The latter also applies to me: Cuba got my interest, and I even have been there several times. Jamaica got my interest too. Afro-Cuban percussion and Jamaican reggae influenced me, while I specialized less in countries like Brazil, Colombia, or the Dominican Republic, even though there are interesting types of drums and percussion in those countries too. I still try to know something about the percussion in these countries too, keeping my interest broad and international.
Within Africa, I likewise have a bit of a specialization, but also that broad interest. The Yoruba and Congo cultures were both influential in Cuba (and parts of Brazil, by the way), so my percussion interest in Africa traced those specific origins and roots too, soon expanding it to other cultures.
One of these is the Igbo culture, located in Southeastern Nigeria. Numerically in fact one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups, the Igboes were – like the Yoruba and Congo - historically very much affected by the colonial slave trade, with many Igboes forcibly brought to parts of the Americas.
In this post, I further delve into this Igbo influence, all the more since I discussed the Yoruba influence and Congo influences already in earlier posts on this blog, in fact in several posts.
The connection of the Igbo and percussion is with an instrument I have and use for quite some years now: the "Udu". It is an instrument, derived from a clay jug or pot, but with an extra hole on the side. It is played among the Igbo people, especially by women, mainly by hitting the open hand on the udu hole, interchanged by taps. It tends to have a bass function in Igbo music.
Since I got this Udu instrument, I knew it came from Igbo culture. Another instrument I would have wanted too, but could not afford it: the ekwe, a "log drum", or a slit, hollowed out (part of a) tree trunk, I encountered (and played) at times during percussion jams.
Due to these nice sounding instruments, my interest in Igbo culture increased, even though I always have found Nigeria a fascinating country in general.
An interesting musical and percussion culture, as there are more in Africa – after all the “most percussive” continent -, but there is an extra question.. What about this culture and music of the Igbo affected by the slave trade and brought as slaves to the Americas? Did it leave substantial influences, far away from Igbo-land?
IGBO IN THE AMERICAS
I already learned from earlier studies that enslaved Africans from different parts, tended to end up in different places too somewhat concentrated. As scholar Robert Farris-Thompson also pointed out: the relatively most widely scattered (and thus enslaved) African ethnic group – geographically - throughout the Americas were from the Congo area, thereby unifying to a degree culturally Afro-Americans from Argentina and Brazil to the US.
Then there were concentrations, besides the also present and often substantial Congo populations. In some countries, like Brazil and Cuba, slaves from the Congo area, made up over 30% of the African population. Elsewhere they are quite present too, such as in Haiti and parts of the US. In Jamaica, still over 20 % of Jamaicans have Congo foreparents, despite a strong Akan presence among slaves in Jamaica.
The Igbo also tended to be concentrated more in some places, especially in the Virginia and Maryland areas of the US they even formed the majority among slaves at one point, as they were on the island of Barbados. Some scholars even suggest that about 60% of all African Americans in the US have at least one Igbo ancestor.
This is interesting, also in light of my earlier posts in which I adress the musicologist distinction of African musical influence in the Americas: more "forest Africa" (Congo, Yoruba) in Cuba, and more "sahel/Mali/Mande Africa" in the US. This distinction is quite sensible and useful: indeed Afro-Cuban music (from which Salsa derived) has a traceable, clave/polyrhythmic origin from the Congo area, while US Blues and Jazz, in their "swing", shows evident influences from the Mande/Guinea ("Griot") parts of Africa. Yet, the quite numerous presence of other cultural groups in the US as well - such as the Igbo -, makes this distinction somewhat simplified.
In the case of Barbados, over 40% of the slave population once there, were said to come from the Bight of Biafra area, being mostly Igbo.
In Jamaica, the Igbo were also quite present among the Africans, alongside slaves of other (Akan or Congo, or otherwise) origins. Igbo were relatively most found in northwestern parts of Jamaica.
There is an Anglo-Saxon connection with the Igbo’s enslavement, as in Spanish, Portuguese, and French colonies, Igboes seemed less present historically. Historical records indeed confirm that English slave merchants from Bristol and Liverpool, having Virginia also as main market, traded relatively much in Igbo people, having access to the Bight of Biafra ports.
A partly related group from neighbouring areas in SE Nigeria - Calabar -, are the Efik-Ibibio, and these have been quite present in Cuba among Africans, known there as “Calabarí”. These Efik-speaking slaves were to some degree culturally related or with similarities to the Igbo, yet still also culturally and linguistically different enough from them.
Slaves were stripped from everything, their belongings, and eventually even their name. Of course, it is hardly likely that enslaved Africans were in the position to take musical instruments with them, even small percussion ones. The slave masters did not – or rarely – allow this, by itself being a strong sign of the utter dehumanization this slavery represents.
The musical instruments that developed among enslaved Africans, or their descendants, in the Americas, therefore were made “from scratch” locally, but according to African traditions and memories.
Interestingly, in the traditional music of Afro-Barbadians, there is an instrument made from a hollowed out tree trunk, very similar from the Igbo Ekwe, and probably influenced by it. Bottle and calabash use as instruments in Barbadian folk music as a whole, maybe show echoes of the Udu. Also, in Virginia an Igbo-type of drum – the Eboe drum – lived on in folk music.
Linguistically and otherwise, the Igbo certainly left some influences among Africans in the Americas, such as in Jamaican patois/Creole language, and some other Creole languages in the region, and African American dialects in the US. In Jamaican patois , the word “Unu”, meaning “you, (plural)” is quite commonly used, and comes from the Igbo language.
