Great Benin Bronze


Communication Dilemmas in a Traditional Urban African Society

By Nosa Owens-Ibie 

How is the historical region of Edoland in modern Nigeria, part of the old Benin Kingdom, adapting to the late 20th century? Its cultural heritage, as the following article reveals, is being threatened by the extinction of indigenous attributes such as language, music, dress and dance. The challenge comes from a hybrid based on Western culture as the preferred alternative. The dilemma of Edo culture is the dilemma of African culture generally, which is being progressively snuffed out by mixture of local rejection, ambivalence towards the custodians of traditional culture and external influences.
Every night in Benin City, the sound of musicians and their technicians testing equipment before all-night parties can be heard. In almost every case, these musicians perform at wake-keeping ceremonies popularly referred to as obitofe or obitos (derived from obituary). These ceremonies, which may feature more than one musician depending on the level of affluence of their organizers, have become a commentary on 20th century Edoland, its past and its prospects for survival.
Like most societies in transition, Edoland is trapped at the confluence of two mainly opposing but partly complementary cultural influences. The most dominant of these cultural influences is external while the second is indigenous.

The first influence can be traced to the origins of colonial rule in Edoland in 1892. The long-term consequence of cultural infiltration pioneered essentially by Britain - the colonial power, and consolidated by other neo-colonial powers - has been the dilution of elements of Edo tradition. This influence is particularly noticeable in the field of education and the socialization process. These have deeply influenced the culture, politics and economy of Edoland.
Central to this reality of influence has been the communication process, through which the colonial authorities directly and indirectly undermined elements of the socio-economic, political and cultural base of pre-colonial Edoland. Considering the central place of communication in human interaction, emphasis here is limited to three areas of socio-cultural interest, namely; music/dance, language and dress.

Edoland represents a wide geographical zone which has been constricted over time by politics. The remnant of what was the Benin Kingdom still retains some of its fifteenth century features, being an aggregation of many people, whose customs are diverse (McClelland, 1971:11). Efforts to delineate Edoland along linguistic lines show two major divisions (Bradbury; 1957:14). The first consists of those considered to be the 'Edo proper, including the Ishans and Northern Edos. The second group includes the Urhobos and Isokos.

This article concentrates on the 'Edo proper' who cover the geographical landscape occupied until recently by the three local governments of Oredo, Orhionmwon and Ovia. They represent a largely homogenous collective with the Oba of Benin as traditional head.

Music and dance

Music and dance are a recurring theme in any discussion of Benin (Edo) cultural heritage. This follows a general trend in African societies and the role played by music and dance as art forms bestride other socio-cultural activities. The heterogeneous character of Nigerian society also explains the numerous traditional music and dance forms associated with particular ethnic groups in the country (Iyashere, 1975:10).

In Edoland, there is a virile tradition of music and dance dating back many centuries, and attempts have been made to document the salient features of Edo music and dance in their more original forms (Norborg, 1989; Edosomwan). Although Edo dances have various spiritual and temporal dimensions and origins, the classification which has direct relevance to this analysis is that of the social dance. Six types of social dance were identified by Norborg (1989: 274-283) as predominating during festivals, burial ceremonies and other entertainment activities organised in honour of important visitors by the Oba and chiefs.

The first is the Kareta or Ekareta dance which dates to the fifteenth century and has been quite popular. Its distinguishing features include colourful dresses, masks and leggings used by the dancers while the accompanying instrumentalists play on drums, flutes and bells. The dancing is vigorous and involves acrobatic displays. The second is the Uaho dance which like the Kareta dates back to the fifteenth century. This dance is now a preserve of old men and women because of its difficult nature. Instrumentalists in this dance use bells, the Ukuse and a specific drum known as ema uaho (translated as the drum for Uaho). The third is the Samba dance in which Samba drums, bells and Ukuse are used.

A fourth dance, which is said to have been started during the era of Oba Ehengbuda in the sixteenth century, is Esaknaide. It is performed by men of grace and dignity for the entertainment of the Oba in his palace. Only men use the special Esakpaide drums. Bells and Ukuse are also used. The fifth dance - Eauonuri - has 201 steps and is performed by young spinsters who are watched by young men who are allowed to make choices among the girls for marriage. The uaie dance is used to introduce the Eauonuri dance. Instruments used in the latter include drums and bells.
The last is the Aluboie dance which like the Eauonuri is performed by young spinsters. The instruments used include drums, bells and Ukuse.

Professional and amateur musicians exist in Edoland and have been grouped into four. These are spontaneous groups, cult or occupational groups, musical associations and court musicians (Norborg, 1989: 291-296). Spontaneous groups are made up of amateurs who gather during burial ceremonies, family evening storytelling and relaxation gatherings know as ibota and children's groups which meet to sing at Ugiewere.

