). A fitting hyperbole, perhaps?
Ogede's book adds to our understanding of the diverse influences that converge in the making of a performance. His close and detailed analysis of the texts, his publisher's generous reproduction of the transcript and translation of the songs, and the ample credit Ogede gives his oral sources make this work beneficial for any person interested in the interplay of art and society in an oral performance context.
Chiji Akoma is Assistant Professor of English at Loyola University in Chicago.