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Author: Tejumola Olaniyan
Title: Yoruba ritual
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Yoruba ritual
Tejumola Olaniyan

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 3, pp. 14, 1992
Author Biography: Tejumola Olaniyan is a member of the Department of English of the University of Virginia. He is a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities at Northwestern.

REVIEWS Yoruba Ritual


Margaret Thompson Drewal, Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992, xxii + 241 pp.

Drewal boldly engages in this book a two-fold problematic: the myopia of a dominant discourse that represents a cultural form ("ritual") of living human beings as repetitive, "rigid, stereotypic, conventional, conservative, invariant, uniform, redundant, predictable, and structurally static" (xiv), and the accompanying effect of othering a cultural form as a shorthand for naming and classifying some groups of people—after all, it is still the dominant tradition to instinctively think of "ritual" as the peculiar cultural form of non-Western peoples. You may not hear this often but it exists: "socio-scientific" explanations of the resistance of African women to birth control pills (resistance to change, uncivilized, etc) as due to their ritual practices (inferior or static culture). A scheduled run of Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman at the Lincoln Center in 1987 was forced into premature closure after a few performances due to hostile reviews (which kept people away), some of them denying that the play is a tragedy but rather that lower cultural form we all know as ritual. I have posed the problematic this forbiddingly in order to situate and make explicable the abiding passion, urgency and integrity with which Drewal marshals her points in this quite thoughtful and provocative study.

Take, for instance, the theoretically overcoded cover design. Ritual is all stasis, we have been told. It represents " 'fixed social reality" ' where " 'stability and continuity [are] acted out and reenacted' "—a timeless repetitive drama that denies " 'the passage of time, the nature of change, and the implicit extent of potential indeterminacy in social relations' " (102, Drewal quoting Sally Moore). If ritual is really all this, how do we accommodate a sub-title which—conventionally—is supposed to clarify further but actually subverts all we have been told, and in triplicate?! "Performers, play, agency" are concepts that do not cohabit easily with our dominant idea of ritual. The space of the full colon, which simultaneously connects and separates title and sub-title, is proposed as a contestable and contested terrain. Below the title and sub-title is a photograph of a Yoruba funeral performance. The organizing attraction of the procession is a large framed photograph of the deceased borne aloft by one of the performers: an appropriation and incorporation of an "alien" invention. So much for the "stasis" of ritual—and thus of the culture? Nothing best introduces the direction of Drewal's profound reorientation of how we think of/about ritual than this articulation of a melange of signifying systems.

But Drewal does not "prove" the dynamism of Yoruba ritual simply by documenting its receptivity to foreign elements. She instead reads the openness as a core component of Yoruba philosophy of existence as articulated in many of its ancient texts (in a similar reading, Soyinka in Myth, Literature and the African World writes: "Ifa's cycle of masonic poetry—curative, prognostic, aesthetic and omniscient—expresses a philosophy of optimism in its oracular adaptiveness and unassailable resolution of all phenomena; the gods are accommodating and embrace within their eternal presences manifestations which are seemingly foreign or contradictory.") In this regard, her proposition that the Yoruba conceive rituals as journeys is remarkably apt and suggestive: it underscores motion and transformation, both of ritual and its performers, and so gives weight to her general theoretical redefinition of ritual repetition as "repetition with critical difference" (3-5), after such scholars as Linda Hutcheon and Henry L. Gates, Jr. The realm of critical repetition is the realm of the performative, thus Drewal's well-founded claim that a "performance paradigm" (xiv) subverts the dominant scholarly representation of ritual as static.

