Africa is a continent dotted with rich and diverse indigenous and modern festivals, rituals, ancestral worships which constitute the dramatic and quasi-dramatic character of its literature. However, little attention has been awarded to some age-long, perhaps less known festivals that have not only reasonably held autochthons together since time immemorial but whose study would throw more light on the festival institutions in Africa and the pedagogy of African heritage in general.
On this basis, I and a team of six researchers armed ourselves with pens and papers, and journeyed to Igodan Lisa, Okitipupa, Ondo State, Nigeria on the 19th of August, 2018, to inquire about a festival called Ere. I had heard about the Ere Festival from an Uncle who hails from the town. He had inundated my helpless ears with soliloquies of how rallying and ornate the festival was even though I never had reasons to want to know more about this festival nor did I place any importance on the place of my heritage: the African Heritage. At least not until I took up an Oral Literature in Africa class where dim lenses were stripped off my eyes and those of my colleagues like a child would strip pink robes off of a candy. Here, we learnt an important thing: pristine African values, folklore and systems are not scraps of relics and madness, they are, on the other hand, a thriving way of life of a people that should be celebrated, documented, visited and re-visited. This class tinkered with orientations and made thinkers out of mere men. Some of those thinkers became part of the earlier mentioned team.
On linking back to the roots, we met with a prominent chief and ritual master, Gbolabo Joseph, the Son of Geere, Loogun Ajagbeyara of Igodan Lisa, for inquiries. I and my team also made further observations and scavenged for information through video recordings that had been taken during the most recent Ere Festival which took place in June 2018. At the core, we examined the social context, history, aesthetics and the significance of the Ere Festival to the Igodan Lisa people of Ondo State, Nigeria. Here, I will limit my discussion to the aesthetic dimensions and the significance of this festival to Igodan Lisa.
THE ERE FESTIVAL
The Ere Festival is an annual festival that is celebrated in the month of June by the Igodan Lisa people of Okitipupa, Ondo State, Nigeria. “Odun Ere” – which translates as Ere Festival – has been a long-standing tradition that is still being passed down from one generation to another. The Ere Festival is at its core a festival of feast. Ere itself is a meal of meshed yam, palm oil and fish. Named after this meal, the festival, with its communal sharing and eating of food, reflects the communitarian philosophy that Africans have always venerated.
To the Igodan Lisa people, the Ere Festival ranks as one of their most esteemed festivals which is, on one hand an exposé of the spiritual psyche of the people, and on the other, a tool kit that constantly fosters solidarity and foregrounds the collective customs and traditions of the celebrants. As a partly sacred festival, the Ere lends credence to the African belief in the three supernatural stages as divinely interrelated as seen in the rituals, masquerading and idolization of elders. The festival, replete with entertainment, rich aesthetic qualities as well as a plethora of diverse performative and theatrical experiences, brings about harmony and highlights the collective culture of the celebrants.
The actualization of the Ere Festival calls for tools, equipment, elements and even icons. This precedes the fact that oral literature at large is more of a performance act. In fact, the performer is integral to oral literature as he deploys on the audience his intricacies and multidimensional charisma. No wonder “there is no mystery about the first and most basic characteristic of oral literature, oral literature is by definition dependent on a performer who formulates it in words on a specific occasion – there is no other way in which it can be realized as a literary product”. (Finnegan 2012:25) Therefore, oral literature goes beyond the content, the message, the story. It is such that it becomes the emotive substance that is released by the audience which are enhanced by the use of gesticulations, body movements, and musical instruments. All these accompaniments add up to the aesthetic dimension of oral literature against the backdrop of the written one. With these accompaniments, the Ere Festival rises, becomes robust, alive and very much independent.
Performer and Audience as Aesthetics in The Ere Festival:
Performer and mode of performance take different faces and different shapes during the Ere Festival and this is because there is a kind of turn taking process which is determined by the specific occasion, performers function and their distinct renditions. For instance, a three man sect called the “Ahoro” take the stage in invoking masquerades from the river. The leader of this sect performs his invocation while the other two, who by now have become audiences, respond in what is a call and response pattern. The performer and the audience become unified, with the latter helping to recreate and actualize the oral acts.