Also the term “backra”, for white man, - known also in other languages in the region, such as Surinamese Creole – has probably an Igbo origin.
In Jamaica, the Igbo were said to be a bit lighter or “redder” in their skin complexion, when compared to other groups, giving birth to the term “Red Eboes” in colonial Jamaica.
In Nigeria itself, in Igboland, skin tones tend to differ among the Igbo, while there is overall a somewhat lighter hue, compared to surrounding groups. Their origins are partly associated with Bantu people.
Igbo slaves were in most colonies not preferred as slaves. They tended to be rebellious, but also suicidal, as a common response among Igbo to escape slavery. Several cases in Georgia of suicidal Igbo slaves, in the US, attest to this. Igbo male slaves were furthermore called relatively “lazy” among white planters in Jamaica.
YORUBA AND IGBO
The Yoruba were another Nigerian (and around) group likewise strongly affected by the Atlantic Slave Trade, but there are differences. In spite of the “skin tone” issue, some Yoruba claim a Middle Eastern connection to their origins, while the Igbo feel more a connection with Bantu peoples East of them. Yoruba society at the time of the slave trade was quite centralized and urban organized, whereas Igboland at that time was more small village and rurally based, with local “democracies”. Possibly their less organized society made their confrontation with dehumanizing slavery all the more shocking to their worldview. Their suicidal tendencies, and the way they rebelled, might relate to this background.
Ghana and Yorubaland were more centralized and organized kingdoms, making the concept of slavery more known, but giving also a base for large-scale, organized rebellion, as indeed Akan-speaking slaves in Jamaica were known for.
Congo slaves, by contrast, were in several colonies (Cuba, Jamaica, Suriname, Brazil) known less for organized rebellion, and more for escaping/running away from the plantations. This might also be a reflection of the loose, small-scale communities, and rainforest life in the Congo area during slavery.
Back to the Udu. In the Americas, the only instrument coming close to the Udu is found in Cuba, and is know as the “botija”, which is simply Spanish for “vessel” or “jug”, similar to what Udu means in the Igbo language.
The botija is however played by mouth, while sharing the extra hole on the side, and the fact that it is a clay jug as well. It also has a similar musical “bass” function, but is – as said – played with the mouth (blowing) – and not with the hands.
Via some African connection the Udu model might have reached Cuba too (English ships sold slaves to Cuba too), but in Spain a clay jug is also found as a friction drum, a rope in a skin, with a bass function, called the “zambomba”. Perhaps both served as cultural models.
The Udu itself has in fact in recent decades “gone international” to a degree, as its popularity increased among international percussionists. Some own Udu-based models were later developed by Persian/Iranian percussionist (e.g. adding a skin or more holes), and there were other innovations made outside of Igboland or Africa.
The original or adapted/reworked Igbo Udu is by now played internationally, mostly outside its original context, by percussionists worldwide.
This internationalization is such, that when searching on “Udu” in YouTube, one finds mostly Westerners and some Iranians playing (versions of the) Udu, with only few videos or examples of actual Igbo women playing them. That is somehow skewed, in my opinion, and has of course to do with economic power, but combined with non-African arrogance and lack of respect. Eugene Skeef is a researcher who does interesting work studying the Udu in its original Igbo context, as a counterweight against this appropriation. Skeef also has some films on YouTube, recorded in Igboland itself.
The fact that “big” companies in the percussion world, LP (US-based), Meinl (Germany), and Toca/RBI (US), manufacture their own Udu’s for the market, confirms this international popularity. It made Udu’s of different sizes and shapes available internationally and easily, that’s on the plus side. Also, some Iranian percussionists make Udu-based instruments themselves, in Iran, therefore more available there and around..
On the minus side of this, however, is that the “input” from the Igbo themselves is largely lacking, other than the original idea and invention, providing thus no economic possibilities for Igbo people themselves derived from the their own culture’s Udu’s increased popularity; money of it going after all to Western or Iranian companies.
Only if one buys Udu’s from Africa/Nigeria/Igboland itself - and it is not impossible to find these in Europe or North America - does it lead to actual reward for the cultural origins. My Udu, a basic and relatively small model, is such an African one.
I am not the only Udu player in the Netherlands, that is for sure. There might be some Nigerians of Igbo descent in the Netherlands playing the Udu informally, and there is such a community. Among the active percussionists, I know of people like Vernon Chatlein (originally from Curaçao) who composes and performs with Udu’s at times, Roël Calister (also born in Curaçao) and a few others, but it remains in the Netherlands overall much more rarely used in percussion than the common djembe, bongos, and conga’s,
In its original Igbo context, the Udu is seen as a connection with the forefathers, speaking as it were through the Udu, while it was initially only played by women. In traditional Igbo music, the Udu combined with drums, shakers, and often too the ekwe trunk, and bells/gongs. This music accompanied various ceremonies and festivities, including masqueraded ones. Men now play Udu’s as well among the Igbo.
Outside the world of the percussion aficionado’s, the Udu is not much known, not even in the wider music industry. In some genres, such as Reggae, Jazz, or Fusion, some experimental percussionists use them, and of course it can be found in Igbo music, old and new.
It did not reach international popular music as much as, say, the shekere, cuica, or djembe.
I use it is some of my compositions, of which some are certainly African-based, but I also use it in Reggae and Dancehall music. I like its “earthy” and clay tones.
However used or recontextualized, the Udu essentially remains an historical reminder of simpler, undisturbed times in Igboland – before slavery - when local communities were intact, and local festivities and events were traditionally celebrated with music..