The Yoruba of Sub-Saharan Africa

Wed, Nov 04, 2015 @ 12:19 PM

The Yoruba are excellent craftsmen and are held to be among the most skilled and productive of all of Africa.

They produce remarkable leatherwork, glass, weaving, wood carving and black smithing. As the Yoruba tend to gather to live in densely opulated urban areas, this allows for a centralization of wealth and for a market economy that supports patronage of the arts produced by this prolific group of craftspeople.

Edo Ivory Mask
Source:  Wikipedia, Creative Commons, labeled for reuse

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The music of the Yoruba people includes drumming, using a type of drum called a "dundun", which is an hourglass shaped tension drum. Folk music from Yoruba is probably the most widely recognized West African music and has widely influenced both Carribean and Afro-Latin musical styles.  

Yorùbá Bàtá: A Living Drum and Dance Tradition from Nigeria
Source:  Debbie Klein, Youtube

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Due to the heinous slave trade (look at the map below to see the proximity of the majority of the Yoruba people to coastal areas), many people living in the United States are of Yoruba ancestry.  Sadly, many of the Yoruba people taken from Benin, were actually sold to the slave traders by a King of Dahomey (in Whydah). Dahomey was an African kingdom which lasted from about 1600 until 1894, when the last chief Behanzin was defeated by the French and the country was annexed into the French colonial empire

The enslaved Yoruba people brought many traditions and cultural practices and languages with them.  Their religious beliefs were firmly rooted in spirit and ancestor worship. Many enslaved Yoruba had tribal facial identification marks which unfortunately sometimes contributed to a slave owner being able to identify someone attempting to flee. Sadly, in the U.S. colonies, people of different ethnic groups were deliberately mixed together, making it more difficult for ethnic groups to communicate and to organize attempts at rebellion.

TRIBAL MARKS OF THE YORUBA PEOPLE
Source:  AfrospiralTV, Youtube

After the abolition of slavery in the United States, many modern era Nigerians have come to America.  After the Biafran War, the Nigerian government funded scholarships and many Nigerian students were admitted to American universities.  As well, many Nigerians left their country to escape the travails of several military coups interrupted by brief periods of civilian rule.

The name "Yoruba" is fairly recent. Until the nineteenth century, the term Yoruba was used more to indicate that someone was a speaker of the Yoruba language than to indicate ethnicity.  Europeans often referred to Yoruba as "Aku", which is a name that originated from the first words of Yoruba greetings like "E ku aaro".  (We've left out the accent marks as our keyboard just doesn't have them!)

Yoruba who ended up in Cuba (and influenced Cuban music beautifully), were called "Lucumi" as a result of the phrase "O luku mi" which means "my friend"!  Isn't that lovely?

Creation Stories

One of the Yoruba creation views appears to be supported by historical fact. This version centres around the belief that a man named Oduduwa, who lived in Ile-Ife (held to be the site of the creation of humankind) had an extensive family who spread out to conquer other Yoruba people, achieving leadership status in other cities. Oduduwa's descendents eventually unified a way of life and tied the various cultural practices together.

A Statue of Oduduwa
Source:  Wikipedia, Creative Commons, labeled for reuse

Another version of the creation myth is that Olodumare (The Creator) sent Oduduwa to Ile-Ife to form humankind from the clay in the area. Ile-Ife is an ancient Yoruba city in southwestern Nigerialocated in the present day Osun State

Pre-Colonial Era

As early as the year 1,000 C.E., the Yoruba people had an organized political system of town governments. While originally the Yoruba had occupied primarily a forest farming area, it became highly urbanized. The Yoruba's confederacy of towns was mainly to help keep the peace.

At that time, kingdoms were thought of as being a large family and thrones were hereditary.  Interesting to note that royal bloodlines didn't mean automatic inheritance of royal power! If any family member, servant or slave that belonged to the family committed a serious crime (theft, murder, rape), the eligible contender for the throne would not inherit. That would certainly encourage rules to carefully monitor their households and family!

The Yoruba seem to have been very progressive.  Some of their "city states" ignored royal lineage and instead opted for an "elected monarchy" which was open to any free-born male citizen.

Kings were often polygamous, seeking wives from other powerful royal families.

After colonization of Nigeria by Great Britain, and the resultant influx of Christianity, many traditional Yoruba religious practices slowly dissolved away.

The Yoruba are a fascinating group of people. Their traditional manners are so polite and respectful. When greeting an elder, for example, males bow and women curtsey. Their artwork and musical influences have reached far and wide.

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 Photo Sources: Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Labeled for Reuse

Mustafa Salemwalla

Written by Mustafa Salemwalla

Mustafa hails from Tanzania and spent 30 years getting to know the magnificent continent of Africa. Hence his passion for African art, sculpture, fashion and empowerment of artisans.

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