Poetry, Performance, and Art:
UDJE DANCE SONG S OF URHOBO PEOPLE
By Tanure Ojaide
The Malian philosopher Hampate Bi states that in Africa, "a dying old man is a burning library" (qtd. in Sallah 35). Traditional African culture is oral, and the literature in the forms of epic, legend, folktale, song, and others is transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to another. Ba's metaphor of a burning library underscores both the limitations of an oral culture such as the traditional African and the urgent need to retrieve as much of the folklore as possible for study and preservation before its aged custodians die with their vast knowledge. While much is known of the poetic forms of African majority ethnic groups such as Akan dirges, Yoruba oriki and ijala, and Zulu izibongo, little is known of poetic creations of minority groups such as Urhobo udje dance songs, undoubtedly one of the most poetic of Africa's indigenous poetic forms.
Udje is a unique type of Urhobo dance in which rival quarters
or towns perform songs composed from often exaggerated materials about
the other side on an appointed day. Udje songs are thus dance songs sung
when udje is being performed. Since there were no prisons in traditional
Urhobo, major crimes were punished either by selling the offender into
servitude or by execution. Minor crimes were, however, punished by satire.
Udje dance songs fall into the corpus of satire. The songs strongly attack
what the traditional society regards as vices. Occasionally, there are
blatant lampoons as when barrenness, ugliness, and other natural deformities
of a person are sung. The singers want what they consider to be positive
norms of the society to be upheld. Thus, central to the concept of udje
dance songs are the principles of correction and determent through punishment
with "wounding" words.
Udje dance songs constitute an art form whose satiric poetry is highly imagistic and poignant. Their collection, transcription, translation, study, and preservation are necessary, not only because of the poetic vitality of the genre but also because such collection will prove a valuable means of social ethnographic understanding of the Urhobo people who produce them. Currently politically and economically marginalized in Nigeria, the Urhobo people and their oil-producing area will become important factors in Nigerian and global affairs as the country's democracy strengthens and oil continues to play a major role in the world economy. In an area already with multinational oil companies like Shell and Chevron, these songs could serve as a cultural orientation for outsiders posted to Warri, a city whose majority inhabitants are Urhobo and a city in which are found headquarters of many oil companies in Nigeria.
The songs are very relevant today as societies everywhere continue to fashion means of dealing with their lesser crimes and protecting their ethical and moral values. Their relevance transcends cultural and historical contexts. In fact, these songs serve as a lesson to today's journalists and publishers of tabloids. In the udje dance song tradition, excesses are checked since there are sanctions against falsehoods as well as lampoons against natural defects. The songs maintain a delicate balance between the general good of the society whose ethos must be upheld and respect for the law-abiding individual.
The Urhobo, numbering about three million people, occupy mainly the western and northern fringes of the Niger River delta region of the present Delta State of Nigeria. Large pockets of Urhobo people also live in the contiguous states of Bayelsa, Rivers, and Edo, and as immigrants in many Yoruba-speaking areas such as Ife, Lagos, and Okitipupa. Large communities of Urhobo migrants are now settled all over Nigeria, including Jos, Kano, Maiduguri, and Yola. Many have also settled in C6te d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Liberia.
The Urhobo in their present environment are said to be an amalgam of different waves of migrating groups and an indigenous group that absorbed them. The main group migrated from the Edo region, where they had settled in a space called "Aka" (associated with Benin) and had been forced to migrate at different periods during the tyrannical Ogiso dynasty. Oral history and myths are still replete with stories of Urhobo people being selectively used for human sacrifice by the Obas, which led to their escape by land and rivers through areas like Abraka, Ologbo, and along the Niger River. At least one group migrated from the Ijo area through the Amasuoma clan. There also appears, from Urhobo vocabulary, some remote Igbo connection, which could be because of the period of migration along the Niger River and proximity to the western Igbo group of Ukwuani. Onigu Otite's The Urhobo People has a detailed historiography of Urhobo, taking into account Hubbard's colonial work, Egharevba's study of Benin and neighboring groups, and Obaro Ikime's study of the Niger-Delta peoples.
The Urhobo now occupy some twenty-two clans/kingdoms that can easily be divided into southern and northern terrains. The southern Urhobo border on the Ijo, Isoko, and Itsekiri. These live across mangrove swamps and very luxuriant rain forests. The major occupations of these groups of Urhobo are fishing, hunting, and farming. Those to their north, far from the wide rivers but still riverine, also farm, hunt, and fish. Nowadays, many Urhobo live in urban areas such as Sapele and Ughelli and form the overwhelming majority in the politically contested town of Warri. The urban Urhobo are mainly traders.
For the purpose of this study, it is important to summarize some traits of the Urhobo people. According to Otite and from personal observation, the people are very republican in character, a euphemism for their individualism, which even today makes them "rebel against autocracy" (Otite 20). There is a common Urhobo utterance, 'We gher' ovwe?" ("Do you feed me?"), which registers each person's belief in self-reliance. This is inextricably tied to their concept of honor and pride. They are a highly industrious people, a virtue that has led to their success as migrants inside and outside Nigeria. Thus while there is a sense of ethnic belonging, Urhobo people are not as cohesive as many other Nigerian ethnic groups. One reason could be the disparate groups that Mukoro Mowoe glued into one. The Isoko have broken away to ascertain their own ethnic autonomy. The Okpe, a large fragment of the ethnic group, are unsure of whether they are real Urhobo or a different group-in the past they have at different times asserted their difference by saying they were not Urhobo. The presence of many and at times not mutually comprehensible dialects of the language, lack of a common festival, and absence of a single ruler have all helped to fragment the psyche of the Urhobo people. To most other Urhobo people, especially those in Agbarho, Agbon, and Ughelli areas, Effurun and Okpe dialects are incomprehensible. Ironically, it is easier for these groups to understand Isoko than some dialects of their own Urhobo. The people therefore do not have the cohesive spirit of, for instance, the Bini or the Itsekiri.
However, despite this republican spirit of the people, they are very communal in many ways. There are still common ponds and farming areas, among other forms of communal cooperation. The common festivals of some clans/kingdoms also cater to the spiritual interest of the people. The extended family practice still continues.
To the Urhobo, there are two worlds: the physical, natural world and the metaphysical invisible world of ancestors, spirits, gods, and witches. In Urhobo thought, this physical world and the other (spiritual) world contrast and parallel each other. As John Mbiti has said of African peoples, the Urhobo are a very spiritual people. They believe that ailments are due to natural transgressions. Thus when somebody is sick, they traditionally seek a diviner to tell what has led to the condition. Usually sacrifices and herbal prescriptions are recommended. To the traditional Urhobo, there is rarely a natural death-a spiritual explanation is always given to a death or misfortune. People therefore try their best to live spiritually clean lives since spiritual transgressions have their karmic repercussions. A woman who flirted would confess her "stepping outside" of her matrimonial home or, according to popular belief, she could die from delivery. Sometimes, in Urhobo belief, the sins of the mother are visited on her children who can become sick or even die. Witches who do evil somehow suffer the repercussion of their acts. People therefore join religious sects like igbe or do protective medicines to cater to their physical and spiritual salvation. Clans have festivals to exorcise evil spirits for communal health and prosperity.
There is no single Urhobo religion, but many forms of traditional religion exist, especially in the form of ancestor-worship and religious sects like igbe and varieties of shrine worship (orha). The people believe in a Supreme God, who can be approached directly and through smaller gods and ancestors for their well-being. In Urhobo traditional belief, before they are born people make their choices of what they will be in life at Urhoro and basically live accordingly. The ideal life should involve good health, many children, prosperity/wealth, and long life. These are the "gifts" prayed for with cola nuts on religious and social occasions. There is belief in reincarnation, a belief that people are born, die, and are born again in an unending cycle of life. Underlying these beliefs is the need to do good things, since evil will not escape punishment. Also, just as those who are good in this life will be rewarded in the next life, so will those who do evil suffer punishment in the afterlife.
These spiritual beliefs also underlie the great attention paid to burial ceremonies in Urhoboland. In addition to the pride and honor of the family, it is generally believed that a good burial will help the deceased to make a better choice in his or her return to this life.
"Udje has been around for so long," is the old say. It is difficult to give an exact date of the origin of udje dance and the accompanying songs because of the oral tradition in which the practice is deeply embedded. I will, from recorded historical happenings, fashions, lifestyle, topical allusions, and references in the songs themselves, and the recollections of the very old I interviewed, attempt to contextualize historically the composition and performance of udje dance songs.
Udje started at the beginning of the nineteenth century and reached its apogee in the 1920s and 1930s in Arhavwarien, Ewu, Okparabe, Olomu, Udu, and Ughievwe clans. The core areas of udje are Udu and Ughievwe clans, and in modern times there is some agreement that Ughievwe is the leader in udje performance. And within Ughievwe, Iwhrekan and Edjophe are acknowledged as the core of the practice. Egbo-Ide and Ekakpamre are also mentioned. While in song composition Iwhrekan, Edjophe, Egbo-Ide, and Ekakpamre are mentioned as the best, in performance Otokutu is cited as the best.
