What are the Yoruba Sonnets? Interview with Lekan Babalola
Ahead of the Yoruba Sonnets concert at Wolfson College, Oxford on 15 February, we spoke to Grammy Award-winning Lekan Babalola about the upcoming performance and what inspired him to pair ancient Nigerian verse with the contemporary sound of Western Funk.
What are the Yoruba Sonnets?
The Yoruba sonnets are the sacred word from Oludumare (God) that came down through the Babalawo (priests) to the people. They are sacred verses within the Ifa divination that interpret the present, past life and future. The Ifa divination is an oral tradition where an Ifa priest recites the verses that relate to the Odu that is revealed after divination, which is undertaken by people who are looking to resolve a problem or have questions about their lives.
Why did you choose to perform the Yoruba Sonnets?
I am a descendant of the Yoruba priesthood, so as an English boy may look to Shakespeare for inspiration, I look to the Yoruba Sonnets.
I went to Art college in the UK and whilst there I was asked all the time, 'Where are you from?' In Nigeria, all you know is your name and your family heritage. Being asked where I was from acted as a reminder to me to dig deep into my tradition. Through the Yoruba Sonnets performance, I am contemporising my Yoruba tradition through music and art.
Why pair the sonnets with Western Funk music?
During the transatlantic slave trade from Africa to the New World, the Africans developed their own art forms such as Calypso in Trinidad, Reggae in Jamaica, and the Blues in North America. The Yoruba Sonnets performance is rooted in this music. It's important to make reference to the music that came out of the African diaspora, such as funk, because it all has its roots in Africa.
What role will mime play in the performance?
Dr Olu Taiwo, the spoken word artist I have worked with in unpacking the verses of the Yoruba divination, is also a dancer who works with movement. The mime is to make the performance more accessible to people generally by integrating another sensory approach, which deepens the audience's understanding of what is happening and the experience of the piece as a whole.
The Icon of creativity in the Yoruba Pantheon, Obatala, is very inclusive. So it was important for us to make the performance as inclusive as possible.
What does language mean to you?
Language means freedom of communication and freedom of expression. Our band members are from diverse backgrounds but we can communicate through the notes and the rhythm. I'm in a privileged position to understand my language to a point and therefore to be able to do comparative studies with English. Once I understand what the Yourba sonnets are saying, I can use my experience and awareness of English to translate it for people in this country.
All forms of language mean a lot to me: sign language, body language, computer language... they all play an important role in the modern world.
You’ve been working with Professor Rajinder Dudrah on the Slanguages project – has working on Slanguages changed your view of language and its relationship with performance?
When I came to this country, it could be difficult among the people of colour – the fact you have an African accent was like a crime in Black British culture. To have someone like Professor Dudrah saying that it's all right to have your own language – it's a relief. It gives me hope.
Through colonisation around the world, the Europeans imposed their language through religion. However, you now see the British government (and other European governments) producing documents in numerous languages, such as Yoruba, Swahili, Arabic etc. They have begun to realise that we need to translate into one another’s cultures.
Do you have future plans for Yoruba Sonnets?
The Yoruba Sonnets is being recorded and will be released as an EP. The plan is to take it around the world and develop it as a multimedia project. This performance in Oxford will be dealing with just one chapter and 11 verses of the Yoruba Sonnets – there are 16 chapters in all, so there is still much to explore.
I also have an album coming out this year, called Mr Lakaaye, which is a tribute to the Icon of metal and civilisation.
We still have some tickets for the Yoruba Sonnets concert – book now! Tickets are free but registration is required.