Learn all about the spirituality behind the Iroko and one of the last remaining Ikoro drums in Igbo land.
The Ikoro drums used to be an important feature in the way of life of the Igbo people. In fact, the 250-year-old Ikoro Obibiaku drum still stands in Umunze, Anambra.
When it came to ceremonial affairs in ancient Igbo land, points of reference usually include: the village square, gods/ancestors and music.
These are major pillars in the Igbo cultural community, among others. The village square was where everyone gathered whenever there was a ceremony and the ancestors were had to receive appellation before the events could start. Music transcended the type of event in question. Whether it was a wrestling match or crowning, there was always music.
Music in the ancient Igbo land involved Udu, Opi/Oja flute, Ogene and of course, the drum. There are actually many types of drum in Igbo cultural music but the Ikoro slit drum is of most significance.
The slit drum
To appreciate the cultural significance of the drum, one has to understand the importance of trees in Igbo spirituality.
According to top Igbo historians, Ukpuru explain this: “Trees are important in Igbo spirituality as symbols of life and channels to the earth force. A child’s umbilical cord is buried with a newly planted fruit tree (ili alo) — this becomes the child’s tree of life (nkwu alo) which secures lands, confirms the child’s blood relation, and bonds them with the Earth Mother, Ala.
Settlements were named after plants, like achara (bamboo), uga, and ahiara (giant leaf grass), many started at the base of large trees. They are ritual, the ogirisi for the deceased, abosi, ngwu a symbol of wisdom (where the term okongwu comes from), agba, ogbu (fig tree) often used for the living, and so on.”
To an average Igbo person, the Iroko is the king of all trees. When a great person dies, “an Iroko has fallen” is a common euphemism. It is also believed that the Iroko houses spirits and is a portal for the ancestors. It is a symbol of resilience, strength and virility.
“Oji (Milicia excelsa), commonly known as iroko, is a very large tree considered to have mystical powers. It was planted near shrines to give the same impression as a cathedral. Oji stands for strength, nobility, and resilience. Its wood is used for important ritual items.”
The Ikoro were big community slit drums of Igbo people.
It is a slit drum that consists of two horizontal slits and produces a distinctively hollow sound, usually vigorously played with two sticks. Sometimes, it is played using fists with tremendous effort. Ikoro experience involves architecture, music, dance drama, sculpture, politics, and warfare, religion and orature. The tree is picked by the deity and cut down and then carved. The Ikoro is played during wars, festivals and other great events including emergencies like wars. It conveys messages across communities that own them.
Most communities seek the Iroko for the construction of their slit drum because of its massive, tough and durable nature.
The history of Ikoro Obibiaku
In the village of Umunze in Orumba north Local Government of Anambra state, lives an Ikoro drum right in the middle of the market, Nkwo.
According to a research paper published by University of Nigeria in 1990, the giant Ikoro wooden slit drum of Umunze is made from a single oji (Iroko) tree. Carved about 250 years ago, its diameter is about 250cm compared to a normal cylindrical slit drum of diameter a little above 30cm. The Ikoro Obibiaku is about 8 feet tall, big, heavy, expensive and physically imposing. G.T. Basden (1921) found out about the drum in the early 20th century and called it the “wonderful tom tom of Umunze.”
In his documentation, he wrote about the story of how the Ikoro Obibiaku was constructed. A skilled carver from Amawbia was hired to carve the monumental ikoro Obibiaku for Umunze Comrnmity and was promised a very large fee on condition that he produced a larger drum than any possessed by other towns in the district. At the end of the exercise, he was paid and allowed to leave. However, on his way home, he was waylaid and led back to the market square where he was sacrificed to the ikoro drum which his hands produced.
This was how most carvings took place. A carver might be commissioned to work on a particular drum only to be killed and sacrificed to the drum at the near completion of the drum and another carver is commissioned to complete the carving. The reason is to prevent a highly gifted carver from repeating the same drum type for another community. Sometimes, a carver is allowed to finish the job before he is killed, just like in this case.
No community would take kindly to any mistake that would spoil the massive wood block so it takes monumental experience, expertise and patience of a skilled carver.
The Ikoro Obibiaku was used to give coded messages during the civil war of 1967-1970.
In 1990, large numbers of ikoro drums still existed in Ohafia, Arochukwu, Bende and Afikpo area, Lokpanta, Lokpa Ukwu, Umazuru, Umuyoto in Okigwe area, Owerri-Ezukala, Ajalli , Ogbunka, Nkerefi, Umuchue, Eziaqu, Achina, Uga, Isuofia, Ezira, and Umunze. But with religion and modernisation, we fear that many of these drums would have been disposed of.
A twitter user reported that one of such drums was recently burnt down by a church in Anambra.