The productivity of this insight is manifested in Drewal's reading of a series of Yoruba ritual performances running the whole spectrum from the "sacred" to the "secular." Whether she is discussing the twilight of life ritual performances such as isinku (funeral, 38-47) or ikose w'aye and imori (" 'Stepping into the World' " and " 'Knowing the Head'," 52-62), Agemo masked performance (113-130), or the domesticated 'Id al-Kabir (135-153), or the negotiation of gender difference and gender hierarchy in the performances, she foregrounds the general improvisatory orientation in which optionality is a given and not a privilege, and the powerfully enabling malleability coupled with an evident competitive willingness of performers to inscribe themselves in the space of possibilities opened up: "Individuals inserted themselves into ritual at their whims; they elaborated and embellished, deleted, and even impeded or disrupted the action; they also recontextualized, transposed, and transformed its elements. In this way, the rituals accommodated diverse and competing interests as well as different points of view. Yoruba ritual was thus "a playing field of individual interests, continuously generated...." (198-9) Thus the feasibility of Iya Sango's successful negotiation and "commandeering" of an Apidan performance (98-104) and thus of a striking registration of subjectivity.

After this book, we will have to go back and reclaim ritual as a realm of possibilities, even if we will have to re-vision some of the tools given to us by Drewal. She, perhaps too faithfully, keeps her promise of making a "paradigmatic shift from structure to process," from the "normative to the particular," (10) but we will need to remind ourselves that history is not all possibilities but also limitations. Performance may be a multi-layered discourse with multiple perspectives and voices, but these are not without hierarchy. That Gordon's Gin replaces palmwine in a ritual is a history simultaneously of empowerment and disempowerment. Drewal almost gave up "structure" completely in this study, yet without it, "agency" becomes meaningless.

While Yoruba rituals may indeed subvert dominant scholarly discourse, we can hardly be this certain of its relationship to the ruling system of social relations of its context. What we rightly celebrate in Yoruba ritual is precisely what makes it such a useful tool in the hands of an abominably venal elite and business class in the furtherance of their consumptive, self-aggrandizing ethos. Which is why chieftaincy titles, complete with the relevant divinations and other rituals, are now for sale, rather than to be earned. "Sote's aesthetic" (143-150) is an excellent study of the dynamism of ritual but it is also a moving eulogy to a form that is not necessarily averse to reactionary hegemonic articulation. This is the incisive insight of Soyinka, a leading authority on these matters, when he places the openness of Yoruba rituals in perspective by warning that the "overt optimistic nature of the total culture" has in many ways begun "to affect [the Yoruba's] accommodation towards the modern world, a spiritual complacency with which [the Yoruba] encounter[ ... ] threats to [their] human and unique validation." (Soyinka, Myth 155-156) Let me make clear that these obviously "political" issues are not the focus of Drewal's book, though they are not unimportant or out of place in a work that promises to study performance "within a larger body of performances and in history, society, and politics." (10)

The issue of "focus" and "political" brings me to the important exchange on translation reported by Drewal between herself and Rowland Abiodun (xiv-xv). In response to Abiodun's suggestion that "rather than translate any Yoruba concepts, I should have required an English readership to deal with them on their own terms [e.g. milieu, gemeinschaft, etc]," Drewal writes: "For political reasons, I sympathize with his position. But I have another overriding agenda." It is either that I miss the "political" in Abiodun's suggestion or that there is no epistemological move which is not at the same time political. Because I am inclined to the latter, it is difficult for me to see Abiodun's suggestion and Drewal's "another overriding agenda"—the subversion of the dominant scholarly discourse on ritual—as mutually exclusive. After all, in the few cases where the translations are really inadequate, such as "miracle players" for apidan, neither politics nor any other overriding agenda is advanced. Drewal is of course not unaware of the common ploy of labelling a stance as "political" (as opposed to being "dispassionately intellectual") as a preamble to ghettoizing it. And we know how this practice has always figured in the interactions between African and non-African Africanists. An obverse face of this is the old widespread practice of rejecting the western-educated "native" as an "authentic" data source, a canon eloquently debunked by Drewal in making Ositola, scholar, ritual practitioner and master performer, a key resource pool. I have been greatly enriched, inspired, and challenged by this book.

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