At its peak, neighboring Urhobo towns and clans like Okpara Waterside and Ovu in Agbon and Effurun town in Uvwie clan sought the assistance of Ughievwe master-composers and dancers to teach them the performance genre. There are extant references to, for instance, Oloya of Iwhrekan and Memerume of Edjophe being hired at these places for the purpose of helping the people there master the poetic and theatrical art of udje.
There is no doubt that udje dance performance has been around for a very long time. It predates colonialism, which came to weaken it. It flourished in a time of adequate leisure in Urhoboland when people did not count too much on making money. People mainly farmed crops, produced palm oil, and fished and were satisfied with what they produced. Udje dance performance weakened as colonialism and modernism strengthened in the 1940s. British presence in Urhobo started to be felt in the 1920s with the introduction of Christianity, schools, and poll tax. The tax of seven shillings per head was far above the income of the generality of Urhobo men. Their main source of money was selling palm oil, and a tin then cost only four pence. You can imagine how long it would take a hard worker to make the seven shillings that the British compelled every adult male to pay. Men fled into the bush and women took food to them in their hideouts. On occasion, their children were held hostage. Mere rumor of the approach of tax collectors/the white man's representatives sent men fleeing into the bush.Those men who were caught and could not pay the tax were jailed. There were instances of men who heroically refused to pay, even if they had to serve time in the white man's jail, a new institution in their lives. The people were afraid to beat or kill the white man's collaborators because of the stiff repercussion of execution.
Colonialism introduced capitalism and exacerbated individualism, which reduced the leisure time for the udje dance and song performance. The need then arose to make quick money, and there was no longer the time for the leisure that the composers and performers needed for their work. With colonialism and the establishment of the white man's court, there were cases of libel and subsequent fines or jail time, which discouraged many fine poets from composing satiric songs.
I learned the most instructive explanation of the origin of udje dance and songs from Chief Jonathan Mrakpor of Edjophe in an interview on 6 August 1999 at his Otughievwe home. According to him, "Wars and fights led to disputes, and the accompanying judgment led to udje. When there was a war or fight, one side won-the victorious group jubilated. In the process, the victorious sang songs about the defeated-they boasted about their prowess and the weakness of their opponents. When sung, the defeated got angry and retaliated with songs about the other group. Udje was the result of the retaliation of abusing who abused you."
Many old people corroborated this explanation by telling me that udje is "ofovwin ile," a war of songs. That is, poetic and theatrical warfare. Many practitioners also describe udje as "eta warie," that is, exchange of abuse. In any case, many udje songs are laced with images of war. In Memerume's "Kpojiyovwi," "When a battle turns serious, / cannons are brought to action." And in Okitiakpe's "Me vw'Odjelabo":
In much of the nineteenth century and up to the 1930s, neighboring Urhobo towns and clans fought very few wars. Instead, the udje contest intensified; hence the growth of the poetry, performance, and art. The people therefore released their violent instincts in the performance of the songs and dance.
Udje later developed into a festival of songs and dance in a theatrical performance. It was arranged in such a way that once a year there was a festival of udje performance. One year one side sang about the other side, the following year the other side retaliated or responded to the earlier songs. The practice reined in raw emotions. It established order, as you had your turn to sing about the other side and also your turn to listen to songs about you from your rivals. In my research, I only heard of the other side described as rivals and not enemies. This is because of the acknowledgment that the performance is an artistic exhibition. That is why rivals who came from another quarter or town to hear songs about them ate, drank, and joked together after the performance in a spirit of camaraderie. It was not so much the other side that got angry, but the subjects of the satiric butts, who could be from the very side of the singers veiled but discernible. Only the obo-ile, as in Okpari, was forbidden from eating from the rival side for fear of being poisoned. Originally, therefore, udje served to prevent war by making the aggressive traits of the people be satisfied in this war-like artistic contest of victors and victims. After all, the Urhobo are said to be very aggressive in many ways; hence the worship of the warrior-god, Ivwri, in many areas of the ethnic group. The warrior spirit was channeled through the udje dance song performance into an artistic medium.
There are historical markers in the songs. There are references to Nana's war of supporting the British against the Oba of Benin in 1897. References are also made to the influenza of 1916 and the head tax of 1927 and the resistance to it. Mr. D. Pender, a colonial district officer, is mentioned in songs. Okitiakpe of Ekakpamre, in "Me vw'Odjelabo," mentions World War I or World War II, talking of revolvers and airplanes. Colonial events and fashion are often referred to, as in "zagzone" and "koko." "Zagzone" was a type of shoe fashionable in the 1930s through the 1940s. "Koko" was a deep hat of khaki cloth used by early colonial officers. "Bourdillon" was named after the first colonial governor of Western Nigeria of which Urhobo was then a part. The influenza and famine that wreaked havoc in Urhobo in 1916 and 1932 respectively are also alluded to.
Udje flourished mainly between the end of the slave trade in Urhoboland and the period when British colonialism started to make an impact on the lives of the people. The insecurity of the slave trade period would not have allowed public performance. The udje-performing clans and towns are situated in the southern part of the Niger River delta, which was integral to the Benin River and Calabar River slave-raiding zones. Slaves were captured from these areas of pliable coastal rivers and creeks. Their neighbors were known slave dealers and middlemen to white traders. The udje artistic tradition flourished in a calm, stable, peaceful, self-reliant period of Urhobo history. In their history, this could have been mainly between the end of the slave trade at the beginning of the nineteenth century up to the early 1940s before colonialism began to seriously affect the lives of the people.
There is a common Urhobo saying, "Ukpe te, ke ru' emu r'ukpe" (When the time of the year arrives, you do what is due). There are times for preparing for udje dance and song performance. Usually the serious preparations are done after the day's hard work or after the year's harvest. Sometimes it is in the middle of the rainy season, a period for many festivals in Urhobo when they exorcise evil spirits from the community. Udje performances used to be part of these yearly festivals. With time, there were variations. While in Udu and Ughievwe it was almost a yearly affair, in Arhavwarien, for instance, it was infrequently held-every seven, ten, or even twenty years. Sometimes, udje is performed as homage to important personages when they die. Okitiakpe was honored in 1980 when he died. D. D. Nomuoja also received the honor of udje performance during his burial at Ekakpamre in 1989. It is note-worthy that udje is performed at a time of relaxation, not the peak of farming or fishing.
Once a performance is done, there is preparation for another. The period of preparation depends on whether there is a yearly or bi-annual contest of songs. In Udu and Ughievwe, "you sing me and I prepare to sing you." This means that each side has at least a year to prepare-because one side's songs are responses to the other side's songs. In addition to the reply, there are songs that are straightforward abuse and are not responses. Like war, each side raises fresh surprises at every performance.
To better understand the preparatory process, it is necessary to explain about those involved in the performance, the nature of the contesting parties, the costume, and other paraphernalia of the performance. Two important figures that have perhaps the most important role in the performance of udje dance songs are the orari/e, the poet/composer, and the obo-ile, the cantor/singer. They are not necessarily the same, but in the great performers of Oloya of Iwhrekan, Memerume of Edjophe, and Okitiakpe of Ekakpamre, they are one. In some areas, obo-ile designates the poet, while oghwoghwile designates the singer/performer. However, in this study, the commonly used terms of owfile and obo-ile will be adopted.
The or//e has no formal training-he has the talent, which he develops with practice. He composes in language that is rich in stunning idioms and proverbs. The poet thinks out the song and brings his material to a secret workshop, where the song is revised by a coterie. The poet could take months to compose the song, since he gathers materials pertaining to scandals from the opposing side. Since songs are kept secret before the festival, to prevent their rivals from knowing and to give them a real surprise, the "workshops" are closely guarded. The poet's song is "straightened," so to say, by members of the workshop. If by chance, according to Ogbariemu who attended many of such workshops in his practicing days, there was a word or phrase that appeared in another song elsewhere, it was removed. There was to be no copying of words, and the song had to be a purely original composition. Usually at night they went into the bush by the palm oil press and sang out the songs before their wives married from other towns. The women identified songs that had language close to theirs and such songs were re-phrased. This rigor made udje songs highly crafted original poems that bore the stamp of the poet or his quarter. In at least Iwhrekan's case, sometimes the youth leader, oghwuvwie, asked a group of two to four young men to bring songs. After each had brought his, they sang them out. These songs might not be used, but the senior poet, ororile, could find a phrase, metaphor, or image that he would use in another song. These youths acted as research assistants to the orr/e.
Once there is approval of the poet's work, there is audition for the selection of a sweet-voiced person to sing the song. Thus while there is one poet with editorial assistance from his group, many singers are tried for the performance of the song. One is selected-he is the obo-ile, the cantor/singer. Again, natural talent is foremost, and this grows with practice. In addition to the "sweet voice," the obo-ile is expected to have a very fertile memory because he is the memorizer of the group's poems that are to be performed. He already has a set song and has no room for improvisation, except to his voice and gestures to embellish what is already there. When there is approval of the singing that will bring out the inflections for performance, that song is ready. As mentioned earlier, poets and singers could sometimes be the same, but not always.
