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West African Oral Traditions

Updated on November 6, 2016
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Reasons for oral tradition

# Oral tradition is used to catalog history

# Preserve cultural practices

# Help in morality issues

# it’s used to communicate news and current happenings

# Oral traditions is a strong unifying factor

Oral cultures

Oral culture was the first means of transmitting information, history and culture known to man, the verbal communication allowed generations into past history which otherwise would have been lost to the sands of time. Verbal speech through oral renditions covered vast areas of civilizations from culture, traditions, religions and laws, making the mode of communication very effective.

Oral exponents like theater practitioners, actors, musicians, poets are custodians of the verbal form of communication through interactions between performers and the audience. Oral culture can be delivered as a story, Ballard, through dramatic interpretation of the words, folktales, music and folklore.

spoken history that highlights a peoples literature, knowledge and laws make the spoken culture an effective way of recording the past through words. Many civilizations have different oral cultures like Ancient Greece, Egypt, Europe, American Indians and Africans; African oral culture was a necessity before the advent of colonization.

Before the advent of modern media, the written word and other electronic gadgets, the main way Africans communicated lessons was through the spoken word which bound the people together in accepted communal living.

The human voice is the primary instrument deployed in oral traditions but other elements of sound such as the use of talking drums, instruments like the shell rattle called shekere and gongs are common place.

African Dance

African Traditions
African Traditions

Spoken gospel traditions

Before the written word there was spoken gospel tradition, this mode of transmitting religious knowledge was common place in early generations especially Christians. The Christian gospel has its origin in spoken rendition of events, miracles performed by Jesus, history of a people and orations spoken in parables.

Biblical spoken tradition categorized the teaching of Christ and the history of a people, culture and traditions through oral renditions, and historical documentation which brought about the modern bible. Although historical accounts might vary slightly or differ because they are passed down through generations the core message and significance is fully explored.

The Spoken tradition is common throughout the world

An Aborigine woman telling children stories
An Aborigine woman telling children stories | Source

African oral culture

Oral tradition could be said to have vestiges of oral history, ethnic laws, belief of a people, stories of battle, heroes, great kings and old cultures, oral history through communication also include testimonies, and common goals. The aim is to record history, events or to communicate a message like a decree from a king to his people or an invitation.

African oral culture has a rich retinue that includes speech, story telling, loud oration, sound and music. Each region has its unique way of presenting the culture which might have similar elements but are quite different and peculiar to each ethnic tribe.

The purpose of African oral Culture

African oral culture through communication was the primary method used to transmit messages and culture, general rules, feeling, and history so it can be preserved for posterity. Moral conduct and traditional values and messages were easily relayed using this form of communication.

Sometimes oral history and oral tradition are separated as two entirely different aspects of a people but in Africa oral culture there is no clear definition between the two, because each complements the other and makes them more complete.

Generation gain lost knowledge because of the use of oral traditions, the knowledge might not be entirely accurate because it’s passed on through generations but the core message remains the same.

Polyphonic singing of the Aka Pygmies of central Africa

African-American oral tradition

Integration of music in African oral tradition

As said earlier musical instruments and music with traditional dances was part of the whole experience of oral tradition, song renditions by age groups and traditional cultural groups tell unique stories about their culture.

If an important occasion happened in the past like the visit of a countries ruler, religious person or king, songs and special dances are composed in honor of the special guest. Such songs and dances become a part of the people’s history and are carried down through generation any time the song is performed.

The drum and gong is the most important traditional instruments used during oral renditions, they not only add depth to the voice but could be played in certain ways depending on the message. Certain drums are played only on specified occasions from the burial of an important person in the community like a high chief or king.

Such burial come with strict traditional rule and notifications that in the past could have dire consequences if flouted, the talking drum is the primary drum used in some African countries during oral renditions.

African American oral culture

African American culture has evolved over the ages, it has its root in Africa but white cultures have had an influence on the delivery, content and purpose of the oral tradition. it has elements of rich poetic delivery, story telling, spirituality and origin, and old religious beliefs.

Poetic recitation accompanied with music also adds a unique twist to African American oral tradition making it an inspirational art form.