Pertinently, the masquerades, known as “Iwalokun” and “Atolokun”, also function as invisible audiences since the invocation from the “Ahoro” sect is directed at them. After series of invocations, the masquerades surface from their domain and this lends credence to the audience being visibly or invisibly “involved in actualization and creation of a piece of oral literature” (Finnegan 2012:12).
Saddled with a different function entirely, another important aesthetics during the Ere Festival are the women who help to charge the masquerades up with their laudatory chants. With their creativity, use of memory, spontaneity and ingenuity, they help to work the masquerades up into a frenzy. The masquerades consequently intensify and heighten their dances, keeping the audience and spectators at the edge of their seats.
Nevertheless, the most important performer in the Ere Festival however are the masquerades. They function as the key players and are the most notable attraction that bring the various peoples together. Their work begins from their emergence from the river to their intricate and enjoyable dances within the “Ogba”, the circle. To the potent drums and piercing rhythms, the masquerades entertain and etch their allure on the minds of their audience so that they cannot wait for the coming year’s festival to take place.
Drums as accompaniments:
Drumming does not only function as a vital part of the cultural heritage of the Yoruba people in general but it also adds embellishments to their literary creation. In the Ere Festival, three major drums are used and they are: “Omo Ilu”, “Okiri” and the “Agba”. The “Agba” is a round, single headed standing drum with four short legs made of wood. "Agba" is a big drum made of hard wood and on it is an abstract of an earth goddess: the “Onile”. The drum is similar in looks and sound to the “Gbedu”. It echoes a deep bass sound. The “Omo Ilu” on its own is otherwise known as a smaller drum that helps to initiate a conversation with the “Agba”. It has different variations and the sound patterns reasonably resonate way less bass than the “Agba”. It is sometimes adorned with “Saworo” (Bells) to add flare to the sound produced. These drums carry the hopes, culture and dreams of the people. They serve as a backdrop to which the masquerades dance. As indispensable accompaniments, they function as aesthetics and embellishments in the manifestation of the Ere Festival.
Costume and Stage as Accompaniments:
Cloth plays an important role in the world of the Yoruba. Their myths equate nakedness with infancy, insanity or the lack of social responsibility. Also, more elaborate dresses or costumes reflect power and prestige. In fact, costume has been described as the moving scenery of a production and when worn by the actors, who are the centre of all dramatic action, they are the strongest element of the visual scene; they project personality and individual emotion and obtain the strongest audience focus.
In the Ere Festival, the costume of the masquerade, “Iwalokun” is different from that of the “Atolokun”. Given the fact that “Iwalokun” is a king masquerade, he wears a free flowing "Agbada" that could come in any colour every year. The "Agbada represents respect and honour. The "Atolokun" wears a smaller kind of costume that reflects his own cadre. The colours of the costume possess significant meanings and “there is often a deeper meaning hidden away in the traditional costume designs (Utoh-Ezeajugh, 135).
The stage of the Ere Festival in its entirety is the community. The community functions as a theatre although it is dynamc and fluid in nature. As inanimate as it seems, the stage transcends the physical presence since the masquerading is done inside a circle called “Ogba” which is located in front of the “Ojubo Ilu”, the shrine. Perhaps, here, the supernatural beings are believed to be invisibly present. The stage is therefore part of the performance and it responds to the notion of time, weather and season.
Gesticulations and Body Movements as Accompaniments:
Under the non-verbal sources we have the gesticulations and body movements that do not only have self-inherent imports or meanings, but could also accompany the verbal expressions to achieve proper semantics. Thus, they function as a cursor of the specific community’s norms, ethos and social philosophy.
