Is Jazz Urhobo Music? I
Odeyovwi; Kọdiọ rẹ ihweje [If it is so good; every one lays claim to it.] – Ancient Urhobo saying.
Ọmẹ v’ọroavware diọvo. [My own and our own is not the same.] – Ancient Urhobo saying.
Jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie once said jazz was originally a synonym for a bad word like “shit” or “fuck.” Thus, he eschews the word, jazz [music], and prefers a more honourable term, Great Black Music. The American establishment never would embrace jazz music at first, it was the music from Africa by Africans. A parallel is the roots of jazz in Urhoboland that was known as Uhuoro’ojevwu, the rhythms of the wastrel (or skiver). It was C-note music found upon syncopated beats and danceable. This is basis for the possibility of a strong relationship to jazz.
Centuries ago, most practitioners, few at first, played Uhuoro’ojevwu underground for fun in the bush after farming hours. Why was that so? Who wants to carry the identity of an ojevwu? The music was not an art you could earn a living from or get acceptance for. No one in those times earned a living from even acceptable music but the Ogbine, singers and the Ogbueta, poets, did enjoy respect, honour, fame, and notoriety. Not by playing Uhuoro’ojevwu though.
An ojevwu is a man given to the lighter side of life and leisure, industry or hard labour is not his thing. In the novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe presents Onuoha, father of the protagonist Okonkwo, a lazy wayward ojevwu. And when due to his swelling body his community banishes him to the forbidden forest to die, he takes his ogwele, flute, along with him. Onuoha might have been a jazz musician. But, his practical, rational, and industry driven community would have had little tolerance for his music.
Why is all other music known in Urhoboland as ine, songs, and eha, dances, but not uhuoro, rhythms? There is no ine’ojevwu or eha’ojevwu, not that the ojevwu did not sing or dance. Uhuoro is instrumental music and that was a troublesome challenge for the listeners; they had to make their own meanings out of the music. ‘Djueta, scatting, which would incorporate clicks was a dominant vocal approach to the music.
When you fuse the sounds of the isologu, thumb piano, igede, drums, agogo, gong, and akitsẹ, shekere, into a rhythm, just know that they are looking for the trouble of the legs. And they find it, people break into dance. Song may be part of the rhythm but it is not necessary. Jazz as we know it is like that though the focus in its modern form is not exactly dance. The advent of bop in the 1960s would turn jazz into an intellectual artform.
Regular Urhobo songs were part of farm work which would differ from one community to another. Mainstream Urhobo music was an art but not an industry. The music often purely vocal spread by diffusion. The songs were often a commentary on social issues of the day, easier to tolerate, reason or remember as song than as spoken word. Songs back then had to have meaning (make sense), the deeper the meaning the better. Lyrics were king.
The Uhuoro‘ojevwu music was a nest of percussion instruments that had a driving or crowning song.
‘Djueta was considered otherworldly. Thus, Uhuoro’ojevwu was different, often without a coherent conventional sense of meaning. If song was part of it, it would tell tales of dance, sex, alcohol, a woman’s beauty, a man’s good looks, heart ache, rebellion, elopement, and odd forms of freedom. The music sought a liberation, anti-convention and anti-institutions stand that no tradition nor status quo would tolerate. It was disobedience in disguise and with a pretty face.
When impressive, an Uhuoro’ojevwu tune would undergo improvisation at every iteration till it would take on its erhiune, soul form of song. Yet, newer musicians would establish their own erhiune. The best form would be the rendition that conforms to the soul of the music most. Some beats were so catchy they would span for several songs. Some may say of the jazz standard, If I were A Bell, found its erhiune in the various renditions by Miles Davis.
Annual and other festivals were the venues of danceable music, if it was acceptable. We must note festival times were the most permissive times in the ancient Urhobo era. Outside festival time, dance music was both inappropriate and frowned upon. No one was comfortable with having the appearance or identity of an ojevwu, a wastrel or ozighẹ, rascal. The Urhobos lived in agrarian communities with strong work ethics. Urhobo culture like many around the world in those times was prudish. “It is where dance becomes sweet that you stop it” is an ancient phrase that captures the rejection of casual disobedience or excesses of delight.
Unsurprisingly, funeral music became more acceptable when an unnamed prince of an Urhobo kingdom (we suppose Ughelli) became a griot. He introduced the concept that death in old aged we should celebrate but death in young age we should mourn. That tradition somewhat survives in Urhoboland to this day.
New Orleans funeral processions are like re-enactments of Urhobo funerals. The march echiwi kpe’ushi, the procession to the grave, was a step-and-tarry march, be it silent or singing a dirge. Many will say the Urhobo people in pre-colonial times did not have brass and woodwind instruments like flutes, trumpets, and horns. This is false. We have no information for horns so far. Flutes (ogwele) and even whistling (gbọgwele) were common musical instruments of the Urhobos. In the 1800s onward flutes and whistling became things forbidden in most parts of the land.
A man named Otobi from Abraka was well known for singing and playing the Ogwele. On the prohibition of ogwele playing in Urhoboland he moved to Kwale or Iboland.
The arrival of the Ogboni and Freemasonry funeral processions in Urhoboland as Christianity was finding its feet quickly was to render the age-old funeral processions unfashionable if not undesirable. The ever-influential practice of Christianity was hostile to these organisations. And adopted the step and tarry march at funerals. Thus, the remnants of the march to the grave only lives in the heads of very old people today if you could find them.
By design, colonial and post-colonial influences began killing off many indigenous traditions and loosening up attitudes towards the things of old.
Eghwoyanuje, a notable musician brought elements of dance music to the Urhobo paradigm courtesy of the Igbe religion. The Igbe religion worships with dance and could avoid the ojevwu music label. The late Okpan Arhibo was rascally enough to revive elements of the music of the ojevwu back into the mainstream. Diomuemọr!
The music of Okpan Arhibo has a high fidelity to the Urhobo traditional music. When Okpan is on stage or in his recordings says to his choir “Agba sune’Urhobo awaren ọvo, let us sing one old-time song,” he is taking himself, his choir, and his audience to the ancient roots of Urhobo music. Arguably, a source of Great Black Music. It is a rich repertoire of music lost due to western modernisation. But like all cultural losses we must hold on well to the recoverable vestiges of our culture even it is just fragments.
The discourse is long but we pause here for now.