As a final step before the festival takes place, they practice the performance at night again. This time they send two people to stand on the roadside or outskirts of town to observe the response of passers-by to the songs, and report back. This trial balloon helps them to anticipate the spectators' response on the actual public performance in daylight. Certain changes could still take place in the songs at this stage, after which everything is set for the festival.
The ebo-ile (singers) enjoyed visibility, praise, and fame, which might elude those who were only poets who did their work in secrecy. Though the poets would be known in their quarters, villages, or towns, they were not known on the day of performance. Memerume of Edjophe was originally only an orr//e/poet. He did not sing, and so gave his poetic creations to a sweet-voiced person to sing out. Those who sang his poetic songs bragged with them. After adequate practice, he decided to also be an obo-ile. As a smart and energetic man, he was able to spread his own songs far and wide.
The preparation for the performance of udje dance songs did not end with the approval of song and singer. There are individual and group preparations. The gods of Uhaghwa and Aridon are worshipped. While the tradition and its audience see poetry and performance as one process, still the two parts of this whole continue to be acknowledged as different. The poet serves Aridon, the god of memory and the muse; the performer also serves Aridon, but more so Uhaghwa. Aridon requires an individual's service or sacrifice to have inspiration and also retentive memory. Thus both poet and performer seek Aridon's virtues, one for poetic inspiration and fertile memory; the other for retentive memory in the arena of performance. With the hostility of rivals who could use diabolic means to "stop" the obo-ils voice, having Aridon charm becomes an absolute necessity
The "medicine" of Aridon is impressed upon an individual by a medicine man, who creates a small knotted bundle that includes a thread and a needle. The thread symbolically leads to the source, the beginning. One can thus follow the thread anywhere through divine assistance. The needle hits a fabric once and binds it. Both thread and needle are thus symbolically infused with the prerequisites of memory. In a ritual transfer of Aridon's power to the seeker, the medicine man uses the needle to stab the tongue nine times, the last carrying the Urhobo mystical invocation of rhi rhi rhiri. The medicine will have eternal effect on the person. Sometimes called Era, Aridon's role in assisting poets, composers, and performers is always sought.
On the other hand, the members of the troupe have both individual and public Uhaghwa, the "medicine" for attractive and flawless performance. The quarter or town procures the "medicine" for its performance. Usually, the "medicine" is prepared with scenting leaves of ugboduma plant, other leaves, herbs, and white chalk, with mystical chants, in a bowl from which the liquid is sprinkled on singers and dancers in a ritual bath. A lamp fueled with palm oil is lit, and the initiate licks a little of the oil. A red parrot's or white eagle's feather or some other cherished feather is also part of this preparation. The feather is libated with the "medicine" and worn by the performer in his hair or hat. If it is an individual's "Uhaghwa," the person strips and bathes with the water, often scrubbing with the herbs. As the bath is taken, there is the ritual chant of "Ye-e! Ye-e!Ekuvwie k'opha!" The chant invokes the applause given to a bride-in Urhoboland, the bride is taken to her husband amid chants of praise and ululation. In the Udu and Ughievwen areas of Urhobo in which udje is prevalent, there are elaborate epha (bridal) ceremonies in which there is tumultuous applause for the newly circumcised brides. The "medicine" will transfer these charming qualities to the performer whom the audience will find enthralling. The performers therefore fully prepare themselves as individuals and as a group for their outing.
Each group or town, from my investigation, appears to have its own name for the god of performance, Uhaghwa. In Iwhrekan, the Uhaghwa is called Oko. Otujevwe's Uhaghwa is called Egbodi, and Erhuware's is Akeke. It is Overe in some places. The private and public domains of udje dance song tradition seek the assistance of the gods responsible for poetic inspiration, memory, and performance. They may be different but join in the sense that good memory and poetry enhance performance. Similarly, good performance necessarily involves a retentive memory, both of which enhance delivery of poetry. Sometimes Aridon and Uhaghwa are used interchangeably to mean the same principle or god of and "medicine" for inspiration, memory, and thrilling performance. The two artistic principles arise from the people's belief that the supernatural world has a bearing on human poetic creation and performance. The aesthetics of memory and performance desire a private composition that is actualized in a public performance.
The individual preparation is done to excel in singing or dancing. The obo-ile, like the general leading troops to battle, make very special preparations. People come from far and near to listen to his songs, so he not only has to deliver the songs right, but should not forget any part or falter in any way. Most ebo-ile have their special Aridon shrine and also prepare era medicine so as to have very retentive memory. The singer also takes medicines to make his voice melodious and clear. Since udje is warfare, the rival side can procure medicines to "seize" the voice of the obo-ile, hence the defensive "medicines."
I learned from Dozen Ogbariemu that Owhe, whom Oloya replaced as obo-ile, had the mystical power to "stop" his rival obo-ile's voice at the moment of performance. Opponents can make a rival obo-il weak so as to lose the vibrancy of his song. For this, every obo-ile, like the king in a chess game, has to be protected by personal and group efforts. He holds the key to the success of the performance of his side. The lead-singer and others of the group thus prepare themselves adequately to counter any diabolic spell that their rival side might cast against them. So there is defense and offense as in war. Many of the performers have ritual baths to exude charm. Furthermore, they have incisions on their bodies into which medicines are rubbed, and they lick some herbal preparations to reinforce their tongues and throats.
Here are some of the major groups and their opponents in udje contests: Iwhrekan versus Edjophe; Ekrusierho versus Uto in Ekakpamre; Egbo-Ide versus Okwagbe Waterside; Okwagbe Inland versus Otutuama; Owhawha versus Okwagbe Inland; Owhawha versus Okwagbe Waterside; Owhawha versus Oginibo; Eyara versus Erhuware; Okpari versus Umolo; Oviri-Olomu versus Ovwodokpokpo; Okparabe versus Orere; Arhavwarien versus Orere; Ekrokpe versus Urhievwron; and Egini versus Urhievwron.
On the appointed day, the performance started at very early dawn. According to Agatha Nomuoja, my mother-in-law who lived with Okitiakpe, a cannon shot announced the outing very early in the morning on the ede uvo, daylight performance. As soon as the cannon was fired, the performers sang through the main street of Ekakpamre to announce the opening of the udje dance festival and so invited people to come out to listen and watch them. They sang "Udje ru' ada re" to invite people from their homes. People rushed out because they wanted to hear the new songs firsthand.
According to Dozen Ogbariemu, udje dance started in the morning between six and eight o'clock. That session went on to between ten and eleven o'clock. Because it is a physically exerting performance, the hot period of the day was avoided in favor of cool periods. The second session took place from late afternoon, about four o'clock, to evening, about seven o'clock. While the short songs were for vigorous dancing, the long songs were for rest. Spectators listened carefully to the long songs, described as "ile avwo wen," songs with which to regain one's breath. The obo-ile stayed in the middle of the group, assisted by two junior ebo-ile. If the song was very long, only the obo-ile sang it. The obo-ile raised the song and did not dance. When he danced, others sang because the energetic dance did not give room for the lead-singer to dance much. People went as much to hear the songs as to watch the dance. The totality of the performance involved singers, dancers, and women hand-clappers. More will be said on this later.
There are thirty-two towns/villages in Ughievwe, whose headquarters is Otughievwe. It is there that Ogbaurhie, the kingdom's shrine, is located. Udje was performed to honor Ogbaurhie. The contest took place on a market day. Each town or village brought its songs to Otughievwe before Ogbaurhie. Those groups that did not perform that day performed the following market day until all had exhibited their dances. At the end, the greatest group or obo-ile was acclaimed; the general agreement up to now is that Oloya of Iwhrekan was the greatest, followed closely by Memerume of Edjophe, and Okitiakpe of Ekakpamre.
There were three stages in the clan performance at Otughievwe. The udje troupe first performed in the hall of chiefs, then before Ogbaurhie's shrine, and finally at the market square. Udje has its political, spiritual, and social dimensions. Dressed in wrappers in a special way with bells, the body was left bare. The performers wore charms so that they would not be tired from dancing. Some parts of the ribs could hurt with vigorous dance; hence medicine was procured to prevent the dancer from getting tired.
At Otughievwe up to three groups could dance simultaneously in different sections of town and the crowd of spectators would drift to the most interesting. It was because of this rivalry that each group prepared charms to outshine its fellow competitors. There were instances, from my Iwhrekan informant, when two groups were dancing and there would be rain to disperse one side to the advantage of the other side where it would still be sunning.
