Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian writer and linguist living and working in Lagos. He is a Fulbright Fellow and received the Premio Ostana Special Prize for Mother Tongue Literature in 2016. He writes in Yorùbá and English and was Speech Linguistic Manager at Google Nigeria for a while. Kọ́lá founded interesting internet projects on Yorùbá language, is known as a critic and journalist. He tells us about his work, spreading contemporary Yorùbá culture around the globe.
We publish regularly interviews with inspiring people from around the world, who are involved in Yorùbá culture. Stay connected on www.facebook.com/orishaimage and get the latest updates.
Moussa: Kọ́lá, you grew up in a household that was dedicated to traditional Yorùbá culture. Your father, the famous folk poet Ọlátúbọ̀sún Ọládàpọ̀, published 29 books written in Yorùbá. He truly was a cultural entrepreneur, ran a record company, signed 200 local artists and produced more than 50 albums of Yorùbá folk music and poetry, among them the Dúró Ládiípọ̀ International Theatre. How was it to grow up surrounded by these vibrant traditional art forms?
Kọ́lá: At the time, I had no idea who those people were. I only knew that the house always brimmed with activities of various kinds. There was always a stranger in our house at each point in time and they all seemed to know him and get along. My father also had a habit of waking us up to loud record albums from turntables and loudspeakers, so it was like living in a music studio. But when I was growing up, I started to realise that he was an important person. He was on radio every weekend so he was famous all around Ibadan and, as I later realised, even way beyond. Later, I got to know what he did, got involved in the business for a while, and followed him around Yorùbáland as he went about doing many projects. I even tried my hands at Yorùbá poetry.
You must have an incredible and unique musical archive of Yorùbá folk music. Have you ever thought of releasing some digital reissues of the vinyl LPs?
I am currently working with him to have all of his musical archive available on iTunes for people to buy. I have been working on this for years now, actually, but it has never worked out because I had no idea how iTunes works from th record label’s angle. The last time I tried a Nigerian agent, he disappeared and the works have yet to show up online. The industry doesn’t seem easy to navigate, except for work that is not contemporary or hip-hop which has a ready market. Yet everywhere I go, particularly while I lived in the United States, I found so many people who wanted to get these tapes but didn’t know how, and were ready to pay for them. Easier to let them buy it on iTunes than having to fly to Nigeria just for a few CDs. A few of these albums showed up on YouTube a while ago, but I got them removed. If we can manage to get them all on iTunes, then we can go ahead and release a few for free streaming on YouTube. But not before. Many of those artists still have descendants living who can benefit from royalties of their dead relatives’ work.
Your father also was known as an Ìjálá chanter, poetry usually performed by the hunters’ guild associated with Òrìṣà Ògún. Are the Òrìṣà still worshipped in your family?
He’s known mostly as an ewì (Yorùbá oral poetry) exponent, but I was told that he got into this profession by winning a public Ìjálá chanting competition as a young man. I haven’t seen him do any Ìjálá as an adult, so it must have been a passing phase. However, we trace our lineage to Ìrè Èkìtì which is where Ògún himself came from. So, in a way, he is our family’s totem. But there was no form of worship as far as I know. Just mere symbolisms and poetry. All our oríkì have basis in Ògún and that’s where it ends. I speak for my immediate family, of course. It’s possible that there are exceptions in the extended.
The books your father published are known to us Yorùbá language students, like the play ‘Ògún Lákáayé’. There is a wide range of books about traditional culture, written in Yorùbá language. Many of them are beautifully illustrated. Unfortunately most of them are hard to find, as they all were originally published in the 1960s. What was so special during this period, that made publishing in native language so popular? Was there more support from the state, or was it just the work of certain individuals like your father?
I suspect that the pioneering atmosphere of those times, and the sustained interest of (British) publishing establishment made things easy. Most of the books published in Yorùbá came between 1950 and 1980 or so. After that, by which time the military had messed up almost every industry including publishing, demand had fallen. The cost of sustaining a publishing enterprise for what was by then seen as a niche market had gone up so high that few people even wanted to try. It was the enabling environment that allowed my father and many of his contemporaries to thrive. Many like him also got lucky to have their books recommended for reading in Yorùbá language classes around the country, which drove sales. But interest in local language education also declined as time went on, until Nigerian languages were finally removed them from the syllabus, putting a final nail in the coffin of what had been a sick and slowly dying patient. In the eighties, he also published a weekly Yoruba news magazine called Ọ̀kín Ọlọ́jà. I think he ran about a year’s worth before that business went out as well perhaps due to demand, or due to cost of production.