Cult or occupational groups perform music that is peculiar to them. While specialists handle the instruments, amateurs do the singing. Musical associations take on the responsibility of entertaining others, or just enjoying themselves during festivals or burial ceremonies. They specialise in a particular dance and are of necessity professionals. This type of musical formation is centuries old.
Cult musicians are professionals who perform in the court of the Oba or chiefs. Those in the Oba's palace belong to the Iwebo place association and have five groups: the Ogbelaka, the Igbemaba, the Ikpema, the Ikpeziken and the Ikpakohen. The groups have specific musical responsibilities during different palace functions.

Communication and language

The communication function is central to Edo music, whether such music is for entertainment, storytelling, rituals for different deities, burial ceremonies, festivals or other uses (Norborg, 1989: 288-291). At state rituals, music is used to communicate aspects of the history of the people. Music during rituals for various deities represent an imaginary portrayal of communication between worshippers and spiritual forces. Storytelling offers the opportunity to relay aspects of local tradition, history, myths and the lives and times of heroes of the land. Initiation and burial ceremonies and festivals also feature music that convey messages relevant to these activities. The same is true of cult music.

Apart from factors of social organisation which recognise the village settlement as the basic political unit, age-grades made up of men as the 'fundamental pattern of authority' and lineage patterns that emphasize primogeniture and have a patrilineal bias, language is the other common cultural denominator in Edoland (Ryder, 1969: 1).

The use of the term 'Edo-speaking peoples' actually derives from acknowledgement by researchers, of the linguistic affinity of the people covering the geographical belt hitherto referred to as the Benin kingdom. According to Bradbury (1957: 13-14), the term 'is derived from Edo the vernacular name of Benin City, and is applied to those who speak either Edo proper (Bini) - the language of Benin City and the Kingdom - or closely related dialects, as their first language.'

The way the Edos dress is another indicator of their uniqueness on the one hand and their interaction with other contiguous cultural experiences on the other hand. Here, there is an obvious distinction between the dress pattern of the Oba and chiefs and the people. Generally, the people dress in ways similar to their western neighbours - the Yorubas. The chiefs are to be seen in big white wrappers with bare bodies decorated with beads round the neck and arms and sometimes on the ankles. The dressing of the Oba and his chiefs vary in their elaborateness depending on the occasion. Festivals and important ceremonies are celebrated in more elaborate apparel and decorative marks on the body. Their wives also tie wrappers with their hair plaited in particular patterns. There is a difference in this regard between the way the hair of the Oba's wives are stacked and the way those of the wives of chiefs are plaited. While the Oba's wives stack theirs pointing backwards, the wives of chiefs stack theirs pointing upwards.

Influences on education

The Edo language is in constant struggle with English and also with its more popular variant known variously as 'pidgin English' or 'broken English'. A third variant is the increasingly popular anglicised version of the Edo language. Egharevba (1968: 81-82), for instance, identified 37 types of morning salutation by the Benin (Edos), each salutation being specific to the family to which the individual belongs. But he was quick to add that 'the English salutation "good morning" is rapidly ousting our own morning salutations.'

Whether the teaching of Edo in schools has helped the cause of the language is a moot point. Evidence exists to show that in spite of efforts to promote mother-tongue education, a development pioneered ironically by the early missionaries (Bamgbose, 1976:9), there are problems with teaching the subject (Owens-lbie, 1991). In the realm of music and dance, the immediate evidence of influence is not just in the airtime devoted to music in English on Edo radio and television stations and their Nigerian Television Authority counterpart. Edo social music faces an era of growing commercialization. It has, like the music of Africa and in the view of Okpaku et al (1986:121), 'adapted itself to new circumstances as influences from within and without affect the living conditions of the creators of the art, and continually change old traits into novel forms of expression.'
Purely cultural groups which over a decade ago tried to sell traditional Edo songs on record faded after the initial success of the Edo Cultural Group led to a plethora of others that at one stage threatened to extend the frontiers of this genre of music beyond the shores of Nigeria. The predominance of local instruments in this genre of music, as well as the use of traditional costumes, ignited hope for a new era for Edo music, but it failed.

Locally a musical form like Juiu, which is based on the musical experience of the Yorubas, is being successfully adapted be a myriad entertainment bands. The instrumental accompaniment to the mix of highlife, juju and cross-over music played by these bands is a reflection of the triumph of western influence. The music itself represents a clear attempt to pander to popular taste while the emerging dance styles also reflect a concern for popular acceptance. Until recently 'I beg You' was in vogue and women flailing their arms and using provocative dance steps were the features of this dance style. The allusion to sex themes in another dancing style popularized by dance bands is another evidence of the triumph of the West.

A future without a past?

While the original character of aspects of its music, dance, language and dressing has been retained over the years, it is obvious that only a few of these art forms have survived. Norborg (1989: 274) notes, for instance, that only a few Edo social dances 'are common nowadays.' The task of maintaining the culture appears, however, to be most crucial in the area of language which remains the last bastion of corporate identity of the Edos outside the traditional institution symbolised by the Oba. The findings of a study on the implementation of the country's language policy in relation to the teaching of the Edo language in 24 secondary schools in Benin City provides a good basis for an assessment of its future given certain factors (Owens-lbie, 1991).