Dance is a paralinguistic body movement. Enekwe (2001) cited in (Abbe 2007;3) sees dance as “serious because it is religious in a self-expressive and communicative sense and it is social because it is an integral part of life". Dance then plays an important role in the Ere Festival. It creates an avenue between the performers: the masquerades and the audience. Even though we see gestures within these dances, the main masquerade dance in the Ere Festival is widely known as the “Orengha” dance. It is a form of dance where the masquerades file up behind one another, each one holding his own waist and cycling his feet rapidly with incredible, impeccable energy. They subsequently spread their arms and legs while jumping high in the air to bring the quick movement of the feet to a brief stop. This trademark “Orengha” dance occurs within other miscellany of dances and it is attributed to the "Iwalokun" and "Atolokun" masquerades alone. It is an entertaining dance but its enactment signifies more than that: it signifies solidarity, harvest, prosperity, unity and success just like the Ere Festival itself.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ERE FESTIVAL
Festivals are vital threads that hold the fabric of traditional African societies. Just as F. B.O Akporobaro (2012) notes that “African dramatic festivals promote moral education, aesthetic and artistic creativity and develop people’s religious awareness, cultural sensibility and faith in the people’s social institutions”, in Igodan Lisa, the community equally uses the Ere Festival as a platform to bring its indigenes from across the world together to pass on these attributes of moral education, aesthetic and artistic creativity, and cultural sensibility.
The main significance of the Ere Festival is to bring the indigenes of Igodan Lisa from all over the world together. It serves as a form of communal call which fosters familiarization, recognition, and knits the ties to cultural roots. It is a period where those at home and in the diaspora who have lost touch with family come to re-acquaint themselves. The indigenes are usually excited to come home in order to felicitate with one another and get to visit their grandparents, parents and extended family, as well as kinsmen or villagers. The festival strengthens familial, filial as well as communal bonds.
The Ere Festival also functions as preserver of traditions of the Igodan Lisa community. Ancestral worship, beliefs, dance, rituals, myths are preserved through a perpetuation of this festival as people are reminded again of the ancient traditions of the community. With this preservation, the continuity of the community is fostered and the indigenes have a sense of identity.
Another significance of the Ere Festival lies in its entertaining abilities. One of the main functions of literature is that it is a form of entertainment and the Ere Festival has a bundle of entertaining ceremonies which make the indigenes excited to attend time and time again. The festival is usually colourful, with lots of music, dance, songs, food and drinks to keep the tempo of the merriment.
Finally, the Ere Festival also functions as a communal religious cleansing ceremony. In this case, the “Ahoro”, prays on the land before invoking the masquerades. Barren women and inhabitants who long for good tidings have their prayers answered and problems are solved during this festival.
No wonder the women sing in excitement at the arrival of this festival, their sonorous voices waking trenchant and their contraltos rising into ardour, they sing:
Olodidere awoko o, awoko o, awoko o, The parrot, the minstrel, the minstrel, the minstrel/ 2ce
Olodidere awoko o, awoko o, awoko o,
Odon ma jo, e e umale o. It is the dawn of another year eee, the Masquerade
Abbe, J. .2007. “The Dance Art in Nigeria”. Perspective in Nigerian Dance Studies. Ed. Chris Ugolo. Ibadan: Caltop Publications (Nig.) Ltd.
Akporobaro, F. 2012. Introduction to African Oral Literature. Lagos: Princeton Publishing.
Finnegan, R. 2012. Oral Literature in Africa. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers CIC Ltd.
Ibitokun, B. 1993. Dance as ritual drama and entertainment in the gelede of the ketu-yoruba subgroup in West Africa: A study in traditional African feminism. Ile Ife: Obafemi Awolowo University Press Ltd
Utoh-Ezeajugh, T. 2010. Promoting minority cultures through costumes and make-up: Sam Ukala’s break a boil in production. Theatre and minority rights: perspectives on the Niger Delta. Ed. Austin Ovigue Asagba. Ibadan: Kraft books Ltd.