In 2012 you started a Twitter campaign demanding to include Yorùbá as one of the languages for automatic translation – a campaign that was successful. Now you are running the website www.yorubaname.com, where people can search for the meaning of their Yorùbá names. Who is the target audience for your project?
There are three broad audiences for the project. One, of course, are Yorùbá people many of whom have either forgotten the meaning of their names or do not want to forget it so they need a place to record what they know of the provenance of their or their family names. By providing an online platform for this, we help them preserve the names and their meanings. We also help them interact with other names and their meanings in case they’re looking for unique names to give their children. The second audience are foreigners who are also divided into two categories. There are those who interact with Yorùbá people on a daily basis in their workplaces or as friends, and who would like to know what the meaning of their friends’ names or how to pronounce them. This also includes journalists who probably have to interview Nigerians or Nigerian-Americans/Nigerian-British people, etc, with Yorùbá names. We want to provide resources for them to learn how to pronounce these names. And then there are other foreigners (Yorùbá people in diaspora: Cuba, Brazil, Jamaica, etc) who need to connect to Yorùbá on a spiritual level either just for knowledge or so that they can choose new names for themselves. The third audience are linguists and language learners/teachers. The project is set up in a way that those interested in learning more about Yorùbá or about tonal languages in general may find enough materials there to use. Names are broken down into their morphological components so that Yorùbá learners might be able to use the meaning of names to learn how Yorùbá works on a phonological level. We have geolocation tags for these names. We also intend to have all the names written in the IPA alphabet so that the data from the project can be used for future linguistics research.
In the diaspora the term “Yorùbá” is used as the name of a religion. Though not fluent in the language every initiate into Òrìṣà gets a spiritual Yorùbá name. You have worked with Babaláwo Nathan Lugo, who knows the Cuban and Nigerian Òrìṣà traditions, on the inclusion of Lukumí names into your database. I think it is not well-known in Nigeria, that such a strong community connected to Yorùbá culture exists abroad. I remember showing a Yorùbá friend a video from a Cuban Òrìṣà festival with bàtá drumming. She asked me: “What are all the Nigerians doing there?” and I said “No, these are the Cubans!” Did you get any reactions like that in Lagos?
It was most endearing for me to discover the deep involvement of the Yorùbá diaspora in the religion which we seem to have let go of. I used to complain (and worry) that one day, we’d have to pay money to learn these things back from the diaspora. But now I realise that it was a wrong-headed worry. I should celebrate the fact that this element of our being has survived and is thriving elsewhere when we no longer care for them. It is our loss, but a gain for the culture, and for those to whom it is an important connection to the continent. But to your point, yes, not many Nigerians know this and they’re usually surprised to see white-skinned people immersed in the culture. When you say “I’m Yorùbá” in Nigeria, you’re merely referring to an ethnic and cultural identity, without the religion. In Cuba or Brazil, being Yorùbá means the same thing as being Christian or Muslim in Nigeria. It’s a religious identification, which is unique, because those who identify with it usually carry a different cultural and ethnic identification. I find it quite endearing. It’s a curious phenomenon. We have let go of the third leg of our tripod of being, and acquired a different one, while the Afro/European descendants in the new world have taken what we left and incorporated it into theirs while letting go of what they have found insufficient in filling a spiritual void. Everybody wins. And somehow, everyone thinks the other is doing it wrong.
Your sister is married to the recently crowned Ọọ̀ni of Ile-Ife, Adéyẹyè Ẹniìtàn Ògúnwùsì. On social media platforms I saw that while he toured through the US he met prominent figures of Yorùbá Òrìṣà religion in the diaspora. I am sure you have been talking about that – is the transatlantic Yorùbá connection now put officially on the agenda?
