Waka and Apala from Nigeria

Posted February 18th, 2008 at 11:51 pm (UTC-4)

In 1965, Leo Sarkisian launched the Voice of America radio program ‘Music Time in Africa’, a show that featured traditional and contemporary music from throughout Africa. Today, 43 years later, Music Time is still on the air, presenting, every Saturday and Sunday, music from throughout the continent, to listeners across Africa. It was also in 1965 that Leo made some of his best recordings; the tapes I treasure most in our collection.

In 1965, Leo was living in Monrovia, Liberia, where he was working for the Voice of America’s African program center. One of his primary responsibilities was to record and collect music for the VOA’s Africa service. In the spring of that year, Lillard Hill, who at the time was the VOA representative in Lagos, Nigeria, called Leo to tell him about a young Nigerian bandleader he should consider recording; his name was Fela Ransome Kuti.

In August of 1965, Leo, accompanied by his wife Mary, flew from Monrovia to Lagos. Several days after their arrival in Lagos, they went to the port, to pick up their 1964 Willys Jeep, which had been shipped from Monrovia. Inside the Jeep was Leo’s recording equipment; three two-track tape machines (including Leo’s favorite Nagra), two MX-777 Sony six-input mixers, twelve microphones, a generator, customized frequency meters, and a crate full of cables and microphone stands. Leo and Mary spent the next six weeks traveling around Western Nigeria, recording some of the region’s most appreciated musicians. (Before hitting the road, however, Leo did record Fela and his Koola Lobitos- you can see a picture of the reel in our picture gallery- and Cardinal Rex Lawson. I will feature both of these unreleased recordings in the future.)

One of the first people Leo and Mary met in Lagos was Mr. Tunde Sowande; a specialist in Yoruba music and the nephew of Fela Sowande-the pioneer of modern Nigerian ‘Art music’. Tunde Sowande traveled with Leo and Mary, suggesting which musicians to record, facilitating introductions, and helping to organize the recording sessions. Over the course of their six-week trip Leo made over a dozen recordings, all of them are fantastic. Here are my three favorites.

Waka music is genre of popular Yoruba Muslim song, performed exclusively by women, that was developed in the 1950s-it predates juju and fuji musics. One of the pioneers of the genre was Alhaja Batile Alake from Ijebu province, in Western Nigeria. This recording features one of Alhaja Alake’s contemporaries, Nosimotu Alimi from the village of Ago Iwoye, also in Ijebu province. At the time of this recording, Mrs. Alimi, who had already been performing for fifteen years, led a group of 8 young men and women. She starts this piece with an exhortation to cleanliness, goes on to praise municipal health inspectors, and continues with fulsome praise and prayers for the teachers who shape Nigeria’s future generations.

Apala music is one of my favorite genres of Yoruba music. This style has roots in the songs and rhythms that were used to wake worshippers after fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Apala music, which is one of the roots of juju and fuji, was always an urban music; open to new influences and ‘foreign’ rhythms.

At the time of this recording session, Rasaki Ajadi and his Apala group were based in Ibadan, also in Western Nigeria. The group consisted of three gangans (talking drums), one agidigbo (a large, three-key, box thump-piano), the maracas, one akuba (a small conga-shaped drum) and the konnongo (is this a small frame drum?). Rasaki starts the song by calling on the Yoruba God ‘Oranmiyan’ to ‘protect us from death and unforeseen circumstances.’ He sings, ‘be careful, life is unpredictable; it is impossible to know the future. Death is inevitable, neither the rich nor the poor can escape.’ He goes on to exhort the rich to help the poor.

Rasaki start’s this next piece with a few verses of praise for his music and orchestra before launching into a series of Yoruba proverbs. He sings, ‘Life keeps going on without stopping, and the maker of time keeps counting the days. You people that are unhappy with our work, with our music, it is because you don’t know what the future holds.’

This final recording is the best of the bunch. This is Timiaju Abiodun, who was twenty-five years old in 1965, a rising Apala star. He led a group of ten musicians that performed frequently throughout Western Nigeria. He introduces this next piece by telling his listeners; ‘I am here with my musicians for your pleasure. Those that are standing keep standing firm. Those who are sitting keep sitting still. And if you don’t want to do anything, go home now. If we call your name three times, put your hand in your pocket and bring out some money. The amount of money you can put down will determine the potency of the dose.’

I hope you have enjoyed this first batch of Nigerian recordings from Leo’s 1965 trip through Western Nigeria!


18 responses to “Waka and Apala from Nigeria”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have been trying, for the last several weeks, to learn more about the careers of these three artists. I have been calling Nigeria and asking specialists in the United States for help. I have no idea how their careers developed after 1965. Last week I spoke with Tunde Sowande, who helped organize these recording sessions, and all he could tell me was that all three of these artists have passed away.

