How the Mourning of a Nigerian King Birthed the Traditional Yoruba Opera

The Yoruba Opera which dates to the early part of the 17th century is the traditional theatre of the Yoruba ethnic group in Nigeria.

They were known as Egungun masquerade cult with the sole goal of entertaining the king. The Yoruba masque theatre came to prominence during the reign of King Ogbolu, the Alaafln of Oyo, who called on them to entertain the guests of the king.

According to oral tradition, the Yoruba Opera originally started as a funeral ritual. When the founder of Yoruba, Oranyan, passed away at Ife, his son made attempts to bring his remains home but was unsuccessful.

The Prince whose name was given as Sango, believed to have reigned as the king of Oyo, was told that his father had been transformed into a stone staff. Yoruba mythology said in an attempt to reassure the people of his father’s existence, Sango designed an approach to celebrate his passing away.

He is claimed to have built a royal mausoleum and placed an elderly woman in charge of the entrance. Her role at the mausoleum was to worship the spirit of his father and bring him out as a masquerade during the ceremony to reincarnate the founder of the Yoruba tribe.

This was the beginning of the festival of all souls where ancestors of dead of Yoruba inhabitants walk the streets of the community.

On the last day of the all souls festival, theatrical performance is conducted by the various masquerades. This gave birth to the theatre of Yoruba.

University of Ibadan’s Joel Adedeji in his book on the ‘Origins and the Form of the Yoruba Masque Theatre’ said the first accounts of the Yoruba masque were captured in the journals of Hugh Clapperton and Richard lander.

He explained that the theatre emerged from the three developmental phases from the ritual, festival and theatre. Adding, that Sango’s introduction of the ancestor-worship using what Yoruba called baba which means father and Egungun which means masquerade, is the basis of the masque theatre.

The depiction of Egungun as a costume figure which could be evoked immortalized his father’s legacy. He observed that this culture of bringing the spirit of the deceased head of lineage home has become a permanent custom in the Yoruba tribe.

Joel said the masque performance usually took the form of dance drama with choral chants provided by Omole meaning children of the compound of each clean. The masquerades were expected to act in plays in the form of competition which spiced the festival of all souls.

The success of the Yoruba Opera to a large extent can be attributed to the support it received from King Ogbulu, who took extreme interest in the exploits of Ologbin lineage who were renowned for winning the contest at the annual festivals. The Ologbin lineage also known as the ballad mongers displayed acrobatic dancing and acted masques.

They were led by Olugbere Agan who wears a mask and displayed creative acrobatics to the delight of spectators at the festival. He later became masque leader and led the first travelling of the troupe.

One prominent figure in the Ologbin lineage was Ologbin Ologbojo who was the animator and ballad instructor. He became known as father of Yoruba masque theatre.

With the fame it gained, the Yoruba Opera became a significant part of the culture of Kings Court.

Stephen Nartey

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