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ONUCHE, Godwin: Re-Invigorating the Indigenous Flute in African Dance Performance

Re-Invigorating the Indigenous Flute in African Dance Performance


Department of Theatre Arts

Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Kogi State University, Anyigba


GSM: +234-803-601-4156; +234-905-062-7821


This study examines the place of the indigenous African flute as an instrument of communication in dance performance. In this context, the study attempts to explore the efficacy of the flute in encouraging vocational and entrepreneurial skills with a view to job creation. The study is informed by the fact that, over the decades, scholars and performing arts practitioners have failed to adequately develop the indigenous musical aerophone instruments such as the flute, especially for purposes of communication in contemporary setting, given the scientific and technological trends in a globalized economy. The study is of the assumption that, the flute is a key indigenous musical instrument of communication in Africa, which has the capacity of not just creating jobs, but contributing to social and economic development in Nigeria. Employing a descriptive methods approach, Personal interview and participant observatory research instruments were used in the study. The need to place more emphasis on indigenous musical instruments, especially the flute as a means of cultural exchange and generating employment beyond its primary functions of entertainment, mobilisation, education and information within the matrix of African worldview and local perspectives is hereby seriously highlighted.


It is a truism that music in the African context served as a moving force, which propelled action towards an end in achieving a specific goal or objective. As Idolo Kofi succinctly puts it, “the didactic function of music is effected through logical organisation of lyrics and performance practice”. He further asserted that “some lyrics are presented in direct or indirect satire while other activities in the performance teach both the viewers and the participant the coded lesson(s)” (66). The manipulation of the African indigenous Flute Instrument is in this category. It produces melodious tunes which in turn triggers exhilarating experience.  There is often a conceptual confusion about traditional medium of communication. This is because, at the mentioning of the term “traditional,” the general view or notion is that it is something out-dated or primitive. It is disheartening to note how people are filled with the erroneous belief and misconception that the African indigenous flute is inferior, archaic and barbaric. However, the truth remains in Des Wilson assertion that, “though, the indigenous instrument of communication or the traditional system of communication generally, may seems to be so old and different in their ways and methods from the Western system of communication, they remain  essentially  what sustains the information and aesthetic needs of the rural populace” (104).

Functionally, the indigenous instrument of communication in African music and dance performance symbolized by the “flute” teaches through logical organisation of lyrics and performance practice in a coded form.  They are coded lessons and information in the African music and dance practice. Unfortunately, this revered instrument of communication within the purview of African context is relegated to the background. The study therefore, submits the need to place more emphasis on the indigenous musical instruments of communication symbolized by the flute as a means of creating wealth, cultural exchange, and generating employment beyond its primary function of entertainment, mobilisation, education, and information beyond the matrix of African worldview.

Theoretical Framework

This paper leans on the hypodermic needle theory. It is a theory of communication that underscores the effectiveness of the media as powerful instrument of communication. It believes that media messages more often than not are injected directly into the brains of the passive audience. The theory further advocates that, we are all equal and there is a possibility of responding to the information or messages in a similar way.

This implied that messages through the channel of communication symbolised by the flute instrument is capable of having a direct, immediate and powerful effect on its audience. By implication, the means of communication symbolised by the traditional flute is capable of influencing a large group of people with similar frame of reference directly by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger a desired response. The bullet theory suggests that the message is a bullet fired from the ‘media gun’ into the spectators ‘head.’ The ‘flute’ instrument and its music are capable of influencing attitudinal or behavioural change amongst dancers as well as the spectators if properly executed. The exponents of this theory are Hegel, Hobbes, and Machiavelli.

African Traditional Aerophone-Flute

In the classification of African musical instruments, the aerophone [wind instruments] are the media, which produce sound as a result of the manipulation of the air through the oesophagus with the aid of tongue-twisting, making the air to vibrate in the instrument. In the process, sound is produced as a result of the vibration of column of air in the mouth through the instrument.

Richard avers that the aerophone include the instruments of the flute family; it can be made from materials with a natural bore such as bamboo or the tip of a horn or guard. The instruments depend on the manipulation of the column of air to produce sound. Some are skilfully or majorly carved out of wood by the blacksmiths especially those who are grounded in the tradition of music making while others are made from the rubber pipe especially the type found in the northern parts of Nigeria. The other types of the flute family are the horns and the elephant tusks. The performer makes use of the air and his ability to manipulate the air and the fingers through the open stops as he breath into it by blowing the air. The vibration of the column of air into the instrument helps to produce the sound and the melodious tunes.

The flute instruments are of different types, the male and the female type depending on the production of its sound. The Igbo call it Oja, the Hausa call it Tsarewa, and while the Igala name it Olili or Ufele. Below is the diagram of the flute instrument and its illustration:








Generally, in creating sound from the traditional blown instruments, the air serves as one of the major components that set up vibrations in producing musical tones. A series of open stops along the part of the tube or instrument enables a variety of notes to be produced. By opening and closing the stops, the vibrating length varies. Some of the traditional wind instruments produced single or few notes such that they cannot play melodies independently. Examples of this are the “Amade”in Gboko of Benue State, Kara of the Berom people of plateau State. However, the number of the stops varies from one type to the other. In all, the act of fluting could also act as an entrepreneurial skill capable of creating employment for the African youths and the entire populace who knows his root, his community, and the environments.

