Àyàn Àgalú, the man believed to be the first Yorùbá drummer, is regarded as deity, spirit, and ancestor (Euba 1990: 90; Omojola 2012: 16). This tripartite characterization highlights the multiple resonances of Àyàn Àgalú's identity. For some people, he exists as a religious deity, while for many others, he represents an ancestral spirit believed to reside in their drums. Most traditional Yorùbá drummers, however, regard Àyàn Àgalú (or Àyàn) as their progenitor, and view their biological connection to him as validation of their calling as a drummer. The multifocal representation of Àyàn's identity speaks to the dynamic ways in which worshippers, musicians, and even scholars have interpreted his attributes in specific cultural and historical contexts and according to their interests. Multidimensionality is indeed an axiomatic feature of Àyàn's identity. It lays the foundation for (and indeed is predictive of) the diverse and processual ways in which individuals and groups who encounter or associate with him—whether in the realm of religious experience, musical performance or scholarly enterprise—define and configure their relationships to him.
The multiple resonances of Àyàn's identity provide an important background for understanding an important quality of this book. In different ways—ethnographic, analytic, and historiographic—various contributors problematize what it means to embrace and follow Àyàn. The book, which has eleven chapters, a preface (by J.D.Y. Peel), and an extended introduction, focuses on the role and status of the Yorùbá deity of drumming in Western Nigeria and the African diaspora. Its thematic coverage is wide. It includes cosmology, historiography, identity, gender, and secondary diaspora. As explained by the editor, Amanda Villepastour, the book examines the link between the “African [Yorùbá] Àyàn and its Cuban version, Añá,” a topic which she says yearns for an “accurate or comprehensive treatment” (p. 11).
In her introduction, Villepastour lays out the key themes and arguments of the book. She discusses the core attributes of Àyàn, “the god of drumming” whose music is “both a form of worship and a medium to facilitate the worshipping gestures of others” (p. 13). Although Àyàn is not one of the major Yorùbá Òrìsà, its Cuban version, Añá, is embraced as a “drum-god tradition” and a vital component of the Lucumí Santeria religion. Practitioners of Añá are also found in countries like Brazil, the United States, and Venezuela. In explaining the wider significance of Àyàn/Añá, Villepastour explains that the spread of Yorùbá culture and religious practices around the world is indeed tied to the strong presence of Òrìsà religion in African diaspora societies. Scholarly interest in Òrìsà has also helped to foster the visibility of Yorùbá-based religious and spiritual practices globally. Villepastour also discusses the challenge of reconstructing the history of Añá in places like Cuba and the need to contextualize the competing narratives that mark the practice and perception of the deity, especially those relating to gender attributes and religious significance.
The chapters of the book develop these opening observations in many interesting and productive ways. Comparatist perspectives, for example, are provided by Akinsola Akinwowo and David Font-Navarrete, who in the opening chapter emphasize the similarities between Àyàn and Añá, observing that Yorùbá and Cuban practices outline a “continuum of devotional strategies and modes” (p. 35). Recalling the work of Ademola Adegbite (1998), these two authors explain how in both societies Àyàn practices serve to solidify the links between human, ancestral, and spiritual domains of existence in a manner consistent with Yorùbá cosmological thought. Villepastour's contribution in chapter 5 discusses the complex, diverse, and dynamic ways in which Àyàn is anthropomorphized while, in chapter 7, Kenneth Schweitzer discusses how members of the Añá cult have been able to sustain and transmit Añá religious and musical practices despite the repressive policies of the Catholic institution in Cuba.
In addition to the work of scholars, the book draws effectively on the experiences of musicians and devotees. Chapter 3, for example, presents a personal narrative by John Àyánsoolá Abiodun Ogunleye, a prominent Yorùbá drummer based in Ijebu-Remo in Western Nigeria. He discusses the role of drummers and provides an interesting account of Àyàn mythology. John Amira, in chapter 9, recollects the emergence of bàtá drumming communities in New York, while, in chapter 10, Alberto Quintero (with Michael Marcuzzi) discusses the history of Añá and Oricha worship in Venezuela. And in chapter 11, Fernando Leobons compares Afro-Brazilian Candomblé and Afro-Cuban Santeria ritual drumming traditions based on his personal experience and memory as a devotee and drummer.
As expected, the topic of Àyàn's identity resonates strongly throughout the book. Katherine Hagedorn, in chapter 6, discusses this from the perspective of gender. Drawing on published ethnographic work as well as her own fieldwork, she discusses gender roles, the privileged status of male performers in religious drumming, and the rising profile of female drummers who have questioned female-marginalizing narratives. As she explains, scholarly representation of Àyàn tends to privilege masculinity, as exemplified in Fernando Ortiz's pioneering account, which emphasizes maleness in ways that conform with the prevailing patriarchy of mid-twentieth century Cuba (Ortiz 1954). Contrasting with masculinist representations, however, are occasional and marginal examples of gender narratives that explore the perception of female and male attributes of Àyàn.