Urhobo is a communal society whose ethics and morality are geared towards the common good. As a result of this communal nature, the individual has to behave in a way that does not violate the community approved values. The good of the community supersedes the individual's own well-being. This entails the need to submit to a general ethos that has been approved by the people's tradition. There are do's and don'ts of this society by which every individual is expected to abide. These unwritten but accepted rules help in maintaining virtues that give peace, stability, health, and prosperity to the entire society. It is not surprising that the udje tradition flourished at a period in Urhobo history when these virtues were closely guarded and nurtured.The communal ethos seeks to balance the individual's behavior and the society's good. Everybody understood the ethical, moral, and social values. Violating them called for chastisement in the form of udje dance songs. In other words, these songs were performed to avoid the corruption of the communal ethos.
This tradition involves a public attestation of wrong against the society-a communal cleansing on its part, of its adulteration. When wrongs of individuals or groups are exposed, the subjects would be so ashamed of themselves that they would desist from such violations in future. While some attacks are about natural deformities, most are against human foibles and frailties. There is the song about Rherheyere who was so ugly that the singers wanted him sacrificed to the gods because his ugliness offended people's eyes. This abuse was meant to pay Rherheyere back because he not only helped the other side to compose songs but also danced very well at festival time. To his rivals, his ugliness was the only thing that could be used against one who helped to outshine them. Individuals with deformities are only sung about when they pose a serious threat to their rivals. Many songs start with a statement about provocation. An example is the Uto song against Okitiakpe and his Ekrusiarhe quarter, after Okitiakpe said there were no longer good udje performers left on the rival side. Some songs are directed at the falsity or boastfulness of a rival side. In other words, the principle of provocation is important in the udje poetic genre. The oror//e and obo-ole and those related to them form the main targets of the songs.
Another point that needs to be made is that traditional Urhobo society had no prisons. The udje dance songs were some of the means of maintaining law and order. The songs reined in arrogance, greed, and other excesses that are destructive to a communal spirit.
Each song tends to focus on one bad feature of a person, quarter, or town. Rhereyere's ugliness is a case in point. So is Okitiakpe's physical appearance, the only blemish Uto quarter could use to sing about their tormentor. As mentioned earlier, character traits that go against the norm of communal ethos are seriously attacked. Witchcraft is a common subject of udje dance songs. Individuals or families who have lost people in abnormal circumstances are accused of bewitching their relatives and causing their death. This theme is so commonplace that udje songs sometimes look like satirical dirges, because death is often involved. Death involves a loss for the relatives, and udje singers deliberately want to hurt their rivals by rubbing salt on an injury. Death in these songs is also related to sickness and misfortune. Since traditional Urhobo people believe strongly in mystical and spiritual forces, almost every death is blamed on evil forces such as poisoning and bewitching. There is the unusual case in an Oginibo song in which the sick Yati cast his fatal sickness onto his wife so that "his wife died / and Yati recovered from his sickness." This craft, or medicine, of "exchanging heads" or dying by proxy, is said to exist in many parts of Urhobo; hence many people fear to visit the sick and old for fear of dying in their stead. The relatives or families of the deceased are said to have a bad destiny ("urhievwe") and to be only living according to their fate ("obo erhiri"). The themes of bewitching, sickness, death, and misfortune are interrelated in the songs.
Sometimes sicknesses are mentioned but are not linked to bewitching or other mystical causes. Men with hernia are sung. So also are people suffering from sexually transmitted diseases and incontinence exposed. Blindness is the subject of many songs. Okparabe sang about a man who had one eye; the other was artificial and it fell off when he went to fishhis disguise fell off, and children and adults booed him. Other sicknesses that are subjects of songs are impotence and sterility, which are very serious because of the premium placed on having children of one's own among the Urhobo. Though not always a sickness, childlessness has been used to hurt members of a rival group. On occasion, witchcraft is said to be responsible for the childlessness. In a poetic twist that is memorable in abuse song tradition, the great Edjophe poet and performer Memerume, wearing a mask, sang himself and others in both his Edjophe and neighboring Iwhrekan suffering the same fate of childlessness in "Amonomeyararia." There are songs attacking men for not marrying in time, as if they were hiding their impotence. Otughievwe sang Akpoguma for delay ing marriage for too long, to make him conform to the communal expectation of early marriage or be laughed at as an impotent man. It was a way of pressuring him to marry. Similarly, weakness in sex as in "Kpojiyovwi," an Edjophe song, is exposed: an elderly man married a young woman, but he was unable to give her the minimum sexual satisfaction.
Madness is also the subject of songs. This is very embarrassing to the other side, since in Urhoboland nobody wants to be associated with madness. That would hurt the chances of that family in marrying or being married.
Traditional Urhobo people are unscientific and attribute what they do not understand to witchcraft or some karmic repercussion from the ancestors or gods. Since they do not believe in natural deaths, sicknesses that modern science easily explains are given mysterious interpretations. In a song by Vhovhen of Okwagbe Waterside against Egbo-Ide, "Kpate," a woman was said to have had a seven-year continuous menstruation ("afe ikpe ighwre"). This is likely cervical/ovarian cancer or cancer of the uterus, for which there was no explanation in the olden days. In Otughievwe, when a man died on top of his concubine, people felt he was bewitched-most likely a case of heart attack or heart failure. In some other songs, a man died on top of the palm tree he had climbed to harvest.
Close to diseases are natural defects, which are also sung. In addition to the already mentioned ugliness as of Rherheyere and Okitiakpe, a man with one hand is abused, as are the blind and half-blind. Women, more than men, are abused for their ugliness. "Aruviere," an Ekakpamre song, is perhaps the most blistering song about ugliness in the udje poetic repertoire. The song says that even animals in the bush know ugliness and will run away when they see it. Iwhrekan sang an Edjophe woman whose chest is plain ("phrerere"). The Urhobo "phrerere" connotes flatness, indicating that the woman has no breasts and looks more like a man. There were cases of newly married young women who had to take a public bath before relations of her husband. Many snipes came out of such-women with one hand, a half-person, one breast, and other deformities.
Closely related to natural defects is age. The old person, who still competes with the young instead of retiring as obo-ile, is usually abused. Okitiakpe was orari/e and obo-ile for decades and his rival quarter sang about him-that he killed upcoming talented young poets and performers to make himself always indispensable. The great poet in "Me vw' Odjelabo" asked whether one can see age in a flock of birds flying in the air. Such songs about age attack many effective ebo-ile, who continue to torment the opposing side in dance and singing.
While it could be seen as stepping over the boundary of decency and civility, the attack on ailments, sicknesses, natural defects, handicaps, and age points to what the Urhobo expect of every human being-good health, handsomeness and beauty, and gracefulness. All over Urhobo in days of contests for kingship, handsome men were presented as candidates.
Also, as explained earlier, major figures of a rival udje performance group and their relations are targets of abuse. Bad personal qualities such as greed, miserliness, unbending character, and pettiness are strongly attacked. There are memorable songs on each of these. "Brume" is the archetype of greed and selfishness. He prepared his own food, contrary to social expectations of an Urhobo man's role-cooking was not a married man's domain, but his wife's. He hid his food from his children-ideally, a parent should see to it that children are fed before he or she eats. "Oroke" displays rigidity, which is attacked-people are expected in the communal setup to be flexible. Being strict could backfire on the individual. The poor father of a boy killed the rich and influential Oroke for beating his son too harshly.
Sexual misbehavior is a popular theme of udje dance songs. Much as Urhobo people want to have children, they have their sense of what sex should be. Adultery is condemned in many songs. So also is flirtation of women. In this patriarchal society, men's flirtations seem to be largely overlooked. Traditional sexual etiquettes are to be respected. Breaking sexual taboos is a constant subject of songs. For instance, one should not make love with a blood relation. Among the Urhobo, incest is perhaps the most hideous offense that a man could commit. There is suggestion that Barakporhe in the song of that title committed incest, hence he is compared to a goat. Sex is also forbidden in the bush and even at home during the day. Thus no matter the desire for sex, the married couple is expected to wait till night time when in bed before making love. Men have been sung who dragged their wives to bed as soon as they came back from the farm to make love. This type of song attacks the couple's lack of self-control.
Men and women who are oversexed are also abused. One of the most poetic expressions in all the songs I collected is that of a man called "ogbunegbu r' ewhare." That means "murderous sex man," a translation that falls short of the Urhobo meaning and strength. Every woman closed her door or ran away as soon as she saw this oversexed man approaching. However, women tend to be more abused when it comes to being oversexed. Ijiriemu is called a prostitute for making advances to men, rather than waiting to be courted or chased by men. Her case illuminates the fate of women's sex life in a patriarchy-after all, men compose the songs. Elopement is also abused in songs as in Oviri-Olomu's against Ovwodokpokpo.
Prostitution runs through the songs of almost every udje-performing clan. In "Eyabure," the subject of the song left Urhoboland for prostitution first in Ikale, then Ijebu, before ending up in Eko (Lagos). In Iwhrekan's "Mrerere," the victim of the satire has prostituted all over Nigeria and outside. It is from this research that I learned from the old men and women that Urhobo women used to go far away from home for prostitution. Prostitution of Urhobo women was said to be common in Ibadan and Lagos in the country and also in Ghana. The practice of prostitution was universally condemned in Urhobo, but many women for different reasons still took to the oldest of professions.
