Revista eletrônica de musicologia

Volume XIII - Janeiro de 2010

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Civility and incivility in esan songs, Edo State of Nigeria

    Charles Onomudo Aluede*

(Ambrose Alli University) 



Abstract: Music making is a conscious and unconscious means of expression which leads researchers to conclusions of the makers' world views and attitudes. This paper examines some selected Esan songs from Edo state, Nigeria . In the course of this investigation through textual analysis, it was discovered that this people use songs to correct ills or regulate irregular conducts in their society. In carrying out this task, songs of polite and sometimes impolite flavour are used within a contextual framework which is usually socially controlled. The author opines that apart from the fact that these very important songs are at the verge extinction, he says that revealing ones misdeeds through songs helps to put others in check and so since their views and beliefs are kept in songs, such songs should be treated invaluably so that the tradition of moderating conducts through music will be kept alive.


Keywords: civility, incivility, tradition and social control.


Introduction: Of all human creations, music is generally agreed to be a strong agent in the modification of human behaviour and is also believed to have the propensity of inducing healing in individuals. This view is supported by McCleman (1988) and Pica (1995). Within Nigeria , songs function in the various ethnic nationalities in very many ways and Akpabot (1986) identified fourteen of such. Without doubt, the Esan community is within this purview and shares in all the attributes identified by Akpabot. However, the Esan stands out in what their songs are used for, how they are used and when not to use them to ensure conflict free but harmonious times.

This paper has passed through several stages of development. Initially, it was Esan songs as windows into their values and now it is civility and incivility in Esan songs. Viewed from whichever perspective, this work address a sociological arm of the use of songs vis a vis for communication and the influence of social control on it. Before proceeding in this discussion, it is considered necessary to mark out the territory of this study hence what follows below.


The esan in geography and tradition of origin

The term Esan is applied to people and language spoken in a particular locale, which has five local government areas in Edo Central senatorial district of Edo state. Esan is located in the tropical zone of the northern part of the Nigerian forest region (Okoduwa, 1997). Specifically however, Esan province is located in the Benin Kingdom north-east of the present day Edo State . It is bounded on the north by Owan - east and west, on the west by Orhionmwon Local Government Area, on the southeast by Ika, Oshimili and Aniocha Local Government Areas and on the East by the River Niger. The area is about 1,162 square miles with a population of 398,103 by 1991 (N P C).

To date, exactly how Esan evolved remains unclear. Although their origin may partly be traceable o the exodus from Benin Kingdom , it could not have been during the reign of Oba Ewuare in the 15 th century. Recent archeological evidence from Ekpoma – a part of Esan shows that people had lived in organized polities in the area for over half a millennium (Okoduwa, 1997). The Edo language group to which Esan and Bini languages belong is acclaimed to belong to the Kwa language family of the Niger-Congo stock. This is supported by Okpoko and Agbontaen (1993).

While Benin serves as a territorial label (e.g. Benin City , Benin Kingdom, Benin Empire or Benin division) both Bini and Edo serve as linguistic and ethnic labels for the inhabitants of the Benin territory. It is used as a designation for a group of historically related languages and dialects spoken in the various communities within and around Benin . These include the Bini, the Esan, the Etsako, the Ivbiokohan… (Okpoko and Agbontaen,1993:213).


Social structure in Esan

Socio-culturally, the thirty-two towns in Esan are autonomous. All Esan towns share common cultural affinity. They practice patrilineal inheritance with every first son being the principal inheritor of both the father's and mother's legacies. This first son must of course be a child of any of the man's true wives. Until very recently, the Esan woman or any woman married to an Esan man was not expected to have a handshake with men. To the people of Esan, this conduct was anathemous. However, urbanization and its associated civilization has made it possible for female elites not to keep to this rule religiously.

Just as it was among the Akan of Ghana where God was said to be their police in terms of community watch and regulation (Williamson, 1955), the regulation and protection of each town's ideals and mores in Esan are done not only by their ancestors and gods but also by other members of the communities. During festivals, dwellers in the various quarters of each village come together to sing satirical songs, songs of allusion and or lecherous songs of individuals who have been engaged in shameful acts such as lies, theft, rape, false witness and any form of sorcery.

