The Evolution of Yorùbá Entertainment Industry Since 1300 AD

By Adejumo David Adebayo

The Yorùbá homeland, based majorly in the Southwestern part of Nigeria, is home to more than 70% of Nigeria’s industrial capacity and is also host to the backbone of Nigeria’s entertainment industry.

In 1986, Professor Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, the great grandson of Canon Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti became the first African to win a Nobel Laureate in the field of Literature.

WNTV Ibadan was the first TV station in Nigeria and Africa. The first broadcast was aired on October 31, 1959. The government of Yorùbáland were visionary enough ensuring their denizens had access to mass audiovisual media before countries like; Egypt: 1960, New Zealand: 1960, Israel: 1966 & South Africa: 1976. The station played a significant role in beaming taped Yorùbá traveling theatre productions to households all over the old Western region.

For many, theatre may have been introduced to them by the Europeans but not for the Yorùbá.

Sàngó Olukoso, Olufiran ( Yorùbá Òrìṣà of Thunder, Lightening and Fire) is said to have performed drama plays, plaited hair and worn Yeri.

He became Aláàfin after Ajaka founded Òyó, hence Òyó is called Òyó Ajaka.

Sàngó ruled from Koso.

The dramatic display is still seen amongst His Devotees till date.

From Òyó of the imperial era we have decisive evidence of Yorùbá entertainment that was theatre or drama — with stage, trained professional actors, plot, acts and scenes, costumes, properties, etc. Strong rudiments of theatre and drama were a feature of many Yorùbá rituals, especially re-enactment features in sacred rituals (such as in the installation of kings).

From such roots, there probably generally developed a tradition of distinctly popular (secular) theatre and drama, but the only written description of it comes to us from imperial Òyó.

Clapperton and Lander were invited to one such theatre production during their visit to Òyó-ile in January 1826. The theatre stage was a large enclosure (near the palace), covered with lovely green grass, “as level as a bowling green” and “rendered particularly pleasant by the refreshing shade afforded by clumps of tall trees.” “A lofty fan-palm tree grew in the center of the place, under the branches of which the actors were accommodated and a temporary fence erected around its trunk screened them from observation whenever they chose to be concealed.” The main productions for that afternoon were “pantomimes,” the type of show usually held for kings visiting Òyó-Ile.

(One vassal king was visiting that day and was in the audience).

After a prelude of loud drums, horns and whistles, the first act began and consisted of “dancing, capering, and tumbling by about 20 men enveloped in sacks, which novel and elegant divertissement was continued with admirable spirit for a full half hour.”

Lander remarked that in the art of tumbling, these dancers cannot be excelled by any people in the world; their evolutions in the air are perfectly astonishing, and by the suppleness and pliability of their limbs, by their bending and turning, and twisting themselves into all manner of shapes, one would be almost inclined to believe that they have not a single bone in their bodies.

An estimated five hundred wives of Aláàfin Omósolá Májotú accompanied their lord to pay a condolence visit to Richard Lander in 1827 when the latter returned to Òyó-Ilé after the death of his master, Hugh Clapperton, in Sokoto (April 13, 1827).

Each carrying a spear, they sang a dirge in honor of the explorer. “The music of their voices was wild but sweet,” recalled Richard Lander, “reverberating from the hills saddening, although by no means [of] a disagreeable effect.”

Father of Nigeria Theatre Industry

Hubert Ogunde, ( born 1916, Ososa, near Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria—died April 4, 1990, London, Eng.), Nigerian playwright, actor, theatre manager, and musician, who was a pioneer in the field of Nigerian folk opera (drama in which music and dancing play a significant role).

He was the founder of the Ogunde Concert Party (1945), the first professional theatrical company in Nigeria. Often regarded as the father of Nigerian theatre, Ogunde sought to reawaken interest in his country’s indigenous culture.

Hubert Adédèjì Ògúndé formed the African Music Research Party in 1945 and produced Tiger’s Empire the following year.

Tiger’s Empire attacked colonial rule and set the tone for subsequent plays,
which were politically and socially relevant.

He produced more than forty plays, including Yorùbá Ronú, Aiyé, and Jáyiésimi. Elijah Kọ́láwọlé Ògúnmọ́lá (1925–1973) formed his troupe in 1947 and was the first to link the traditional traveling theater with popular literary theater by becoming the first “student” and resident artist of the University of Ìbàdàn School of Drama in 1962.

He adapted Amos Tutùọlá’s The Palm Wine Drinkard into an opera entitled Làńkẹ́
Ọ̀mùtí, which was performed at the First Pan-African Cultural Congress in Algiers (1969). The third dramatist, Dúró Ládipọ̀ (1931–1978), (1931–1978), started Mbárí Mbáyọ̀ Club in Òṣogbo in 1961 and produced plays based on myths and legends of Yorùbáland.

These include Ọbamọrọ̀ (1962), Ọba kò so and Ọba Wàjà (1964), and Mọrèmi (1968).

Ogunde’s first folk opera, The Garden of Eden and the Throne of God, was performed with success in 1944 while he was still a member of the Nigerian Police Force. It was produced under the patronage of an African Protestant sect, and it mixed biblical themes with the traditions of Yorùbá dance-drama. His popularity was established throughout Nigeria by his timely play Strike and Hunger (performed 1946), which dramatized the general strike of 1945.

In 1946 the name of Ogunde’s group was changed to the African Music Research Party, and in 1947 it became the Ogunde Theatre Company. Many of Ogunde’s early plays were attacks on colonialism, while those of his later works with political themes deplored inter-party strife and government corruption within Nigeria.