Poverty, idleness, and indebtedness are also common themes of udje dance songs. Iwhrekan's "mono" tells of poverty at its worst. mono had only one piece of cloth, which he used to wear to farm and to go out on social occasions. When a falcon snatched it as it hung outside to dry, the man cried and begged the bird in the sky to return his cloth. Some characters in the songs are said to be poor because they are lazy, others destined to be poor. In one of Memerume's songs, Barakporhe is poor and stupid. In an Oginibo song, Utevwe is poor and also stupid, so nobody listens to what he says at meetings. Conversely, the rich are portrayed as intelligent, so their suggestions tend to be accepted at meetings. Being poor in Urhobo attracts a lot of insults in life as in the udje dance songs.
Idleness is strongly condemned. In many cases, the idle are associated with theft, another vice that udje songs address frequently. Okwagbe sings about "Ujeya," who went to steal yams and was caught, bound, and paraded before all of Ogbe-Ijo. Of course, the poor and the idle become indebted and are publicly embarrassed and humiliated in udje performance. This is done to make them work hard to improve on their lot. Ekakpamre's Uto quarter's "Eghwaghwa" sung against rival Ekresiarho paints a detailed picture of a debtor who is lazy, weak, and untrustworthy An idle or indebted person is a burden on his or her family in the Urhobo tradition of close-knit families and self-reliance.
Folly and stupid behavior are also often satirized. Vhovhen of Okwagbe Waterside sang "Okotie," whose subject was an obo-ile. He made medicine to protect his throat and voice, but ignored his head and died. It was ironical that he spent his energy and other resources to cater to a less significant condition than his own life. He was foolish and stupid. In an Oginibo song, "Kekeje," the father of a young woman who was murdered by her jealous husband still went to check his fishing nets. The song scorned him for being more interested in his nets than in his murdered daughter.
Murder was a very extreme occurrence in traditional Urhobo. The communal ethos recommends arbitration in disputes towards a peaceful settlement. However, there were cases in which the enraged or offended took laws into their own hands by killing. Many of these murders arose from jealousy, revenge, or humiliation. In "Kekeje," a jealous husband murdered his newly wed wife as she went to the market. Later the woman's family avenged the death of their daughter by killing her husband. Kpekpetuke of Oginibo told me the background to the song "Noshaghware." Noshaghware, an Isoko woman, taunted her Orogun husband that he was not as strong as her father. This led the man, Megbe, to kill Aduri, his father-in-law. After the fact, Noshaghware exclaimed that the egg of a crocodile had killed a hippopotamus. The man committed murder here to assert his manliness and courage for being put down by his wife. Oviri-Olomu sings about "Saijini" of Ovwodokpokpo who also committed murder.
The condemnation of murder is closely related to the praise of strength and manliness in Urhobo. The strong are compared to lions and leopards. On the other hand, cowards are laughed at in the songs. In "Kekeje," the poet sings:
Kekeje r'okua rhe,
mi vwo roro k'ogba,
When Kekeje came here,
I thought a strong man had joined us,
but he is a big coward.
He was a coward because he could not avenge the death of his daughter, even when his wife ran to confront the murderer. Men in particular are supposed to be strong so as to defend their families, and a weakling or coward is generally despised.
Many songs begin with self-praise and boastfulness. Since udje contest is a form of warfare, each side attempts to intimidate the other. Many of the opening songs and the Uhaghwa songs are boastful and self-praising. In some, the singers say they are kings, and there is only one king in a community. In the famous "Me vw' Odjelabo," Okitiakpe tells his rival group that he is invincible and draws on a string of analogies to express his superiority over others. He may be poor, but he is the king of songs-no matter how poor a king is, he still wears coral beads on his neck. Coral beads are very expensive and the sign of royalty or nobility. Okitiakpe also compares his Uto rivals to the local gin ("amreka"), which may be tasteful but derives from palm wine. And again, he compares himself to Uvwiama, an Agbarho town whose origin predates others in the area. Okparabe singers say their songs are flames that consume their rivals. This is psychological warfare to intimidate the other side.
The theme of life and the human condition is often explored in udje dance songs. This could relate to a person's misfortune, good fortune, or some unexpected turn in the life of a person. In many songs, "akpo ghin' igbunu" (life is a mystery). This statement shows a deep understanding of the unpredictable nature of life, much as the singers abuse others for what they know they could not control. No condition is permanent as "Krekpe" tells us. Once he was very rich and all of a sudden he became poor. A sense of mystery and lack of foresight ruined Krekpe:
I raised a fowl;
when it laid eggs,
I counted all the eggs;
I felt they should wipe off my debts.
I was planning big.
When it hatched,
the hawk waged war against them.
"If I had known I would lose them,
I would have enjoyed my eggs." So the blame is not totally Krekpe's, but life's uncertainty. That is why "Krekpe's wealth / is like the cloth used in dressing a shrine, / the cloth used in dressing a god / is never washed before it tears off."
On occasion, the subjects of the songs are very philosophical. In "Krekpe," Memerume reflects on dirt and cleanliness:
When something is dirty, we wash it with water.
Why do we catch fish
that comes with dirt from water?
Eghwori fish that smells
lives in water.
Who can be totally clean?
The white man that thinks he is neat
is full of dirt inside.
Who dresses well still shits.
In "Oghwe," the poet asks, "Who knows his enemy?" He talks of the tree and the soil being friends, until the wind blew and the earth let go of the tree. There are examples in many other songs in which the Urhobo traditional poets reflect on life in a very philosophical way.
The subjects and themes of udje dance songs are those ideas, practices, and habits that threaten the corporate harmony of the Urhobo people. The songs vehemently fight against those threats to affirm their faith in a peaceful, healthy, stable, and prosperous society. The good of the community supersedes the individual's self-interest; hence everybody has to be brought into line. Looking back at the precolonial period, these song composers and their societies must be praised for so understanding the individual, society, the human condition, and life that they devised artistic means of promoting their cherished values. There is in these songs the affirmation of balance that ensures harmony.
To appreciate the poetic form and techniques of udje dance songs, it is important to establish the practitioners' poetic aims and objectives. As stated earlier, a major objective of the tradition is to maintain stability and order in the community. This could only be achieved by respect for commonly held moral and ethical canons. For the community to have this healthy environment, everyone and group had to be held in line. The udje song attempts to deter individuals or groups from deviating, and the poet wants to so "wound" the deviant(s) that the song acts as a deterrent. Members of the community are asked to be cautious of their behavior so as to maintain the delicate balance that society thrives on. In the songs, therefore, there are strong images and symbols in the form of metaphors and similes that are used to describe deviants from the communal ethos.
The songs are also meant for entertainment. Many decades after a song came out, its content continues to be discussed depending upon the strength of its abuse. Thus the poetic and theatrical aspects of the songs are very important, since these qualities thrill the audience in a performance. People look out for the sheer beauty of the poetry. In fact, many go to the performance to listen to the poetry of the songs. It is the words, the strength of the images, that people who attend a performance remember long after it is over. The example of a man who was so insatiable sexually that he was described as "ogbunegbu r'ewhare" (one who murders with sex) shows how strong images are impressed upon the memory of spectators. The udje song composers want to leave the audience with quotable expressions that tell the strength of their creativity.
Very conscious of the audience's hunger for the poetry of the songs, the drumming is never allowed to drown the lyrics. The obo-ile does not dance when he sings, in order to clearly articulate the diction of his songs. The songs are always in the foreground of the performance. People will sing the songs outside the arena, but only dance on an appointed day. This shows the importance given to the songs as poetry.
Closely related to the entertainment is the knowledge gained from the songs. They are didactic not only in the sense of telling people to behave properly but also in subtly teaching about the folklore, other aspects of the culture, and new developments. In many songs, there are expressions in Ijo and English. The Ijo are neighbors of the Urhobo people and many fishermen and traders went far into their territory; hence the occasional quotes in Ijo. English was a new language and used mainly either to make fun of the side deemed to be ignorant of the new ways or to brag about sophistication. There is the example of Iwhrekan's reference in "Memerume" to "ABCD, I am in," directly quoting from Queen's Primer used in elementary schools at the beginning of colonial education in Nigeria. The Iwhrekan people used this reference to register their superiority over Edjophe in songs. Otughievwe singers mimic Ematejegbe's stammering with "Ma pli pli giliti" (I plead guilty) to exhibit sophistication. In "Isheja," there is "Isene ghi ni diteni" (Money can really hold you down). Diteni is the Urhoboization of the English "detain."