My sister is not married to him - that’s someone else. But in 1994, when they were both 20 years old, he (by which time I only knew him as “Brother Yẹyè”) had a child with my sister. That’s his only child, Adéọlá, my first niece. He and my sister are co-parents so I guess we’re in-laws in that way. Yes, I followed the news about his US trip very closely, and especially loved the fact that he went with all the cultural paraphernalia of his office: the brass bells, the loud drums, the trumpets and bugles, etc. I had earlier worried that the stoic sterility of American cities would curtail or constrain excessive displays of royal cultural performance. But it wasn’t the case. They were as loud and boisterous as they would otherwise be in Ifẹ̀ and I found that very satisfying. As per transatlantic connections, I have no doubt that talks are underway, and not just with the Ọọ̀ni. Even with the Aláàfin as well, who is the political head of the Yorùbá nation. I know that there are annual (or other regular) trips done from the new world to Nigeria and vice versa, and that will continue. I’m more concerned with using the tools I have in language and technology to continue to connect the Yorùbá diaspora in whatever way I can.
Can you give us an example from your database? What’s the meaning of your full name Kọ́láwọlé Olúgbémiró Ọlátúbọ̀sún?
Kọ́láwọlé means “(One who) bring(s) wealth into the house”. It’s a name typically given to the first (male) child born in a house newly built/acquired by the parents. I was the first child born in our new home in Àkóbọ̀ which my parents moved into in the late 70s. Olúgbémiró means “The lord/the prominent one upheld me”, while Ọlátúbọ̀sún means “Wealth or nobility continues to expand.”
In the past I tried to install a Yorùbá Keyboard on my Mac but it never worked out and got really complicated, as my keyboard has a German and not the American layout. You also developed a free Yorùbá Keyboard software. How does it work and where is it available for download?
Sorry about your problem with the key layout. We realised early enough that what we had thought would solve all problems with tone marking had actually created a few more for different people. To resolve that, we’re working towards having different customized ones for German-style or French-style or British-style keyboards. I still have the same problem myself, because my computer has an American-style keyboard. But whenever I’m using the YorùbáName keyboard layout, which is made in the British style, I have to readjust my brain to the position of the @ sign. But it at least works for most of what I need it for. Users can get it at blog.yorubaname.com. It is free.
As a linguist you also teach Yorùbá to students abroad via Skype. Many misconceptions of the language exist among the practitioners. Recently a Cuban Olórìṣà told me he wants to learn the “old Yorùbá” the slaves were speaking to understand today’s prayers. But after four generations without fluent speakers of the mother tongue you can imagine how this “Yorùbá” sounds. He thought the old dictionary from the Christ Missionary Society is more adequate. On the other hand also the Olórìṣà in Nigeria told me that Ifá verses use a “deep Yorùbá” not easy to understand. Please tell us, is there a “deep” or “old” Yorùbá?
Yes, there is. But dictionaries won’t tell us much, though they can certainly be of some help. What we can easily glimpse from old dictionaries and the Yorùbá bible are the changes in spelling conventions over time, and - of course - old words many of which are no longer in use. But the language as used in the days of slavery would be hard to reconstruct indeed. Except as an academic exercise, I don’t think we can succeed in reviving them either, but I can be wrong. I understand the allure. There are some words now whose morphology we can’t unlock anymore, while other items exist for which we don’t even have Yorùbá words. “Alùbọ́sà” is one of these - the word for “onion”. What we currently use comes from Arabic/Hausa. It’s the same for “àláfíà”, our word for “peace”. Am I to believe that we never had any word for “peace” in the language before we encountered Hausa? Highly unlikely. I tried to study the Odù ifá a while ago and realised that plenty of the words and terms in there are no longer used in modern Yorùbá. So, if it is some consolation, practitioners in the diaspora should know that we down here have much of the same issues with the religious language. In some ways, it might be like what Latin has now become. Useful in science and Catholicism, but useless anywhere else. But I’m a linguist so I shouldn’t encourage despondency. With the tools at our disposal, who knows what we can create, or find, in the future.
