The ìyáàlù bàtá is a double-headed membranophone of the Yorùbá people of Nigeria and Benin. It is the lead drum (“ìyáàlù” means “mother drum”) of the bàtá drum ensemble, which in the past was strongly associated with the religious worship of certain Yorùbá deities (òrìshà), most prominently Shàngó (the god of thunder and lightning), but which during the past few decades has come to be used in a range of secular contexts as well. Members of professional hereditary lineages called Àyán now perform bàtá drums, including the ìyáàlù bàtá, in both sacred and secular settings. The ìyáàlù bàtá player in a bàtá ensemble produces the largest variety of patterns including ones that mimic speech. These take the form of oríkì (commemorations of individuals, events, and actions), signals, greetings, prayers, and provocative commentary (Klein p. 16). Producing such utterances on the ìyáàlù bàtá is not an easy task due to the drum’s limited tonal range (see below), and for this reason performers of this instrument are held in high regard. The Yorùbá bàtá tradition and its association with òrìshà worship were transplanted to the Western Hemisphere during the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, taking root most strongly in the Caribbean (especially in Cuba) and Brazil. Since the last quarter of the 20th century, a few foreigners, mostly Europeans and Americans, have undertaken the serious in situ study of bàtá drumming in Nigeria, which in turn has opened access of this tradition and its carriers to global networks of “world music” performance venues and teaching/residency opportunities.
The tubular shell of the ìyáàlù bàtá is hollowed out from a solid block of light wood and has an exterior profile that might be described as truncated conical. The shell is not, however, perfectly conical in shape; the final quarter of its length (just above the smaller head) is approximately cylindrical. The openings at the ends of the shell (approximately 9.6 in. and 4.8 in.) are covered with heads (the larger called ojú òjò, the smaller sháshá) constructed of goatskin membranes stretched over stiff flesh hoops (the material of which cannot be discerned because they are totally covered), the interior diameter of each being slightly greater than the exterior diameter of the shell opening its membrane covers. Each head is made from two membranes, one of which is whole and permanently folded onto its flesh hoop, the second is donut-shaped with its outside edge folded over the flesh hoop. The “donut-hole” of this second membrane on the larger head has a noticeably smaller diameter than that of the head as a whole (see detail #1), while the diameter of the “donut-hole” on the smaller head nearly matches that of the rim (see detail #2). The flesh hoops of the two heads are connected to one another over the length of the drum with rawhide lacing. This lacing passes through eight roughly equidistantly-placed holes located just inside the flesh hoop of each head; the lacing passes over the inside of one flesh hoop, through a hole in the membrane, along the top to the head to the next hole, through it and over the outside of the flesh hoop, and then runs the length of the shell before repeating this same pattern (see detail #3). Once the heads are attached to the shell and the lacing is pulled until the heads are quite taught, the eight lengths of lacing running the length of the shell are not entirely in contact with the shell. To further increase the tautness of the heads, a long length of rawhide lace is wrapped tightly around and around the center section of the shell like a corset, squeezing the main lacing against the contour of the drum shell. A shoulder strap, approximately four inches wide and eight feet long and made of layers of leather, woven grass, and cotton fabric, is attached to the drum by its ends being pinched between the main lacing and the shell. A pointed rawhide strap, about ten inches long and one-inch wide, called bílálà (see detail #2) is used as a beater on the smaller head. To the rim of the larger head a jingle is attached consisting of five brass pellet bells connected to a leather strip that in turn is loosely tied around the main lacing of the drum (see detail #4).
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The ìyáàlù bàtá is suspended with the aid of its shoulder strap nearly horizontal in front of the drummer, the large ojú òjò head to the player’s right side, the small sháshá head to his left. The drummer strikes the ojú òjò head with his right palm and the sháshá head with the bílálà beater he holds in his left hand. The relative pitch of the ojú òjò head is lower than that produced on the very bright sounding sháshá head, and a black paste called ìda can be placed at the center of the the ojú òjò head to lower its pitch and change its timbre to further distinguish it from the pitch/timbre of the smaller head. Three main right hand strokes are used on the larger head, each of which can be sounded alone or in combination with the smaller head. It is primarily with this restricted vocabulary of pitch/timbres that the ìyáàlù bàtá drummer speaks, mimicking spoken Yorùbá oríkì over the driving rhythms produced by the support drums (omele abo, omele ako, and kudí) of the bàtá ensemble.
Origins/History/EvolutionYorùbá oral tradition credits the creation of bàtá drums to the òrìshà Èshù, in whose worship the ensemble was originally employed. Èshù supposedly gave permission for his drums to be used by the worshippers of Shàngó, king of the 15th century southwest Nigerian state of Òyó, who, following his death, became an òrìshà (Omojola p. 17). The ìyáàlù bàtá and the other drums of the bàtá ensemble are therefore considered to be amongst the oldest and most sacred of the Yorùbá people. How much the present day bàtá drums resemble physically those of the 15th century cannot be known with certainty.
Bascom, William. 1953. Drums of the Yoruba of Nigeria. CD with liner notes, Folkways FE 4441.
Gourley, K. A., and Rainer Polak/Amanda Villepastour. 2014. “Bàtá.” GDMI v.1: 275-276.
Klein, Debra L. 2007. Yorùbá Bàtá Goes Global—Artists, Culture Brokers, and Fans. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Omojola, Bode. 2012. Yorùbá Music in the Twentieth Century—Identity, Agency, and Performance Practice. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.