In Esan, there is a class structure of social differentiation, which portrays an idea of hierarchical ranking within which members of the society fall. This hierarchy helps in sustaining the social political structure of the people. These structures are gender based thus there is the male age-grade and female age - grade organizational structure. Although the two age-grades are separate, what obtains in each has some correlation with the other. Arising from the discourse above, it may be superfluous to say that Esan is essentially a gerontocratic society where there is so much respect for elders and their views.


Some Sociological Function of Esan Songs

As far as is known, black African has no indigenous musical notation. Music is an old tradition and, in order to gain musical knowledge, it is necessary in traditional practice for the student to be in physical contact with the originations of the music. Moreover, although the musician can and do describe the structure and practice their art when questioned these exists no indigenous theoretical literature on music ( Euba, 1989:225).


From the quotation above, some issues have arisen which require necessary classification before making progress in this work. They are that:

a) Africans do not have indigenous musical notation

b) Music in traditional African Society is oral

c) Physical contact with the music makers is vital

d) Traditional African music lacks theoretical literature.

It in a fact which does not require any form of validation that Africans do not have any form of indigenous musical notation. What is yet available is the western type of musical notation which has been adopted by Africans. This adoption is not without its associated problems. African styles of singing and musical performances have their unique technical devices which are not in any way similar to western types. As a result, in using western musical models, certain unique African attributes in songs are often viewed as inconsequential. In doing this, African music is faced with gradual denudation of their treasured features. In this era of information and communication technology (ICT), it would have been proper to develop software which can accommodate the required effects representative of African traditional music.

It has been asserted severally by scholars of different persuasions that music in traditional African society is oral. This remark was made about three decades ago, between then and now, there have been some forms documentations done in response to the palpable emptiness of written works. Although there is a growing body of literature on music and dance of the peoples of Africa by indigenous and foreign scholars alike, it is important to say that this tasks needs to be taken to a higher degree. There have been multi and interdisciplinary documentation works on popular culture, history, sociology, media studies, religion and African literature to mention but a few, musical studies is yet to receive an equivalent attention. By this we mean that the metamorphosis of the oral nature of African songs to a more documented one is yet on a very tardy journey as it stands presently.

It will be an exercise in futility if music research intends to study a people's music simply from recordings done on their ensembles. Music scholarship requires far more than that, contact with the originators of specific works enables the researchers to gain clarification on a lot of issues. He may want to know why a particular person's name or the name of a town was mentioned in a given song. This quest may lead to the circumstances surrounding the song and the period in the people's history when it was composed. Physical contact with the people could also expose the researcher to the various rituals or performance practices associated with the ensembles.

As it is with the oral nature of African traditional songs, it may not be entirely correct to say that African music lacks theoretical literature. For example in Nigeria, ever since 1871 when it had the first music scholar (Sowande1964), musical studies from whatever viewpoint has experienced rapid growth and a lot of professional bodies have been established which devote their energies to the study of their own music. Some of them are the Association of Nigerian Musicologist (ANM) Association of Music Educations (AME) Music Therapists Associational of Nigerian (MUTAN) to mention just a few. Speaking specifically of the characteristics and functions of music in Esan, Aluede and Ekewenu (2003) Aluede and Braimah (2005) Aluede (2005), Aluede (2006), Aluede (2007) and Aluede (2008) have done much work in the provision of a body of literature which contribute to knowledge of the Esan, their musicality and musicianship. In these treatises they say music is a communal property, it is woven around every event of their lives, the songs often serve as sources of historical reconstruction, that some of their musical instruments are anthropomorphic and that some of their songs are used for therapeutic purposes. In spite of these myriads of functions of Esan music, they also hold the view that they are socially controlled lest they be grossly abused.

Talking of the potency of songs Adodo (2003) remarked that wars have been fought using songs in Yoruba communities of Western Nigeria . Merrian (1964) observed that what may seem difficult to express in words is often sung in songs effortlessly. Similarly in Esan, a reigning monarch could be easily honoured or dishonoured through songs; conflicts could be caused or resolved using music as a vehicle. Just as music was used in the holy Bible to pull down the walls of Jericho and also heal Saul of his insanity, so is music ambidextrously used in Esan. It is this scenario that this paper attempts to critically analyze relying heavily on some selected musical examples which are notated and their Esan texts translated in English with the view of ascertaining the weight of the words in connection with the people's normal values.