Communicative Function of the Flute in Traditional Context

Life generally is sustained by communication. The flute is one of the major instruments of communication in African dance performance. Messages produced through this medium are in codes which require people to decode. According to Jones, African music is “a language which encodes emotions, aspirations and people’s goals in autonomous and self-expressive art form” (75).

Among the Igala of Kogi State, for instance, the yodelling and sonorous sounds of the flute can stir one’s spirit to bring out the best in one’s agility as a listener or dancer. In the same way, the flute has very important communicative value for religious or funeral rites. Besides, it is evident that hunters are usually assembled from their various locations in a community for an important expedition with the aid of indigenous flute which plays special tunes at dawn. More so, in some other parts of Nigeria, it has been confirmed that, people who miss their path ways in the forest are helped to trace their ways back home with the language of the flute. In the same vein, some people considered flute music as something human, which originated as a way for spiritual communication.

There is often a widespread belief that each of the spirits inhabiting the world possesses its own specific sound. In my personal experience as a professional flutist, each time one performs to the admiration of one’s spectators, one gets rightly nicknamed “spokesman of the ancestors.” This attests to the fact that, one communicates the message of our ancestors through the flute because of the spiritual under tone. Others term one ‘Egwu,’ meaning, the ‘masquerade.’ This is because in some part of Africa, especially in Nigeria, the voice of the spirit is believed to be heard through the objects that are used to represent the gods or through musical instruments such as the flutes, the drum, and the bullroarer. This experience, in no mean way often puts the flutist or the dancers in trance. This claim is supported by Andrew Horns assertion that,

Once possessed by the spirit, he is effectively no longer himself and cannot be addressed by his accustomed name. His body and mind have been occupied by the force and he speaks with its voice, not his own. In such a state, he as the spirit can directly approach the favours information (184).

The spirit in this context is embedded in the flute. It is capable of taking both the flutist and the dancers into another level of performance. This often seems mysterious and impracticable except you understand the techniques and possess the skill of displaying with the instrument. The forces that occupy his mind and thought is no longer ordinary, the frenzy of the dance practice is an ingredient capable of influencing both the dancers and the flutist into an unbelievable spiritual realm.

The Act of Fluting in Traditional African Dance Performance

The act of fluting is a skill that x-ray and exposes human rhythmic sense. Within the ambiance of African musical context, flutist is a rhythmic personality. Bakare affirms in his Rudiments of Choreography that, RHYTHM is the underline beat that animates human movements in dance; but on other way round, the flute rhythm is part of the underlining notation that underscores as well as triggers the totality of movements in most African dance practices including its musical performances. This is because; the flute is capable of dictating the dance-steps and serves as a tempo-key with the support of other instruments in dance practice. This in turn gives room to the vigorous rhythmic movement of the dancers. It is a pointer that creates the mood of the dance. In other words, it is the salt of the music among the African musical instruments that trigger the dancers into the climax of the performance. For instance, it will be unreasonable to stage Agbaka dance performance amongst the Igala people of Kogi State without the accompaniment of the flute. This is because in Agbaka dance performance, the flutist dictates the dance steps during performance. He initiates the song with the flute, re-enforces the mood, he cues the dancer into action vis-à-vis the expected tempo in dance movement. An illustration is given below to demonstrate this popular Agbaka song for the dance steps in a performance:

Flute Tune: Ode chaboo

Chorus:       Ode chaboo

Now listen as he dictates the steps for the dancers through the flute.

Flute Tune: Me dago dedemi yoyoyoyo,me dago dedemiii yo.

At the hearing of the aforementioned sound from the flutist, the dancers already know the dance steps to take. There is often a “Speech rhythm” in English language; this could also be noticed in African flute rhythm. Just as the speech rhythm of a particular ethnic group could affects their drum rhythm, the speech rhythm of a particular ethnic group could also affects the flutes rhythm of the people. This is exactly what the African flute does. Every ethnic group in Nigeria knows and identify with his musical rhythm. By and large, as a result of misplacement of our values in western culture, we failed to encourage the skill of fluting. As Chris Ugolo succinctly asserts,

since the time immemorial, man has used music and dance for his spiritual, physical, social, economic and political development. It has served the needs of man especially in his attempt to reach equilibrium in survival strategy (212).

As a matter of fact, the act of fluting is a survival strategy. In the writers’ personal experience, he never played the flute instrument without some economic value. The spectators always appreciated one in kind and cash. In Africa, the skill of fluting is an entrepreneurial activity. One can acquired it either by observation, imitation and the ability of learners to indicate interest in his people and culture through music and dance practice. In an attempt for man to survive, he creates his instruments, puts them into use for his economic and social benefits. The flutists can performed either by standing, sitting or squatting depending on the comfortable position chosen by the performer. Only very skilful flutist performs as well as communicates and dances to the rhythm during performance.

