Saturday, January 16, 2010

Yoruba Muslim Women's Music

We were shopping on Nnamdi Azikiwe St. in central Lagos when we came across a fascinating sight: hundreds of men were prostrate and barefoot in the street, while overhead a speaker blared:

Allahu Akbar
sh-had anna lah ilaha illallah
Ash-hadu anna Muħammadar rasulullah

Hayya 'ala-salatt

Hayya 'ala 'l-falah

Allāhu akbar

La ilaha illallah
"The Muslim people are praying," my brother-in-law told me. "Look at them with their faces in the dirt. And these are the people who rule over us." Such was my introduction to Friday prayers at the Central Mosque in Lagos (right), and to the complex subject of ethnic and religious power relations in Nigeria.

Across from the mosque a stall was selling pirated pornographic videotapes with covers that left nothing to the imagination, while shoppers went about their business. The loudspeakers amplified every bit of static in the recorded call to prayer, which echoed among the surrounding buildings. The atmosphere was strange and other-worldly, to my eyes and ears at least. I've believed in no deity since I was twelve, but the spectacle stirred in me trembling feelings of awe and wonderment. For just a minute I was tempted to remove my shoes and join the believers in their devotions.

Needless to say, I don't share the casual bigotry reflected in my brother-in-law's remarks, but they speak to the fact that Nigeria is a nation increasingly divided along ethnic, political and religious lines. Northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim while the southeast of the country is almost exclusively Christian. Other areas, such as the Yoruba region around Lagos, are more complicated in their religious allegiances. About half of the Yoruba are thought to follow Islam while the remainder adhere to various Christian denominations and traditional religion.

Since Independence Nigerian rulers have tended to be Northerners, hence the resentment of "Northern Muslim domination," and at times this friction has given way to violence, notably during the Biafran War of 1967-70 and recent conflicts over the introduction of sharia law in some northern states. Islam came to Yorubaland by conversion rather than through war, and relations among the various religious groups there have been mostly peaceful.

Among Yoruba Muslims in the 19th Century were a group of repatriated slaves from Brazil who have played an important role in the economy and politics of Lagos. Among the distinctive buildings they erected in the city, all of them now in disrepair, is the Shitta Mosque on Martins St. I took this picture of it during my 1994 visit:

Among various styles of Yoruba music which have their roots in the Muslim community are waka, performed by female singers, and apala and fuji, performed by men. While these styles derive from music performed during Muslim holidays such as Ramadan, they have tended to become secularized over time.

I picked up the LP Asalamu Alaekumu (Leader Records 82, 1992) by Sister Riskat Lawal and the Aaqibat Lil-Mutaqeen Society Group during my 1995 visit to Nigeria, and I'm not sure where to situate it within the spectrum of Yoruba Islamic percussion styles. This is clearly a religious recording and not the usual exercise in praise-singing (rather, it praises God rather than rich and powerful individuals), nor is it unique. I take it there are hundreds of recordings in this genre, but I'm not aware that they have a specific label.

No matter what you call it, I'm sure you will find Asalamu Alaekumu a first-rate example of Yoruba percussion music.

Sister Riskat Lawal & the Aaqibat Lil-Mutaqeen Society Group - Asalamu Alaekumu

Sister Riskat Lawal & the Aaqibat Lil-Mutaqeen Society Group - Allahu Allahu / Eyin Anobi / Ayonfe Oluwa

Sister Riskat Lawal & the Aaqibat Lil-Mutaqeen Society Group - E Gboro Oluwa / Omo Iya Ni Wa / Oro Shekh Adam-Oba To Ni Ike Lodo / Islam Esin Ola
Download Asalamu Alaekumu as a zipped file here.


icastico said...

A good companion to this one

Steve Pile said...


demetrio said...

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from Italy

Abdulwadûd Louws said...

Thank you! This is great...

If I may make one remark: you talk about shopping while hearing the athan, but the athan words cited in your article contain the words `assalaatoo khayroom minan nauwm`. That phrase means `prayer is better than sleep` and is ONLY used in the MORNING athan and NOT in an athan during the day while shopping :-)

Nevertheless, thank you again for this great post...

John B. said...

Abdulwadud: Thank you for clarifying this for me. Of course I am not a Muslim and don't know Arabic, so I don't remember the exact words as I heard them; I copied them from Wikipedia (I should have read the citation more carefully as it explains the distinction between morning prayers and the other times). Of course all of the verses except the last are repeated, the first four times and the others twice, but I wanted to get the gist of the recitation across rather than the way it actually sounds in real life. I also copied the Sunni version of the athan as I would assume that is the one used in the Lagos mosque. At any rate I've corrected the post, and I thank you once again.

Abdulwadud Louws said...

Please note that on the front cover of this record the bible (well... only the ´Indjeel´ i.e. gospel) AND the torah are portrayed (´Tooraat´ it says in Arabic). Very special, indeed!

John B. said...

I noticed that ecumenical note also! Don't know if it has anything to do with the actual recording.

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