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Exclusive: Starlight Cultural Group: An exposé on Ibibio Traditional Music

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Traditional music is an integral component of African culture.

This genre of music is mostly performed in indigenous languages and dialects.

Its percussion, rhythm, performers’ costumes, dance patterns and vocalization are all indigenously inspired.

A core traditional African music is as ancient and culturally vast as the continent itself.

The African Rattle

Mostly performed at events including coronations, political events, marriages, naming ceremonies and funerals, messages of merriment, sorrow, hope, reverence and satire are among the themes expressed.

Despite the fact that western culture has rubbed off on virtually all aspects of the continent’s culture, many parts of Africa still hold on to its indigenous music heritage inherited from bygone ages.

Traditional African music is best performed by a group.

With percussions emanating from a range of instruments played by respective instrumentalists, its vocalizations – mostly in the form of solos, chants, duets and choruses – come in a call-and-response format: the lead vocalist(s) singing a verse and answered by backup vocalists who chant the chorus.

Some times, role reversal takes place as the lead vocalist(s) take(s) up the chorus while the backup singers sing the verses.

A group that performs this art so well is Starlight Cultural Group, founded in 1984 by Mr. Akaninyene Morgan. The group is based at Ikot Obio Etan community in Nsit Ibom Local Government Area of Nigeria’s oil-rich southern state of Akwa Ibom.

The group performs in the native Ibibio Language.

The Ibibios of Akwa Ibom State constitute the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria.

The group’s last major outing was at a traditional marriage ceremony in Ikot Nya community, Nsit Ibom LGA.

Leader of the group, Mr. Akaninyene Morgan, carved out time to grant a no-holds-barred interview in vernacular.

The 63 year old, a native of Ikot Obio Etan LGA in Nsit Ibom LGA, is an ordained Elder in church. But his present title of a church elder is a stark contrast of his past, he disclosed.

His words: “I think I used to be possessed. I was always feared. I always heard strange voices directing me. I had this awesome power to fight people, even if they are multitude, I’ll just pick a quarrel with them and defeat them easily. Children, youths, even elders always feared me.”

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His journey to music: “One fateful day, I was in the swamp with someone named Ini Asuquo Ebong when a church bell tolled. Ini, who was a chorister in the church, requested that I follow him to the church for choir practice, and I obliged. Upon arriving the church, everyone there ran away when they sighted me, some escaped through the door while others fled by jumping the window.

“The attention of the village head, Chief Okon Udonwa, was drawn. He came and asked why I was there, I told him that I came to take part in the choir practice. I then took a duster and erased the song earlier written by the choristers on the board, before writing mine with a charcoal as directed spiritually. That is how I became a member of the church, Light of the World Church. I sang in the choir before assembling this group.”

Star Light Cultural Group is currently made up of 16 members. Some of the members perform dual roles of singing and playing the musical instruments. Instruments paraded by the group include xylophone (ikoon, otherwise called ndido ubok), Clay music pots (abang mbre), the talking drums (ibid itong), the medium drum (konga) and small drums (etok ibid), rattle (nsak), big slit drum (obodom), metal gong (akankang), glass bottles (ekpeme), and bamboo block (ntakrok).

The lead instrument, xylophone (ikoon) commonly referred to as African Piano, is played by the group leader.

He gave an insight into the instrument: “this is not just an ordinary instrument. It is made up of over 10 kinds of woods obtained from different trees.

“In constructing the instrument, one must ensure that appropriate woods are obtained, sliced to appropriate sizes, and treated, before being assembled. There are some woods that stop sounding at certain times of the day, so it behooves on the maker of the instrument to follow a very strict process handed down from ages. It is not a fetish process, things like age of trees and other things are considered. At times, I am shown in the dream which wood to use in upgrading this instrument.”

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Playing the instrument seems complicated in the eyes of a bystander. The instrumentalist armed with two wooden sticks in each hand beats the wooden keys on the dashboard to produce meaningful sounds.

Mr. Morgan had this to say: “No one can just wake up and play this musical instrument. To play a xylophone well, you have to commit at least six months into the learning process. It’s a very complex instrument.”

Also in the group’s kitty is the big wooden slit drum known in Ibibio Language as Obodom.

It is an idiophone made from tree trunks. The interior of the tree trunk is carved out and two rectangular slits cut at the top of it. Played by an instrumentalist with two wooden sticks, this instrument produces a sonorous sound.

Closely related to the Obodom is a bamboo block known in Ibibio Language as Ntakrok.

It has a narrow rectangular slit on its top. Played with two sticks, its player sandwiches it between his thighs. It produces a high pitch, sonorous sound.

Another set of instruments are the clay pots. Made from earthenware and cement, the pots are of various shapes and sizes.

They produce a range of bass sound – the bigger the drum, the deeper the bass. They are played using wooden bats covered with foam.

The talking drums (ibid itong), the medium drum (konga) and small drums (etok ibid) are in the category of idiophones.

They produce different pitches in the ensemble. They can be played with sticks, or with bare hands.

“We intend to add more of these drums to our collection”, Mr. Morgan, the Starlight Cultural Group leader, revealed.

Glass bottles (ekpeme) played with pieces of stones add finesse to the ensemble.

The rattle (nsak) is also in the kitty of Starlight Cultural Group.

This Akwa Ibom based group has a type called tin rattle. A tin rattle is made up of two small tins filled with stones, hooked at opposite ends of a stick.

Holding the midriff of the stick, its player shakes the rattle vigorously or intermittently (depending on the song played) to produce a sound.

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African metal gong (akankang) is a twin hollow metal played with a piece of iron or stick.

The gong is expertly struck at various points along its body to produce a variety of pitches and tones.

In Starlight Cultural Group, the instrument is played by Aniefiok Eddie Akang, who is the Public Relations Officer of the group.

Speaking on the group, Mr. Akang divulged that all its instruments are handmade: “all the instruments you see here are made by hand. Our instruments are strictly traditional, and that gives us an African edge, it emboldens our African identity. It is what people now choose to call African Brass.”

He also divulged that membership of the group is open to persons (indigenes and settlers) who are acquainted with the Ibibio culture and have flair for traditional music.

“Trainees pass through rigorous training in order to measure up to the required standard,” he added.

While acknowledging that the group enjoys patronage within Akwa Ibom State and environs, Mr. Akang solicited for support from government, corporate bodies and individuals.

According to him, clients tend to pay less for traditional groups, hence money made is barely enough to wholly cater for the welfare of its members, upgrade instruments, purchase different costumes, procure operational vehicle, and solve other pressing needs.

Amid a pause in performance due to other activities at the marriage ceremony, members of the group resumed duties after about 40 minutes.

Passion and delight quite apparent on their faces as they returned to their job. There are the custodians and ambassadors of African traditional culture in an era where western influence and culture is gripping the continent.


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