Ancient Text Messages of the Yoruba Bata Drum

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Ancient Text Messages of the Yoruba Bata Drum

Postby davidpenalosa » Sat Oct 02, 2010 8:57 am

Ancient Text Messages of the Yoruba Bata Drum; Cracking the Code
By Amanda Villepastour. SOAS Musicology Series. Ashgate: Burlington, VT, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0754667537

Reviewed by David Peñalosa

The title and sub-title say it all. Bata drums perform the function of surrogate speech as polyrhythmic music. Amanda Villepastour takes us inside this esoteric drum system, breaking down in lean and methodical prose, the history, grammar and function of these drums and their veiled language.

Dr. Villepastour is currently the curator of the Museum of Musical Instruments in Phoenix, Arizona. Her PhD Dissertation Bata Conversations; Guardianship and Entitlement Narratives, about the bata in Nigeria and Cuba, is the definitive work comparing the two drum systems, and investigating the inevitable questions of retention and invention.

With Ancient Text Messages of the Yoruba Bata Drum, Villepastour takes us deeper, to the intersection of language and music itself. She compares the methods of surrogate speech in three different, but related Yoruba drum systems of southwest Nigeria: dundun, bata and omele meta.

While most modern Yoruba understand the mimicked speech of the iyaalu (lead) dundun, the iyaalu (lead) bata and its companion the omele abo together speak in a coded language known as ena bata. We are shown how bata master Rabiu Ayandokun generates the coded ena language from Yoruba and the correlation of vocables and drum strokes. As part of her review of previous literature on the African bata, Villepastour dispels the common misconception that bata cannot speak clearly or is an inferior talker to the dundun. As she explains, the dundun is used to communicate with everyday Yorubas, whereas the bata speaks an insider language that intentionally excludes the uninitiated from understanding its meaning.

The omele meta is a relatively recent instrument consisting of a set of three small bata drums lashed together. Those familiar with Afro-Cuban music will be interested to know that the omele meta was indirectly inspired by conga drums (known in Cuba as tumbadoras). In Nigeria, conga players using three or four drums in highlife and juju bands mimicked the tonal speech of the Yoruba. Villepastour states: “Yoruba listeners became so accustomed to hearing congas mimic speech that they would even read semantic meaning into non-semantic solos.” The omele meta is used in secular musics such as fuji and can improvise with, or without semantic meaning.

The complexities of the bata drum system are at times staggering, but Villepastour keeps the text on track, never indulging in intellectual excesses. The music transcriptions, tables, and the audio examples on the accompanying CD support our understanding of the text. The book functions well as both a cover-to-cover read and a reference source, where specific information can be easily accessed. Like many ancient traditions, knowledge of the bata is slowing eroding over time. For that reason, Villepastour’s work will be sought for decades to come. With the Appendices, Bibliography, Discography and Index, the book comes in at 173 pages. For its modest size, Ancient Text Messages of the Yoruba Bata Drum contains an amazing wealth of information. Although weighing just a little over a pound, this is unquestionably, a “heavy” little package.

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Re: Ancient Text Messages of the Yoruba Bata Drum

Postby Thomas Altmann » Sat Oct 02, 2010 12:01 pm

Thanks for submitting your review, David. Amanda Villepastour, alias Amanda Vincent, is definitely the expert on the subject of batá surrogate speech. Her Ph.D. dissertation was a masterpiece already. Amanda was initiated as olórisha omó-Oshún in Oshogbo, Nigeria. She is a committed researcher. I had the pleasure to visit her while she was living in London and even stayed at her house. I made sure to get hold of her book before it's gone, because I know this will remain the pivotal work on the subject for a long time, and a must-have for any serious batá drummer.

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