Most udje dance songs are directed at individuals or groups of the rival quarter or town. A song is titled after its subject. For example, "Ubuara" is about Ubuara as "Krekpe" is about Krekpe and "Okotietie" is about Okotietie. Much as this appears to be the norm, there is constant use of "ite," the mask, in udje songs. While the songs are supposed to be directed at the rival side, many irorile sing about themselves or their own people but give them names from the other side. The poets thus wear masks to sing about themselves, attributing the behavior to others. Usually, the poet's own people recognize "ite" and accept it as part of the udje tradition. In other words, as the poets abuse others, so do they also abuse themselves. In fact, as Dozen Ogbariemu puts it, "Uwevwin asua kp'ada" (You sing your experience as another's). A few examples will be relevant here. Memerume was one of the greatest irorile and ebo-ile that ever lived. Talented and popular as he was, he did not have a child despite many wives and many concubines. He knew that his rivals would abuse him with songs, so to pre-empt them and blunt their attacks, he sang "Amonomeyararia." Though he picked a name from the rival Iwhrekan town and sang about a woman, his own people and others knew he was singing about himself There was no Amonomeyararia, but Onomeyararia. The real Onomeyararia of Iwhrekan had children.
Similarly, in Uto's "Ikoro," they sing about their own elderly Eferhierhi, who composed songs but did not take part in the public performance. Though he was given the name of somebody else, he was known as a member of their own side. Vhovhen, an obo-ile of Okwagbe Waterside, sang about himself when his brother who was a migrant worker in Yorubaland died. He anticipated his rivals would accuse him of bewitching his brother to death, so he deflected their abuse by first ridiculing himself.
Ite form of udje is common in songs all over the singing clans including Olomu, Udu, and Ughievwe. Masking (ite) is a very important aspect of the udje poetic genre, as all sides of the performance contest have to behave well so as not to be sung. This gives a lot of balance to the tradition, which makes every member of the society be accountable for his or her behavior. Since no deviant escapes abuse, everyone is always on guard.
It is common practice for an udje dance song to combine narration, description, and dialogue for maximum effect. Almost every udje song tells a story of a person (or group). Each song focuses on an individual who goes under a microscope for scrutiny for his or her moral, ethical, and other deviations. The subject of the song is usually one who has gone against a communal norm. In fact, almost every udje song is given the title of its subject, the victim of the satire. Rherheyere went to sell gin to the Ijo people, but frightened people with his ugliness. Aruviere was so ugly that no man agreed to marry her and she made futile attempts to attract men. Isheja moved from place to place as a migrant worker without making it and remained poor. Tuwevwire was a lazy woman whose farm failed because it was neglected. Eyabure was a prostitute who moved from town to town and when old began to complain of being childless. Utevwe was childless and poor and was ignored in every town's meeting.
While a story of a person's life or an incident in that life is being told, there is copious use of nouns and descriptive epithets. Eyabure, the whore, did not hold back and became "dry"; hence she was childless.There is concatenation of evocative images and symbols to describe the butt of the satire. In many instances, idiophones and onomatopoeia are used. A woman's hair is described as "morie moire," very soft. A man moved "whales whales" to accentuate his clumsiness because of hernia. And a woman's chest is "phrerere," a plain-she has no breasts and so looks like a man. Odjelabo's face is described as "horho, horho," to connote his ugliness. mono ran after a falcon that snatched his only piece of cloth "vworo vworo," a term which suggests his clumsy movementt. In the same song, the falcon "laughs" at mono who behaves stupidly (whe whe). Idiophones and onomatopoeia are used to undercut the butt of abuse and provide spectacular humor.
In many songs, quotations of or about the subject are made to either reinforce an idea or to undermine him or her. Much of "Isheja" is based on his purported response when he heard that his people at home wanted to bring him back:
Obo ri sa arhogho,
owavwa gbo ora amwa,
eji gbo ri idjighere
If you are raising money for my return,
then you might as well provide me clothes;
plan for a bicycle
together with a gramophone.
In a similar manner, Eyabure's own words of lamentation describe her pathetic plight in old age, after wasting her youth in prostitution:
Oh my brothers, I was foolish.
The rain threatened
before I thought of an umbrella. .
"Ubiogba," an Otokutu song, is a monologue. Ubiogba asks others why there is so much fuss about his not marrying when there are many men older than he who are not yet married in town. So varied is the style of udje dance songs that it also includes songs within the songs. When the Ijo caught Rherheyere to sacrifice to their god because of his ugliness, the womenfolk sing:
Akeni wee akeni-o
Akeni wee akeni-o
Akeni wee akeni-o
Most of the audience would not have understood the Ijo language; still the women's song has a certain weirdness that undermines Rherheyere.
Umukoro married an Ogor woman and when the woman came, there was the exclamation: "Wa dje rhe-o, / ivwioni reye babotu rhire-o." He has brought a prostitute to town!
Also, udje dance songs are full of figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, hyperbole, and sarcasm. In "Gbejeriemu," a poor man's thoughts are compared to a river. When mono loses his only cloth to a falcon, his plight is compared to one who loses an only child. The death of a great singer is metaphorically described in "Ikoro" as "the crying hyrax has slipped into a hole." In "Echa r'Odjelabo," there is copious use of similes to establish Odjelabo's ugliness:
Okitiakpe is really ugly
like the ovwivwi fish,
his face is bloated
like the ukono grub.
He stands on thin legs
like the echo bird.
He holds out his tongue
like a hunting dog after a deer.
I see him in the middle of the dance
like a fish caught in a net.
In "Oloya," there is use of conceit. In self-praise, the singers say:
Ile Edjophe k'usiohore,
usiohore guone okugbe
oke we usika-a.
Edjophe's songs are like a snake,
the snake needs no rope
to coil itself into a pad.
Other notable examples of conceit occur in "Odaro," "Oghwe," and "Gbejeriemu." In "Odaro," "I am the bitter head of the okpeyi yam: / it's neither good when roasted / nor good when boiled."
The instance in an Oginibo song of the egg of a crocodile killing a hippopotamus is very sarcastic. Sometimes the images manifest in surprising comparisons. There is an Edjophe song that talks of the night dish denied women, referring to a man, who had lost his manhood and could not make love with his many wives. The sarcasm is meant to deflate the subject and humiliate the person being abused.
There is a rhetorical piling up of comparisons in many songs. An example is "Echa Ekrabe." This is to effect a reinforcement of attributes. The subject of abuse is either likened to or directly described as something. The songs have many allusions to the fauna and flora of the Niger Delta area. There are comparisons to different types of birds, animals, and plants. The goat, warthog, fowl, hawk, cat, mouse, leopard, lion, snake, tortoise, vulture, horse, monkey, gorilla, chimpanzee, parrot, iroko, and akpobrisi tree feature in the metaphoric milieu of udje dance songs.
The songs are also replete with evocative and topical allusions. There is frequent allusion to Orogun in many Ughievwe songs. In the 1940s and earlier Orogun was often associated with stealing. Also, many Orogun natives had left town to work as migrants outside Urhoboland. The town of Orhokpor was known to possess the medicine to induce or stop rain, as was asked for. Ogbaurhie is the main Ughievwe shrine at Otughievwe and is often mentioned as the head of the local pantheon. The Ubiegba cult is mentioned in "Odaro,"just as the Echeha shrine of Ekakpamre appears in Uto's "Echa r'Odjelabo." Ogidigbo, a legendary Urhobo warrior, is often mentioned as an exemplar of bravery, as in "Oloya."
Often many Urhobo practices and ideas inform the meaning of words. An example is the use of "emetogbe" in the song "Odaro." These are mainly divorcees and widows who have returned to their home towns in old age. When they asked the poet to teach them songs, he said that those who waged war against him would have these powerful women to contend with. In Urhobo, the old divorcees are thought to possess strong mystical power. There is the reference to "ofurhie" medicine in "Egidi." Ofurhie is a medicine used to treat smallpox. There are references in "Tuwevwire" to "idikeji," "onughegbe," and "oshidodo," types of fabrics fashionable in the 1930s and 1940s but no longer available. "Awoshi," mentioned in "Obiohun," was a religious cult that was popular in the early 1950s. While today many of the allusions and topical statements may appear obscure, they made instant meaning to the audience at the time these songs were first performed many decades ago.
Often, there is a pointed statement of insult or criticism as of "Idoro": "Ekru Igbiniki ghwe ugbeji ughwu." In other words, members of the Igbiniki family die in weird circumstances. Irony is also common as in the cases of Oyibo and Biakolo who baptized people with water and died in water. This is a jibe at converted Urhobo who abandoned their indigenous tradition for Christianity.
Proverbs are very common in udje dance songs. Here are some in the endless repertoire of proverbs:
-Ogbore j'emu vwo, j'emu soro. (If the gourmand stops eating something, there must be a cause for it)
-Ame kpo j'eri vwo, j'oreri. (Once the water dries up, it is finished for the fish.) [Sada]
-When an old person loses a tooth, it doesn't grow back.
-That a man wears short knickers doesn't mean that he carries half thoughts.
-The monkey only jumps forward, never backwards.
-Osevwe r'omotete fokpako. (The fashion of the young doesn't fit the old.)
-The fortunate one doesn't know how to complain.
-No trap catches a spirit.
-Urhie emu oye emu nene. (Things follow their line/tradition.)