Divergent representations do also manifest in the realm of religion. For example, some people have questioned the Oricha status of Añá by suggesting that he is only a “form of medicinally potent ache” that provides “the dynamic spiritual life force essential to a successful tambor” (p. 149). Echoes of such contestations ring strongly in contemporary Nigerian society, where most drummers, rather than treating Àyàn as a deity, regard him only as a great ancestor. For many of such drummers, Àyàn is a spirit-guardian who, although deserving of libation and praise, does not qualify to be Òrìsà. As Debra Klein explains in chapter 8, Àyàn, for mainstream Yorùbá drummers, is regarded principally as the progenitor of drummers rather than a religious deity. Villepastour's experience in Nigeria also confirms this, although in a different way. As she explains, Nigerian drummers who worship Àyàn as deity are difficult to come by. Indeed, she had to travel on an “exceedingly dangerous road” to identify and meet with Kawolèyin Àyàngbekun, one such rare drummer. I should note, however, that the marginal and declining religious status of Àyàn cannot be seen to be fully accounted for by the increasing dominance of Christianity and Islam. Cultural and religious factors antedating the colonial era may have set the premises for the current practice. It should also be noted that “Àyàn-ness” (Debra Klein, p. 193) is not exclusive to bàtá drummers. Most traditional Yorùbá drummers, regardless of the types of drums they play, trace their lineage to Àyàn Agalú. There is an allusion to this Nigerian inclusiveness in Kevin Delgado's discussion in chapter 4, which provides an ethnography-based counternarrative to the dominant Cuban perspective that the bàtá drum is the exclusive instrument of Añá. Delgado explains that another set of instruments, the Iyesa drums of Matanza (a set of four double-headed drums) are also believed to harbor the spirit force of Añá.
One of the performance traditions that caught my attention in the book is ìlù orí odó (“mortal-seat drumming”—my own rough translation), which is mentioned in the conversation between Àyàngbekun and Villepastour in chapter 2. Àyàngbekun discusses ìlù orí odó in terms of its religious significance. Sitting on a mortar to drum, according to him, forms part of the rituals or activities held to affirm the sacred connections of Àyàn music. Ìlù orí odó was, however, represented to me slightly differently many years ago during my own fieldwork. It was described not only as a religious event but also as a special performance held to assess the proficiency of a drummer—a graduation ceremony, so to speak, marking the transformation of a drummer from omo onílù (learner) to olóri onílù (lead drummer/group leader). In the Ìgbómìnà region of Yorubaland, such performances are often complete with the appearance and performance of Eégún Eléwe, a traditional masquerade noted for his great dancing skills. These different narratives emanate from real-life experiences and are of specific significance within the discourses in which they are expressed.
As exemplified in mortar-seat drumming, ethnographic work often focusses on limited and targeted sites of performance and the specific ways such spaces are inhabited by individual actors. The decisions that inform and the conclusions that derive from fieldwork are often reflective of the strategic interests and experiences of research subjects and are filtered through the understanding, interests, and worldview of researchers. With reference to the scholarly representations of Yorùbá-based religions in the African diaspora, for example, Hagedorn, citing Lorand Matory, reminds us that “the ethnographic project greatly—and often unduly—influences oricha practitioners' representations of themselves, which then focuses the topic(s) of the ethnography, making the ethnographic study anything but neutral.” (p. 153; see also Matory 2005: 188–223).
This crucial truth about ethnographic projects takes me back to the strength of this book: the authors' success at generating and analyzing complementing, contrasting, and competing conversations and practices. The book's diverse perspectives are effective in helping the reader to engage with the plural and historically dynamic ontological dispositions of Àyàn as the Yorùbá progenitor of drummers, Òrìsà of drumming, and a spirit of the drum. The book helps the reader to engage with the work of diversely constituted scholars positioned to generate contrasting and diverse perspectives. One group of scholars clearly missing in this book, however, are Nigeria-based ethnomusicologists who, unlike those of us domiciled outside the country, encounter the Àyàn phenomenon on a more regular basis and thus could provide us with unique insights that come with regular engagement with Àyàn.
This book—in its wide coverage, multiple thematic explorations, and the interdisciplinarity that comes with its ethnomusicological methods—is an important contribution to the study of Àyàn and Añá practices, joining previous research on the music and religion of Yorùbá and African Diaspora peoples. It is highly recommended for specialists and students, as well as the general reader.