Element of civility in esan and in their music

Civility could be defined as “The formal politeness that results from observing social conventions or something said or done in formally polite way (Encarta Dictionaries 2008).” When addressing ones superior, age mate or a younger one in Esan, there are basic social conventions which are religiously observed. Failures in these observances are interpreted to be arrogance, disrespect or insubordination. Esan songs are of wide varieties and some have been are observed to be very polite even when the message carried is didactic, topical or philosophical.

It is worthy of note to remark that among this people, one song could fit into more than one song classification consequently, a song could be didactic, topical and even satirical. From field investigation three songs were gathered which aptly fits into this context. They are transcribed and translated below.


Eba ba men gbuhi ni men My father has warned me

Ine ne men gbuhi ni men My mother has warned me

Emoe ‘gho, emoe ‘gho Money affairs, money affairs

Ewan len be careful




De ni re ha kpo kpo nole men Rather than trouble my better

Iole za gbon no mhenmen I will ask for his favour

De ni re ha kpo kp nole men Rather than trouble my better

Iole za gbon no mhenmen I will ask for his favour


Gho mon Look at a child

Gho mon Look at a child

Gho mon-o Oh look at a child

Gho mon Look at a child

Gho mon Look at a child

Gho mon-o Oh look at a child

Omon no vin hen le A child who swears willfully

Oi yo so ria e is no ones own

In the three songs transcribed above, one could see the choice of words used in their creation. It could be said that their craftsmanship is enveloped in politeness. Song one says he has been warned by both parents to be careful in matters relating to wealth acquisition. Song two says rather than be envious of ones superior, one could ask for favour from him. Song number two warns about the spirit of envy and jealousy which could culminate to hatred. Hence its text read: rather than trouble your brother just ask for his favour. The third song says a good child should not willfully take an oath for an action he is guilty of. Song three posits that willful oath taking is bad and so any person who takes an oath over an offence which he has committed is not worthy to be called ones own. Children and indeed individuals often have behavioural problems which may be seen by parents and others as forms of maladjustment. Telling lies and even swearing to make people believe his defence or story is authentic. In Esan such a person is termed Ovinhenle - given a straight translation; it means one who has eaten his curse. In this culture, this conduct of swearing to innocence when indeed the person under oath is guilty of the offence depicts high degree or measure of wickedness, unrepentant resolve and deceitfulness. A fellow who shares the mentioned attributes above is obviously not to be hoped upon because imminent danger looms ahead of him. This looming danger could be physical or spiritual; physically he could be hurt or killed by his agnates who soon discover he is the evil one in the community or be weighed down by the several curses which he has brought upon himself by swearing to innocence.

In all, the songs are didactic and they teach listeners and performers to work in alignment with the social conventions of their people. They are constantly reminded to eschew envy, jealousy, treachery, avarice, inordinate ambition e.t.c. For example, the thrust of the first song is on the craze for money but the song reads my father has warned me, my mother has also warned me to be careful about money affairs. We can see that the singer is the one now sharing testimonies of how his parents have admonished him. By these compositional techniques of introducing elements of gerontocracy, casting of undue aspersions is drastically reduced and in entrainment situation, the audience will not be tensed up as a result of guilt feeling.


Incivility in esan and in their music

According to Encarta dictionaries (2008), incivility refers to rude or impolite behaviour or language. Put laconically, it means rude or impolite act or remark. One may wonder if a society which is essentially gerontocratic and governed by laws could still indulge in antisocial conducts making of sweeping statements, impolite behavious or actions. Yes! They do. It is done to regulate the irregular conducts of certain individuals or group of persons in the place. Discussing the corrective nature of music among the Chopi, Bascom and Heskovits (1959) state that one can well imagine the forcefulness of the reprimand conveyed to a wrong doer when he finds his deeds sung about by thirty young men before the people in the village. Nkom (1997) also says that “young men in Moro'a competing over girls may fight using songs. She remarked further that; the process may go on for months and years with new and more abusive songs composed about the rival and his family. Contrary to what happens in Moro'a community, Esan songs which depict incivility are socially controlled. Discussing a rib of such musical genres in Esan, Aluede and Ekewenu (2003:9) say,

There is a strict control on the use of Ikoghe songs. Men, women and children do not possess the powers to sing these songs on ordinary occasions. In the first case, Ikoghe songs are never rehearsed. This is so because it is not the people's wish to keep purifying infidels.


