As part of our fieldwork in Sierra Leone, we are recording contemporary musicians and singers in the locations in which Northcote Thomas worked in 1914-15. Indeed, the majority of the wax cylinder phonograph recordings that Thomas made during his Sierra Leonean tour are ethnomusicological.
On 21 October 1914, while conducting research in Mabonto in what is now Simera Chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Northern Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded a flute player. Mabonto is now largely Temne-speaking as a result of in-migration due to mining activities. In 1914, however, Mabonto was a Koranko-speaking town.
When we asked whether there were any traditional flute players in Mabonto, we were told that there were none, and that one would have to go deeper into ‘Koranko country’ in order to find one. We were told about a flute player named Hassan Jalloh, who lived in Bendugu in neighbouring Sambaya Chiefdom. The following day, after a long, arduous drive through the hilly terrain, we arrived at Bendugu only to find that Hassan had been called away to play his flute at a men’s society ceremony. Thankfully, however, we were able to arrange for him to come to Mabonto the day after, where he played for us.
We played Hassan Northcote Thomas’s
105-year-old recordings of the flute player in Mabonto. Hassan confirmed that
this was the same instrument he played. He immediately recognized the music and
began playing a version of the same song, which he told us was played in the
men’s society camp.
Thomas collected two examples of these flutes and they were some of the most fragile objects that we photographed in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) stores in 2018. They are made from reeds that grow on river banks in the region. Hassan explained that he learnt to make and play the flute (locally called fuli or fullii) from his father who had learnt from his father before him. The finger holes are burnt into the reed using a hot stick and one can still see where the stick has singed the reed in the examples in the MAA collection. It appears that the MAA examples were not played, however, since they are missing the mouthpiece, which is fashioned from a kind of resin produced by insects.
During his anthropological surveys of Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities in Southern Nigeria between 1909 and 1913, N. W. Thomas collected and recorded a number of examples of local flutes. Thomas gives the Edo name for these as alele, elele or ulele (depending on dialect); he records the Igbo name as ọja. In the first volume of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Thomas notes that, next to the drum, the flute was probably the commonest musical instrument in the region; he also observes that there are ‘two or three kinds made of wood’, and another kind ‘made of calabash covered with the skin of a cow’ (1913: 136). Thomas distinguishes different styles of flute music, played in different contexts, for example during wrestling matches, during wall-making and while drinking palm wine (ibid.).
In her article ‘Classification of Igbo Musical Instruments’ (1987), the ethnomusicologist, Joy Nwosu Lo-Bamijoko, provides the following account of the ọja:
Ọja is the most common of the wind instruments. It is made of wood, usually a light soft wood, and of bamboo. The wooden ọja is notched and end blown, while the bamboo ọja, also notched, is side blown. Of the two types of ọja only the wooden one has survived the changing times. The explanation of this survival can once again be found in its deep functionality in Igbo cultural and social life. The characteristic of ọja is the high-pitched sound which the different types produce. This is because this family of instruments is small in size. The biggest ọja discovered by this author is about 26cm long, and the smallest about 14cm long. The size of an ọja determines its pitch and the quality of sound determines the instrument’s function. The highest-pitched flutes, which are also the shortest, are known either as ọja-mmonwu (flutes used for masquerade music) or ọja-okolobia (flutes used for ceremonies of men who have attained manhood). The sound of both flutes is bright and they are used more for chanting than for singing. The difference between the two styles is that chanting is an extended form of speaking, while singing is purely musical.
The lowest-pitched flutes are known as ọja-igede. Igede is a drum music used for burial ceremonies, and ọja-igede is used in pairs with the male ọja calling and the female ọja responding.
The next ọja, whose sound is half way between the highest-pitched and the lowest-pitched ones, is known as ọja-ukwe (the singing flute). This is used for women’s dances of all types.
As an instrument, it is fundamentally employed for performance-composition of melodies, as well as simulation of texts in music and dance performance situations. It provides lyrical melodies that contribute immensely to the overall timbre and aesthetics of Igbo music. In some musical performances oja effectively employed for non-verbal communication with ensemble members as well as the audience. This could be in the form of cues, musical signals or mere encouragement of dancers and players to a more creative performance. … In some instances, oja is employed as a master instrument that conducts and marshals or determines a musical event or performance form. This is found in some masquerade performances such as Ojionu. But, oja performs both musical and non-musical roles in Igbo land. Its use extends beyond the musical. It is employed in non-musical events and contexts as a talking instrument. As such it encodes significant messages within non-musical contexts. In such instances it conveys relevant messages to cognitive members or initiates in a a ceremony. It is, particularly, used for salutations and praise on these occasions.
Northcote Thomas made several recordings of flute playing using his wax cylinder phonograph, which illustrate a number of different styles. Beyond stating where and when they were recorded, Thomas unfortunately provided little further information about the different styles. Here are three examples:
‘Uzebba flute, June 10th, 1909’ (NWT 137; BL C51/2424) – this is likely to be a recording of the flute player in the photograph on the left above (NWT 640):
‘Flute record, taken at Awka, December 13th, 1910’ (NWT 409; BL C51/2636):
‘Record 441, taken at Awgulu, February 8th, 1911’ (NWT 441; BL C51/2683):
A number of videos of contemporary ọja players can be found online.
Lo-Bamijoko, J. N. (1987) ‘Classification of Igbo Musical Instruments’, African Music 6(4): 19-41.
Onyeji, C. U. (2006) ‘Oja (Igbo wooden flute): An Introduction to the Playing Technique and Performance’, in M. Mans (ed.) Centering on African Practice in Musical Arts Education (pp.195-208), Cape Town: African Minds.
Thomas, N. W. (1913) Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part 1: Law and Custom of the Ibo of the Awka Neighbourhood, London: Harrison & Sons.