-Ichi eni be evughe. (An elephant's footmarks are not difficult to know.)
-Who drives a car doesn't fear getting wet from rainfall.
-A bride is always well fed.
-The father dies before his senior son assumes family priesthood.
-Erako v'akaba gbi ghwre evu r'aghwa-a. (A dog with bells will not be lost in the bush.)
-Owho sie evwe, Voye k'obaro. (Who leads a goat stays ahead of it.)
-Ega ghwuj'emu vwo ke uchuru. (An unmarried man leaves animals he rears for others when he dies.) [Owhawha]
-Once a boat capsizes, its recovered contents are never complete. [Owhawha]
-However bright the moonshine, it doesn't dry out water. [Owhawha]
-When the sun is about to set, it shoots out arrows. [Owhawha]
-Ophu mue udide Voto Voye orua. (When the earth worm is angry, it goes underground.) [Egini]
-Obuko iyeke, iyeke da zoro. (It is behind iyeke that misfortune takes place.)
In "Aghwotu," there are axiomatic sayings in "When God has given His verdict, / there is no appeal" and "Death has enacted a law / Who will challenge it in court?" In "Egidi," "Odie eke ewhe iyeri / ewhe eravwe" (It is not how you catch fish / that you catch animals). Proverbs and axioms give the songs much of their poetic strength. They summarize the theme of a song and provide intellectual delight to the audience.
Since udje dance songs are performed, the performance consideration affects their composition. The liveliness of the songs is reflected in the use of many rhetorical questions. In "Oloya," there are two of such questions: "K'amono vwe orhe rue ughweri?" (Who uses chalk as salt?) and "K'amono egbodi sie obo?" (Who lifts an oil-filled barrel with one hand?). In "mono," the singer asks, "Obo ada ame / ade irhibo?" (Do you take pepper soup / the way you drink water?). The rhetorical questions establish a connection between the performing group and the audience.
Mnemonic devices fill the songs so that the obo-ile and other singers do not forget the details of their song. Some songs take about ninety minutes to perform and demand concentration and sharp memory of the singers. Repetition is the most frequent device used in the songs. The repetition is usually of "breath spaces," segments of the song, or the whole song. I am using "breath space" to indicate a poetic line, which in udje appears at a pause for breath. In some songs, like "Warieta" and "Krekpe," the first segment of the song is repeated at the end. There are songs as in many of Memerume's in which there is repetition of "breath spaces" for emphasis and musicality.
Closely related to repetition are parallelism and chiasmus, structural devices that add musicality to the songs and also help the singers in remembering their piece. In udje a breath space is a unit of sense. The rhythm of udje underscores the contrast between the singing side and the deviant "other." In udje performance, high and low tones are needed to complement one another. The hiatus of the breath space is a result of the two tones, as in Oloya's songs such as "mono" and "Ugbiki." With repetition, parallelism, chiasmus, and other devices, the udje song maintains its structure no matter which obo-ile performs it. The intonation, breath pause, and gestures accentuated by percussive drumming survive a century after its first performance. Whomever I asked to sing popular udje songs such as Okitiakpe's "Me vw' Odjelabo," the theatrical rendition remained the same.
Though oral, every udje song has permanency that is usually attributed to written poetry. It was explained earlier that once the composition is done and approved in the "workshop," the singers do not deviate from the given oral text. There is thus no improvisation, but only memorization of the workshop-approved song text.
Every udje song tends to be structurally divided into three major parts: "akparo," "ekere," and "ekuo." The song starts with "akparo," which includes salutation. The obo-ile is the lead singer. When he raises the song, the other singers respond to him. From song to song, the performers are conscious of the presence of spectators ("inughe") whose approval they court. The first part of the song therefore introduces the subject of the song and also says "Wa do-oo" (You are welcome). The rapport that performers want to establish between themselves and the audience cannot be overstated. It is a pivotal aspect of a contest in which rivals want to excel over each other. In the end, it is the spectators who will carry away and broadcast by word of mouth their impressions of the performance. The one they judge as winner reigns as king of udje till the next performance.
The chorus that the lead-singer and all the singers sing together is called ekere, a refrain-type of repetition. There is the ifue, the concluding formula, of udje songs, which generally ends with a memorable aphorism, proverb, axiom, or succinct observation. Examples of these appear in Owhawha songs such as "Awhire," "Uvwo," "Osolo," and "Idioma." "Awhire" ends with "When the sun is about to set, it shoots out arrows." In "Osolo," "When the parrot's wings are weak, it goes down." In 'Warieta," "Edoke ovuovo oji wh'osa r'oma" (One day the thief pays for his past). Similarly in Edjophe's "Krekpe":
Erha v'edjalakpo je hohe oma,
edjalakpo ki mue erha re!
The erha and the leopard look alike,
but the leopard still feeds on its meat!
"Aghwotu" ends with a rhetorical question: ". . . if the moon does not shine well, / who will go to the sky to put it right?" The ending of almost every udje dance song is always very strong in its idiomatic summarization of the theme of the song.
Part of the ifue also relates to bidding farewell to the audience. "Maphaire" ends with "A-a dog ehe he" (Greetings, all). In most cases, the songs end with "Wa do-o-o" (You are welcome). This formula not only reminds the spectators ("inughe") that the song has come to an end, but also puts the performers in a good light before the judgmental audience.
The openings of most songs are repeated, as are breath spaces and the entire song. There are phonal markers of pauses with sounds such as "E-e-a-do-o" and "I-a-do-o." The lead singer and the chorus, which make udje performance a two-party affair, prod each other. There is physical closeness and the singers literally look each other in the eye as they sing. The udje dance song has a two-feet meter. Each breath space approximates to a line and is almost always halved by a hiatus. The lead singer takes the short line and the chorus repeats it. To the singers, melody and rhythm help to recollect the words of the song. They already made Aridon medicine to help their memory retain the songs. Of the songs, there seems to be a unique type of repetition in the Okparabe ones. The entire stanza serves as a refrain, and this has a strong mnemonic effect.
Other features of the songs, especially in the diction, include the use of ellipses, inversion, and passives. Otokutu calls "akpobrisi" just "brisi." Okitiakpe inverts in "Oboye k'Ingla" (There Is England) describing his favorite wife's quarter. Passives are also frequently employed in the songs. Examples are: "Idoro re devo" and "Ejanugha ghwu sio."
Udje dance songs have impacted on the Urhobo language. As with every other language worldwide, poetry helps it to grow. There are neologisms such as "helimeti" (helmet), "sati" (sardines), and "chapini" (captain) from English. In some songs, English is interspersed with Urhobo like `bongo boyi" (young boy), "sani" (sign), "atikoro" (article), "imagiki" (magic), "iflawa" (flower), and "awa" (hour). In an Edjophe song (apparently composed by Memerume), "iselemani" is sailor. Other English words that have been Urhoboized include "ipolisi" (police), "kasoro" (council), "ekrake" (clerk), and "chifi" (chief). The neighboring Ijo also have their influence on the language. Many words are no longer in fashion, such as "babotu" (prostitute) and "ajakpa" (tortoise). Udje songs are replete with ancient Urhobo words. The differences in dialects of clans manifest themselves in so many words unique to some areas. The udje dance songs establish the currency of diction at particular times of history. The songs carry the speaking idiom, hence many colloquialisms abound. The use of paralingusitic terms like "phrerere" helps to enrich the language. The age of the songs reflects the language current at the time of composition. Udje dance songs have contributed immensely to the development of the Urhobo language, and its current demise will adversely affect the language.
In udje performance parlance, "Echadia oye udje." In other words, the spectacle makes udje appeal to the audience. The statement highlights the visual effects expected of udje performance. It has to generate spectacular appeal for spectators to be entertained. For this reason, every effort is made by the individual participant and the troupe to make things work perfectly Well during performance. Individuals make medicines to protect them from slipping during the performance-to retain a good memory, become possessed, and not feel tired. Similarly the quarter, street, or town fortifies itself against mishaps to have a flawless performance. The performers collectively serve Aridon, the god of memory and eloquence, and Uhaghwa, god of charming performance.
The Urhobo as a group cherish gracefulness. Men and women endeavor to dress gracefully to be respected or seen as attractive. Shoddy dressing is discouraged. When, for instance, a man is well dressed, he is said to be fit to be king. For this ethnic love of gracefulness, udje performers resort to costumes that will enhance their appeal.
As described to me by Dozen Ogbariemu on 4 August 1999 at his house in Iwhrekan, there is a lot of grace and dignity in the udje performers. The men had their hair plaited. They had feathers decking their caps or hair. The feather is very special. Many months before it was time for udje dance performance, a cock was "castrated" so that the feathers would grow very long. Two feathers from its rear end were plucked to deck the front of the performer's cap.
