- Yoruba Royal Poetry: A Socio-Historical Exposition and Annotated Translation
It is reasonable to assume that African cultures have always been dynamic (as they are today) and never been static. Moreover, changes that take place in the cultures are not necessarily bad and can be for the better. African traditional arts are often viewed as models of excellence that need to be protected against change, as if the very models that we value so highly today are not themselves products of change. The continued survival of the traditional arts of Africa suggests that African artists well know how to manage change and that there is no need to worry about their replacing the good with the bad. It is interesting for intellectuals to theorize how African arts and cultures are [End Page 194] coming to be what they will be, but it seems to me that cultures and arts will evolve with or without such theoretical activity.
Akintunde Akinyemi's landmark study of Yoruba royal poetry has many advantages, but the one that I will highlight in this brief notice is its potential for enhancing literary creativity in Yorubaland. The author himself acknowledges this when he writes that "the effort of contemporary Yoruba society towards the promotion and development of indigenous cultural institutions and revival of artistic activities, demands that we be well informed about the traditional functions of individual art forms in that society" (127). There is already ample evidence to show that the traditional arts and culture have been a rich source of ideas for the works of modern Yoruba writers and composers, such as Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, Ola Rotimi's Kurunmi, Duro Ladipo's Oba Koso, and Wale Ogunyemi's Obaluaye. The achievement of modern Yoruba playwrights and composers in creating new works based on traditional arts and culture has been possible in spite of the paucity of documented sources; it is not unusual to see creative artists doing field research in order to elicit the kind of information needed for their plays and compositions. The published works of scholars like Akinyemi are therefore invaluable to the survival of creativity in the Yoruba traditional idioms.
Survival and preservation take many forms and are not restricted to keeping things authentic (if that were possible) and Akinyemi indicates one of them by saying that
as part of the effects of (change), materials from Yoruba royal poetry are now being adopted by freelance male-bards into their composition for entertaining the public at social gatherings. As a result of this development, male-composed royal poetry of the Yoruba people [has] developed from its confinement as royal music to a form of social music for entertaining the noble and the commoners.(45)
As I have elsewhere argued ("Orunmila's Voices"), such a process of secularization could be crucial in saving the African ritual and religious arts from extinction.
Akinyemi's book is laid out in three parts. The first provides an overview of praise singing for royalty in Yorubaland while the second concentrates on the tradition as it exists in the town of Oyo, one of the main centers of Yoruba culture. Akinyemi gives a brief history of Old Oyo and follows with an analysis of yùngbà, a type of royal poetry performed by female artists. In the third part, the author deals with the history of modern Oyo as it is preserved in poetical renditions.
The value of this book would be considerably increased if it were accompanied by a CD containing samples of the poetry discussed. Even in its present form, this book is highly recommended for all interested in Yoruba studies.