This one you might like, it is out of the book of a famous Cuban Olórìṣà, who is into the re-Africanization movement of the Yorùbá traditions there. He says “Yorùbá” comes from a phrase that was used in Ọ̀yọ́, he writes it like this: Oyo rú ọba, translated as “the people from Oyo betrayed the king”. Where does the term come from?
I answered this question on Quora recently, actually. Let me quote from that answer here: ‘According to Johnson’s “The History of the Yorùbás”(1897), Europeans first encountered the name through the Hausa who called the people the “Yarriba” people. So, whether the name “Yorùbá” is a corruption of “Yarriba” is up for debate. What we know for sure is that the people called now by that name didn’t always refer to themselves by it. They called themselves the Ọ̀yọ́ people, the Ẹ̀gbá people, the Èkìtì people, the Ìbàdàn people, etc, which were individual nation-states constantly at war with each other.’
As far as I’m concerned, any new interpretation of the term now is an academic exercise which is good in itself, but ultimately meaningless in the large scheme of things. People still individually present themselves as either Ọ̀yọ́ or Ìjẹ̀bú, Àkúrẹ́, etc, which is probably more helpful as far as etymology and anthropology is concerned.
Recently as a journalist you published a series of reports in the Nigerian newspaper The Guardian about the demolition of the Ìlọ́jọ̀ Bar, also called Casa do Fernandez, in Lagos. The building was national heritage and built by returned Yorùbá slaves in Afro-Brazilian architectural styles in 1855. What went wrong there?
It’s a sad story of governmental incompetence, mixed signals, family intrigue, and general nonchalance. The building had been there since about 1855. It was bought by the Ọláìyá family in 1933 and “acquired” by the government as a national monument in 1956. I used quote marks on “acquired” because the colonial government who did this had not compensated the family nor done anything to protect the building other than a public declaration that it was a monument. They put it in the official gazette and that was it. When Nigeria gained independence, the building was passed onto the Nigerian government who also did nothing to care for it, except once in 1984 when they did a few things with the roofing. But they also didn’t compensate the family, which would have helped them leave and resettle elsewhere. But they (the government) kept warning that the family shouldn’t touch or modify or renovate the building in any way. So when, a few years ago, Lagos State started harassing the family as to the unsuitability of the building for habitation, warning that it would be forcefully taken from them if it ever fell under its own state of disrepair, they applied for a demolition permit and pulled it down. The fact that the state hadn’t communicated with the federal government to prevent this from happening is the biggest scandal there. The permit should not have been given. They treated it like any other private building and then pretended, after the damage was done, that they had no knowledge of what was happening. (Those interested in long reads can find the five-part report here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
The returned Afro-Brazilian slaves made up 10% of Lagos’ inhabitants in 1850 and with their experience from abroad they shaped the economy and culture of the native Yorùbá people. I read that the idea of a single Yorùbá people developed with the return of the former slaves, who united in the cruel oppression of the diaspora, although they came from different kingdoms and spoke different dialects. Ajayi Crowther, who also grew up abroad, wrote the first study on Yorùbá language. This means that the idea of a Yorùbá culture to a certain extent was from the beginning created as a transatlantic or diaspora phenomenon. How do you think about that?
That’s an interesting, and quite plausible interpretation, because as late as 1830 in Abẹ́òkuta, when the Lagos elites of returned ex-slaves were already trying to form a nation of themselves, Yorùbá cities were still warring and sacking each other’s villages, for enslavement. It made sense that returnees many of who longer had nor boldly professed ethnic identities were better placed to form a united nation out of its disparate parts. Fẹlá Kútì’s grandfather on his mother’s side was also a returnee ex-slave from Iléṣà who was going to go back home after being freed and trained in Sierra Leone but changed his mind later and settled at Abẹ́òkuta. You could see from the pedigree of his descendants that the idea of a unified nation of Yorùbá people dedicated to a new common goal of freedom and justice came from that kind of shared suffering. Many of them helped translate the bible into a standard Yorùbá, used Yorùbá as a common tag for themselves, and stamped their common culture on governance and other matters. So yes, I’ll agree with that. There are plenty books waiting to be written about those heroes of our immediate past.
Ok ooo, we are waiting for your books to come! Thank you, Kọ́lá, for the interview.
O ṣeun púpọ̀. It has been my pleasure.