Thesis on African Traditional Flutist

It is disheartening to note that, upon the level of patronage enjoyed by the flutist especially in Nigeria, it does not attract incentive and social acceptance by the Nigerian society. The indigenous flute music art and the flutists are appreciated, welcomed and even loved; ironically, the same society treats the flutist with disdain. In actual fact, however, the flutist is evidently considered as archaic, barbaric and one who does not move with time. He is the least respected individual when it comes to the scheme of things. He suffers humiliation, ignominy and often slighted where important issues that matter to the society are being discussed.

Recently, this writer was with a professional colleague, Sunday Igbaba, relaxing at our leisure time. Then the inspiration came in the process, at that instance, I suddenly dipped hands into my pocket, picked my “second pen” (the flute). Amidst the climax of our relaxation, the echo of the flute rendered the air; and then the people gathered within the vicinity were caught in amazement with some air of happiness. They identified immediately with our table by asking us to demand whatever drinks from the bar man. Lo and behold, a man who seems to be somehow ill-informed from another region of the community frowned at my display with the flute. In his opinion, the flute was connected with evil people and could be used by rainmakers to stop rain, though his assumption may be totally out of place in my professional experience. However, his claim may buttress the point on the mystery or sacred nature of the flute. In any case, majority of the people encouraged me to continue. This scenario attests to the fact that, in most cases, we do not value or recognize what we have in our culture. We would rather celebrate Western musical instruments and their music which are alien to our culture; and most of them do not add much didactic value for our youths, and encourage deviant activities. Apart from that, our cultures and traditions are unique and worthy in contributing to the economic and social development of our nation.

Within the ambience of African context, the flutist is a musician in his own way. This is because he makes music through his flute. Okafor opined that,

There are the academics – Western-trained – musicians who are trained in all the rudiments and theories of the art and perhaps, the other people – gifted, excellent performers – who may not be trained academically or formally in the art, but whose natural talents release music which the society accepts (3).

Drawing from the above, though majority of the African flutists may not have attained western education, they use their instruments and skills to communicate. Better still, they may be non-literate, yet their music is generally acceptable by their society. Their music evokes, moves, expresses, and above all inspires the people. Unfortunately, in the society in which we are, the fate of the ‘flute and the flutist’ may not be well defined. On the whole, the following recommendations are made in the next section.


This paper recommends that, traditional media symbolised by the flute musical instrument of communication should be encouraged to an appreciable level to mobilise the people, especially the grass roots level for community development and national consciousness. Every serious mass-oriented development programme, especially in the rural communities in Africa, ever succeeds without the active involvement of the practitioners within the traditional system. Therefore, their music and language which they understand should be developed and used to encourage this kind of orientation.

The traditional media or the instrument of communication in Africa serves as a source of cultural, political, health, and other educational and enlightenment programmes for the masses. This will lead to self-actualization and national development through the acquisition of the skills. Through songs or theatre performances, traditional media provide education in the norms and mores of the society. This will in no mean way help in encouraging cultural exchange.

Through traditional instruments of communication, announcement, directives and instructions are often dished out on the activities of the society. Rural people often seek information on how they can improve their situations. The best way to do this is using the indigenous language and instruments they understand to better their lives and the society in general.

This paper also encourages scientific and technological knowledge for the improvement in the use of traditional communication tools. The flute should be considered as part of entrepreneurial activity, which could generate employment amongst the Nigerian youths.


It can be concluded from the foregoing that indigenous flute is a veritable tool of communication in African dance performance and not just an entertaining art.  Given due attention and positive consideration to indigenous means of communication in Africa is an entrepreneurial activity towards job creation, thus encouraging more benefits in the upliftment of social, cultural, religious, economic as well as educational advancement of the African people.

Works Cited

Adaji, Sunday. Personal Interview. 20 June 2015.

Alkali, Domatob, & Abubakar Jika. African Media Issues. Enugu: Delta Publications, 1990.

Bakare, Ojo Rasaki. Rudiments of Choreography. Lagos: Dat & Partners Logistic Ltd, 2004.

------------. “The underdevelopment of the Professional Dancer in Nigeria.” In The Parnassus: University of Uyo Journal of Cultural Research, 1(1), 2002.

Horn, Andrews. “From Ritual Music to Theatre: A Case Study of the Development of Music through the Theatre.” In:  Nigeria Theatre Journal 2(1), 1998.

Idolo, Kofi. The Breast of the Earth: A Summary of History, Culture and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara. New York: NOK, 2005.

Jones, A. M. Studies in African Music London: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Okafor, Richard. Music in Nigerian Society. Enugu: New Generation Books, 2005.

Ugolo, Chris E. “Dance Pedagogy in Nigeria: Experience and Challenges.” In Perspectives in Nigerian Dance Studies. Lagos: Caltop Publications Ltd, 2007.