In the study, 240 students, 60% from Junior Secondary School (JSS) and 40% from Senior Secondary School, constituted the sample. Of this number, 118 of the respondents (49.17%) are Edos. The study also sampled 120 teachers drawn from the same secondary schools to ascertain their attitudes to the language. Emphasis was on Edo as the primary language and Yoruba (in the few cases relevant), as a second language. Only in 37.5% of the schools that Yoruba is studied while Edo is taught in all the schools. There is a generally negative attitude to the study of the language by the students. As many as 69.1% of the entire sample indicate that given a choice, they would not want to study the local language. Altogether, 85.8% of teachers are adverse to teaching the language and to its study by children. Their reasons are instructive: the teachers do not consider the study of the indigenous language as something to be proud of. They rate the languages low in terms of job prospects. 'Ethnic pride,' however, affected the response of the non-Edo teachers and their attitude to the teaching of the subject, although they would not mind if their children were taught in their own languages.

As in all cases, the beneficiary of this negative attitude to studying or teaching the local languages is the English language, which is accepted by parents and students as a prerequisite for any meaningful integration into the mainstream educational system.
In search of an 'explicit and shared vision'

The 21st century does not hold out good prospects for reversing the fortunes of Africa or indeed the world. Given current indicators, development in Africa is likely to remain a mirage while preoccupation with economic survival will, to a large extent, dictate the fortunes of most local industries, including the cultural. Development is, in fact, going to be increasingly defined by exogenously controlled criteria. The dilemma is made worse by what Kabuo (1995:7) refers to as the lack of an 'explicit and shared vision' by Africans of what they want to become and whether such goals are realisable.
The global 'triumph' of capitalism and western values has meant that the steady attempt by the Edos to be integrated into the mainstream of the world system has defined new vistas for Edo culture in general and its music/dance, language and dress patterns in particular. While it can be said that current developments on the cultural front in Edoland represent a break with the past, it is safer to take two positions. The first is that some original qualities of Edo culture have survived to date. The second is that the current pandering to popular taste and commercial success in Edo music and dance is the exploitation and consolidation of a trend initiated and promoted by the musical associations and groups, amateur and professional, which operated in a reward culture in the known past (Norborg, 1989:291). What is worrying to some is the moral degeneracy actively promoted by musical groups that now control the social circuit in Benin, the implication of which is far reaching. There is also the problem of the corruption (adulteration) of the Edo language in the zealousness for popularity and crossover acceptance.

The argument can, however, still be made that obito music and the recordings of various musicians groups remain the last hope for the popular promotion of the Edo language. In spite of certain failings, a lot of the recordings are social commentaries and reminders of heritage rooted in myths, heroic exploits, and stories. Songs in Edo hold good prospects for the promotion of the language.
There is evidence that the 21st century will retain elements of the Edo cultural past, although somewhat diluted. But given the fundamental communication problems, it is clear that unless there are fresh initiatives by a coalition of traditional institutions, the Edo people and the government, what will survive in the coming years will be a culture that is anything but Edo.


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Egharevba, Jacob. (1968) A Short History of Benin. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.
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McClelland, Elizabeth M (1971) The Kingdom of Benin in the Sixteenth Century. London: Oxford University Press.
Norborg, Ake. (1989) The Musical Instruments of the Edo-Speaking Peoples of South-Western Nigeria. Germany, Information on some Edo dances and Dress patterns were obtained form Mrs. Margaret Edosomwan, Music teacher, Emotan College, Benin City.
Ogunbambo, Sina (1989) 'The Benin kingdom - Almost 2,000 Years of keeping a Past' The Guardian. March 23.
Okpaku, J. O., A. E Opubor and B. O. Oloruntimehin. (ed) (1986) The Arts and Civilization of Black and African Peoples Vol.1. Lagos: Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization.
Owens-lbie, Nogieru. (1991) 'Problems in the Implementation of Nigeria's Language Policy: A Case Study of Secondary schools in Benin City' Unpublished B.A. Project. Department of Linguistics and African Languages, University of Benin.
Roth, Ling H. (1968) Great Benin: Its Customs, Art and Horrors. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Ryder, A. F. C (1969) Benin and the Europeans 1485 - 1897. London: Longmans.
Talbot, P. Amaury (1969) The Peoples of Southern Nigeria Vol. III London: Frank Cass & Co Ltd.
Wilson, John. (1963) Education and Changing West African Culture. New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Nosa Owens-Ibie studied at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (PhD in Communication Arts). He currently teaches mass communication at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. He is a columnist for the Sunday Punch newspaper and has written extensively for print and electronic media in Nigeria. Owens-lbie has published academic papers locally and internationally.


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