  2. Anonymous says:

    waka is possibly 100s of years old.

    It only started appearing on record in the 60s especially with Batile Alake
    , although there are a couple of female yoruba discs from the 30s which I haven’t heard.

    Seemed pretty hard for women to record before the 60s so
    unfortunately a lot of earlier waka music has been lost.

    is there anyway the music can appear in realplayer. the popup music
    player doesn’t work for me so it’s really hard to listen but the site
    kicks it. love it

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hello Craig, thanks for the info on Waka. We have got another handful of Nigerian recordings that Leo made around Ibadan in the 1960s that I will post in the future. I can’t think of much music out there that I find as beautiful as Waka or Apala. I just never tire of listening to these recordings.

  4. Anonymous says:

    amazingly good stuff.Proper job.thanks for digging up these treasures.Growing up in Nigeria in the70’s, i can remember waka singers roaming the neighorhoods to wake up fasters during ramadan.The signifance and importance of this music cannot be overstated. As an ethnomusicologist here in the US, it’s lovely to come across this stuff.If anyone is interestid in exploring waka, or Yoruba music specificlly, i ammore than willing to help. I’ll post more comments later after setting up a resource online.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hello Shola, Thanks for your feedback. As I mentioned above, these recordings are among my favorites in our collection. I think we have three or four more reels of Yoruba ‘roots’ music that Leo recorded during this trip. I will post them all in the future. Do you know anything about the artists above? Despite a dozen phone calls to Nigeria I still haven’t learned much about them.

  6. Anonymous says:


    a website with more info on waka/yoruba music would be fantastic

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hello, all,
    shola here, it does my heart glad to know that there are people out there who appreciate the history and significance of not just the music, but also the richness that africa encompasses. I will be putting up a blog soon , so that we can further explore and learn and share.I am here in washington dc, and im always willing and able to share my expertise, collection and good times.
    Cheers, all and thanks

  8. Anonymous says:

    Pls somebody should tell me what you were set to do by reminding us of these melodious and sumptious apala music. Personally I am grateful and thank you wholeheartedly.
    Can you imagine I could not hold the urge of shaking my buttocks to the rythms of the apala music. God bless VOA, God bless America. Apala will always reign supreme.
    Ekare eyin oyinbo wonyi!

  9. Anonymous says:

    God bless for this teasure. I am ibo born in Lagos you might as well call me a lagosian (iboyorouba)I remember this music back in those days in primary school early 70’s. Brings back great memories when Lagos Nigeria
    was LAGOS NIGERIA. God Bless Waka. I bet he’s no longer with us. Thanks

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hello Mathew,
    Thank you for sharing these rare and priceless recordings. I was born in Ago-Iwoye and could recall how much waka and apala music was much of my childhood memories. Nosimoto Alimi & her Waka Group along with Haruna Ishola were some of the group being played over loudspeakers all over town back then. Sadly most of these recording are very hard to find these days. Thank God for Leo’s effort in capturing these artists. I am looking forward to your next episode.
    Again, thank you.

    Michael Onas

  11. Anonymous says:

    This is therapeutic! Thank you for this piece of beauty. I was born of Nigerian parents but brought up in Senegal. I remember the first time I visited Nigeria as a kid and waking up every morning to these soul massaging rhythms. They bring a lot of sweet memories that
    broke sincere smile on my face nostalgically thinking of my late parents and the sweet time spent together. Thanks

  12. Anonymous says:

    These recordings are priceless. Thank you very much!

  13. […] I have recently fallen into the end of the year holiday-induced doldrums, and have not had the time to finish the research on several posts I have been working on. Nonetheless, I wanted to end 2008 with some good music (recordings that don’t need much commentary). I thought I would feature what is arguably the most ‘famous’ tape in our archive; Leo’s never-released 1965 reel of Fela Ransome-Kuti and his Koola Lobitos that caught the Afrobeat pioneers at an interesting time in their careers. Fela had returned to Lagos two years earlier (after several years of musical study at Trinity College in London) and the Koola Lobitos were starting to get noticed in Nigeria. Leo’s recording session with Fela and the Koola Lobitos came at the end of a six week trip to Nigeria that I have discussed in this previous post. […]

  14. Ola says:

    I would like to get in touch with you with regard to Yoruba music of the 1960s and 70s.


  15. Karl says:

    Stunningly good stereo recordings, Leo! Possible to get graphics of the Apala instruments (“three gangans (talking drums), one agidigbo (a large, three-key, box thump [sic]-piano), the maracas, one akuba (a small conga-shaped drum) and the konnongo (is this a small frame drum?)?”

  16. Larry Morris says:

    Glad I found this on google.

  17. Kobe Hayes says:

    There is obviously a bunch to know about this. I feel you made certain nice points in features also.



Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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