Ikoghe music is that cleansing music performed for a woman who has violated matrimonial rules by sleeping with another man other than her husband. To retune her with her immediate environment, she is cleansed using a ritual musical dance drama and during this exercise, songs of lecherous flavour are performed strictly for that day and it is never performed or talked of any other day. From the field, three songs were picked, transcribed and translated below, they are:


Ijoni ki rio le le It is John who's now vandalizing it

Orino ‘rino vandalizing it vandalizing it



Obhiaba wea re re men da My brother even if you've given me to drink

Wea re re men da obhiaba even if you've given me drink, my brother

Obhio wea re re men le My brother even if you've fed me

Wea re re men le obhiomen even if you've fed me, my brother

Onu kid a sio khonlen me bhe gbe For setting forces against me

Emianmen ha maen bhu nuo May infirmities cover your mouth



Amen ha gbi ba The rain is drenching the kitchen

Ugha ha ghon ghon The bedroom is happy

‘gha yere Bedroom remember that

Obhe su we ‘gbe someday it will be your turn



The song Ijoni above presents stylistically the Esan view of infidelity among their wives, hence the word Orinorino whose nearest English vocabulary equivalent of the to vandalize. Discussing this song in a similar parlance, Aluede and Ekewenu (2003:9) remark that:

Except on medical grounds, the nakedness of ones wife is not supposed to be seen by another man. Similarly, love making to man's wife is seen as an exercise borne out of love and tenderness; but the unknown man (the violator) is perceived of as mercilessly raped, pounded or squeezed the woman.


Obhiaba is song addresses an individual who colludes with others against his own brother. It says “in spite of your affection for providing me food and drinks, for setting others against me, may you be overwhelmed by infirmities” such abusive words are not hauled on relatives without cause. This song is usually performed when the ills of a brother towards another is exposed. Without doubt, a song like this is the precursor of amicable settlement. Once settlement is achieved, it becomes anathemeous to sing this song again. To sing this song without reason is culpable so it will be superfluous to say that its performance is socially controlled.

“The rain is drenching the kitchen. The bedroom is happy. Bedroom! Remember that someday it will be your turn” As simple and as poetic as this song text may be, it addresses not just the ordinary room and bedroom. In Esan, Kitchen roofs get weak rapidly because of the uncontrolled heat generated by fire wood and smoke; thus any little rain perforates the corrugated iron sheets. This song is sometimes sung by in a polygamous marriage by an aggrieved wife who has just been mercilessly beaten by her husband while her other mate or mates do nothing to stop their husband from the battering or abuse.

To understand what Esan songs mean is to have a firm grip of not just its texts as poems, but content and context analysis of their songs give a more accurate idea of what they are all about. While discussing song text translation using an example from East Africa , Kubik (1994) remarks that:

Ganga alula is a historical song. Ganga was a great friend of Nasolo, first born daughter of Kabaka, the king of Buganda , with whom he fell in love. He was caught and his fingers cut off, i.e. he was castrated (Kubik, 1994:66).



Without being grounded in the expressive patterns of a people, proper textual analysis may be impaired. In the quotation above, an uninformed researcher may simply regard fingers to mean the ordinary fingers on the human hand. Esan songs have proverbs and indirect speeches which require a thorough analysis. In this paper six songs were notated and translated into English for easy appreciation. Songs till today are still used in traditional communities to cause tension, resolve tension, expose societal vices and teach good morals. Apart from the fact that these very important songs are at the verge extinction, revealing ones misdeeds through songs helps to put others in check. Musicologists and ethnographers should endeavour to gather and document them because they will help give clues to scholars of Esan literature, history, sociology, philosophy religion and music about life in the epochs of Esan civilization. Since their views about life and their beliefs are kept in songs, then such songs should be treated as invaluable repositories of the people's voice.



This paper is centred on the polite and impolite use of songs as revealed in the song texts of some selected in Esan. Before discussing the texts and situating them in the context of performance, it surveyed the geographical location of the people and their traditions of origin. The study reveals the magnitude with which Esan musicians in Edo state, Nigeria consider song texts in communicating human discords, in teaching societal ideals and correcting societal ills. The author drew a serious attention to an urgent need for immediate documentation of this very rich human phenomenon which he believes will be of benefit to scholars of different persuasions in the humanities and beyond.





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*Charles Onomudo Aluede Ph.D ( Email: ), Departament of Theatre & Media Arts, Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State Nigeria.