From the waist down, the male performers wore wrappers tied in a special way. These wrappers had to be expensive, and on many occasions performers had to borrow from relatives and friends. Those who could not afford the dresses and could not find anybody to borrow from hid themselves during the performance period. Each dancer used many wrappers and dressed so that the hips looked big like a robust woman's.The dancers had bells tied to their waists and rattles to their feet to enhance the percussive rhythm of the drums. The main body was left bare. It was for this reason that the proverbial saying arose-an ugly person does not go into udje performance. Most performers were handsome men with a lot of grace and dignity. Women were not main performers in udje, but were clappers to reinforce the rhythmic beat of the drums. There are extant stories of great ebo-ile like Oloya and Memerume who were so handsome that many women sought them. Dozen Ogbariemu experienced women who were so carried away by his looks that they embraced him, as happened to many performers especially the ebo-ile. Okitiakpe of Ekakpamre was an exception. He was rather short and stocky and was not handsome, but he was a great poet and performer.
The dancers also rubbed white chalk or other types of powder on their bodies. Some might have rubbed themselves with light reddish camwood cream. They generally wore charms in the belief that they would be tireless. According to Ogbariemu, "A part of the rib cage hurts with vigorous dance, so performers made medicines to make them tireless and not feel the hurt."
The arrangement of the performance also has its spectacular side. The great ororile/obo-ile stays in the middle of the group, assisted by two junior ebo-ile. As noted earlier, if the song is very long, only the master sings it. He rarely dances. The eb-ile tend to be older than the other members of the troupe. The dancers, who are generally younger, surround the ebo-ile. On this circular set-up, the drummers and women who clapped took the rear. Drumming was a major part of the performance, as well as the women's clapping. An outer line of youths kept the audience from encroaching onto the performance. The audience stayed at the outermost layer to listen and watch. On occasion, an announcer (oghwoghwunu udje) who is familiar with the songs sings along for the audience to get every word of the songs.
Every aspect of the performance is well synchronized. The dance and songs have been tested in secret workshops during the months of preparation for the festival. Steps are coordinated. There is harmony of movement. There is a delicate balance between the song and the dance. Usually, the performers want the songs to be known, and after only one performance the audience could pick up the songs and be singing them in their home places. The exception to this is, of course, the rivals who are sung, who will now prepare responses to the songs. The singers look each other in the eye in a give-and-take exchange of synchronized but different parts of the songs.
From the above, the udje performance is an art form. The body is adorned, costumes specially chosen to enhance the performer's overall appeal. The arrangement of singers, dancers, drummers, women clappers, and the audience creates a traditional amphitheater that brings communities together to enjoy moments of intense creativity. The dance movements themselves are vigorous and yet graceful, dexterous, and most exhilarating. The performance art of udje serves very well to entertain people who need all the relaxation possible after seasons of hard work. Udje is a dying tradition. Of the many clans in which udje was practiced in its heydays, only two or three towns still practice it. Otokutu dancers are often invited to perform in ceremonies and the emphasis has shifted totally to dance. Also, very few fresh songs have been composed since the 1950s. Quarters and towns repeat the same old songs, many composed fifty, even a hundred and more years back.
Udje declined with the growth of colonial influence on the Urhobo area of the Niger Delta protectorate. As explained earlier, colonialism brought the issue of tax payment. The people had to work to make money to pay their taxes, and they had to work themselves really hard to pay the seven shillings then, bearing in mind that a tin of palm oil was only four pence. They had few other ways of subsisting and making money. The introduction of capitalism disrupted the communal lives of the people, into which udje performance was built.
The surviving irorile (poets) and the old practitioners of udje all told me that there was no money in udje performance as a career. Most of the ebo-ile and iroaile suffered from penury-most spent time in preparing songs and dance for the pride of their communities, quarters, or towns and had little time to make money. It was difficult for them to buy the clothes and other paraphernalia needed for the performance, and many ended up borrowing dresses from relatives and friends. This reinforces the poor plight of those involved in udje tradition. An old poet asked me, without knowing that I am a poet, whether under those circumstances I would have allowed myself or any of my children to be an ororile or obo-ile. Modern life brought by colonialism and its attendant capitalism in the money-making pursuit spelled a death knell for the once vibrant udje tradition in Urhobo areas. Community fame is no longer enough for those involved in udje, they need money for livelihood.
There are other causes that can be adduced to the demise of the udje performance tradition. Dozen Ogbariemu of Iwhrekan, eighty-one years old (in 1999), told me that greed for money was a major cause of the demise of udje. In the olden days, according to him, Urhobo fishermen and hunters went to Ijo areas for three months and came back during the dry season. During the early part of the raining season, udje was performed. People had time to do things then, but now people pursue money all year round. He also said that the rural population was booming and there were more than enough people around to draw from in the performance of udje. Today there has been a drift from the rural area to urban areas, especially Warri, to take up government and company jobs for good salaries. Furthermore, Christianity has eroded belief in traditional practices. Christians now give up singing and dancing udje because they do not want to invoke Uhaghwa, the god of performance, and Aridon, god of memory and eloquence. Early missionaries wrongly condemned invoking these two gods and performing other rituals as evil.
Other reasons given by Dozen Ogbariemu and others include the introduction of libel laws in colonial times. Traditionally, udje dance songs are artistic creations, which could be true, exaggerated, or even made up. Offended people who have money no longer accept the tradition of abuse songs. With the protection of the white man's law of libel, many who had the means challenged composers of songs in court as being lied against. Since most of the artists were poor, they were not ready to pay fines or go to jail, should they lose a case. That is, in addition to time wasted. At the beginning, the two opposing sides took things in good stride-it was part of the tradition to sing a song that would hurt or "wound" the other party. Each party went to the other side to listen. But with the new British colonial dispensation, the songs gave rise to animosity. Of course, poets/composers became rivals or like jealous co-wives. The subjects of the songs felt hurt and now had resort to the white man's law instead of responding in kind to their abuse. There are cases of women who were abused in songs and had to leave their marriages in shame. Ogbariemu told me of an Edjophe woman who was sung, came to Iwhrekan to beg for the song not to be performed again, and when denied her request left town, thereby ending her marriage. The animosity then gave rise to bewitching, which scared many able poets and dancers from participating in the performance. At Oviri-Olomu, I was told the last performance against Ovwodokpokpo took place in 1973. They had held one in 1944. This means that the interval between festivals was getting longer and longer until the 1973 performance. That year, the Oviri-Olomu side so abused their opponents that they refused to have any more contests with them, and that ended a very long and rich tradition of poetry. Chief Moses Ujoro told me that some of their udje songs date back about one hundred and fifty years, and that Okpari and their rival Umolo last performed publicly in 1970.
While recognizing the place of modernity, the importance of money, the drift from rural Urhobo into urban Sapele, Ughelli, and Warri, and the lack of leisure time, one must not forget the ascendancy of new types of music in Urhobo, especially the popular pan-Urhobo disco. Johnson Adjan and Erhibo Okpa have introduced a new music that has caught the fancy of all Urhobo, unlike udje, which was and still is associated with mainly Udu and Ughievwe areas. Modernity has relaxed moral and ethical considerations, and the new Urhobo disco in fact encourages the habits of flirting, adultery, not keeping gender roles, and others that the udje tradition strongly condemns.
Udje originated in a peaceful self-contented time, when Urhobo people grew tired of intratribal wars to enjoy a rich tradition of poetic and theatrical performance. The communal culture nurtured it into an accomplished oral tradition. However, colonialism and modernity with their attendant need of a money economy and Christianity worked against the modes of life that the songs and performance encouraged. Today udje dance songs are still performed, but for the most part only ancient songs are sung. Fear of libel and bewitching resulted in a subtlety that undermines the pointed abuse that udje is all about.
Conscious effort has to be made to save the udje tradition. Since modernity with its capitalist tendencies cannot be reversed, some patrons might be needed to sponsor udje festivals. Or the performance has to be modernized to bring income to the performers. The federal and state arts councils have a role to play in this. By voting some money to revive the tradition, they would be contributing immensely to cultural revival. Rich and culture-loving individuals also should pitch in whatever they can to fund public performances that would make them attractive to the poets and dancers. Currently, G. G.Darah, J. P. Bekederemo-Clark, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Okpaku, and I are trying to organize an udje festival. We propose to bring the two best known performing towns of Iwhrekan and Edjophe together in an open field for two days and pay the performers some honoraria to sing and dance in an attempt to resuscitate the poetic tradition.
On another level, I have tried to model some of my poems
in English on the poetic form of udje. This I have done in Delta Blues
and Home Songs and In the Kingdom of Songs. This interface of orality and
literacy will transform the tradition from its traditionalism into modernity.
However, for udje to survive, the effort has to be communal. It is not
a genre meant for writing; it is meant for public performance, and the
live performance gives vivacity to it.
Ikime, Obaro. Niger Delta Rivalry: Itsekiri-Urhobo Relations and the European Presence, 1884-1936. London: Longman, 1969.
Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann, 1969. Otite, Onigu, ed. The Urhobo People. Ibadan: Heinemann, 1983.
Sallah, Tijan M. Dreams ofDusty Roads. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1993.
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