Drums and dance sometimes goes with spoken words

Drum and dance sometimes goes with spoken tradition
Drum and dance sometimes goes with spoken tradition | Source

How oral tradition is used for communication

There are many ways oral tradition is performed and received by the people concerned, listed bellow are ways oral tradition is communicated

1 Oral tradition could be rendered through drama

2 Theatrical stage performances

3 Through traditional dances

4 Through traditional songs

5 Could be done with musical instruments and words

6 Praise singing

7 Poetry and prose

8 The use of talking drums to communicate meaning

9 By the use of voice and gong

10 Could be based in religion like oral gospel

11 Native tradition worship

12 And can be delivered as folklore or by story telling

The gong instrument accompany vocal communication

The gong is a common instrument used during vocal communication of traditions and customs, the instrument because of its loud tone alerts the listener to the words of the custodian. In remote villages the town crier uses this device when important news is to be transmitted to the inhabitants.

The gong is usually made out of hollow metal and could have only one or two outlet holes; it can be a single gong or double depending on the crier’s choice. The instrument is usually struck by a stick or wood and the orator strikes it repeatedly before delivering his message.

This form of oral tradition only occurs during special occasions or when the town crier delivers important messages, he as a rule moves around the village delivering the message or at the village square.

The talking drum and African oral tradition

The talking drum has pride of place in African oral tradition, the instrument because of its diversity and rang and ability to mimic the spoken word has been used to communicate history for generations. In some parts of West Africa like the Yoruba ethnic group the talking drum is used to wake the king in the mornings.

The drummers use vocal and musical communication to tell the history of a people and elegies the greatness of the present king like the ruler’s ancestry, achievement and kingship. This is communicated to the monarch as a reminder of what he stands for being the custodian of a people’s culture, history and tradition.

During traditional marriage ceremonies traditional drummers compose songs for the bride and groom using only vocal renditions and a combination of talking drums. African oral traditions also use special drums to transmit messages over incredible distances, they use words and meaning or even the type of sound the drum produces have significant meaning to indigenes.

Drums complement oral history with certain sounds and renditions used by the musicians effectively communicating the message to the listener.

Drums and worship: during certain traditional practices, religion and worship drums are used to transmit messages to the gods and ancestors, the frequency purpose and sound of the drum effectively communicates the worshipers meaning to their ancestors.

African oral tradition through drama

The use of dramatic acts and oral verbalization in plays can be found in stage performances showcasing the rich culture of a people, the theatrical drama could be periodical, historical or timely depending on the vision of the stage director.

This was well represented in FESTAC77 a festival of arts and culture held in Nigeria in 1977 that brought African traditional music, drama, culture and traditions of several African countries to prominence. The use of drama is an effective tool in communicating ancient history to the present generation.

Masquerades tell a story of the people

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Sometimes masquerades tell the story of a people. Image of an African masqueradeDogon masqueradeBurkinabe masquerades
Sometimes masquerades tell the story of a people. Image of an African masquerade
Sometimes masquerades tell the story of a people. Image of an African masquerade | Source
Dogon masquerade
Dogon masquerade | Source
Burkinabe masquerades
Burkinabe masquerades | Source

Praise singing as an oral tradition

Praising is an African oral tradition that uses recitations, poetic forms, songs and verse to communicate oral literature to the listener, the poetic form could be through repetition, chants, learned verses, song and dance.

Custodians of culture and traditions like court historians learn the words both written and memorized and transmit it to the younger generations. Praise singing could be purely vocal like the Hausa bards, vocal and accompanied with traditional instruments like modern musicians that play ethnic music like Juju music.

Modern praise singers usually concentrate on important dignitaries, kings, and business moguls talking about their exploits, business success, achievements and lineage.

Praise singing could be done by a single individual or in a group of several singers; they might use only vocalization or could introduce musical instruments to present an elaborate rendition.

Masquerades as expressions of oral tradition

Traditional African masquerades are true custodians of a people’s tradition, custom and history, they go beyond the amazing spectacle they represent. Some masquerades only come out on special occasions and festivities and are usually colorful, energetic and full of acrobatics displays and incredible dance movements.

But beyond that masquerades are adorned with symbolisms that depict the history of a certain people, like rare extinct birds or animals formally indigenous to the region. The orators know the names of the animals, gods and past kings and are sand along with the masquerades appearance.

Some other artifacts on the masquerade tell their own stories of a certain event, such as war and conquest; origin and migration rendered orally depicting verbal translations that could be the history of a people.

What are the core values of the African spoken tradition

The spoken tradition promotes

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Summary of African oral tradition

African oral tradition is used as a means of salvaging history, culture and the tradition of a people, it is usually ethnic based and can be used to educate the current generation. Oral rendition is used to communicate, transmit through verbal words and sound messages and stories.

Without oral traditions the entire history and old cultural practices would have been completely lost making this form of communication a very effective medium.

© 2014 femi


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