[By Pelu Awofeso]
The kings and chiefs of Ikorodu Division (Lagos State, SW Nigeria) arrive at the Ferry Terminal Park together, in a motorcade preceded by horsemen. They’re returning from Majidun Ogolonto, half a kilometre away, where a 13-foot statue of the Asa ‘masquerade’ has been unveiled. With the royals on the ground, and with hundreds of onlookers, the main event will begin shortly.
It is the first time I will hear of the Asa culture, though I have lived in Lagos all my life and visited Ikorodu a number of times. According to several insiders, the Asa — a group of men in white robes, turbans and stilts — is a centuries’ old practice of the people of Ikorodu.
“In recent times we have noticed that our culture as Yoruba people is dying gradually owing to globalisation and foreign cultures in our midst,” says Prof Danoye Oguntola, while reviewing “Asa Arokolo: Man on Delicate Stilt Sticks”, published by the Ikorodu Division Rebirth Foundation (IREP). “And Asa is not just a masquerade, it is a deity of fertility.”
A chief in Agura locality says they have known Asa for at least 500 years and that it is a unifying cultural element of Ikorodu society. The custodians have traced its origins to Ile-Ife town, believed to be where all Yoruba people originate.
“Our ancestors used Asa for relaxation,” says Chief Muniru Odusanya, the Odofin of Imota who is quoted in Asa Arokolo. “Whenever they returned from the farm, where they usually spent about 17 days on each trip, they returned and staged Asa performance under the moonlight.”
It’s gone past noon and the sun is shinning ever so brightly. Before they take their seats, the kings, five of them, come together for a brief moment to exchange pleasantries and banters, all of them shielded from the biting heat by the big silky grey umbrella of the Ayangbren of Ikorodu (Oba Kabiru Adewale Shotobi), the one at the top of the monarchical hierarchy in Ikorodu Division. They shake hands and smile heartily, their beaded sticks and fly-whisks in full display. Photographers swarm them, each pining for a prime position to take the perfect shot; it’s a heartwarming sight and I join the fray.
The Ferry Park is heavily decorated with rafia-mats, with gourds and ceramic oil-lamps placed in strategic positions. The mats stretch the length of the long row of black-leather seats reserved for the royals and other special guests; two gourds sit on a pair of chest-high columns, forming doorposts of sorts that leads to the podium. It is part indigenous “red carpet” and part a throwback to ages ago when there were no fancy chairs and electricity as we know them today.
At the far corner, near the barricaded entrance, is a bamboo shed roofed with palm fronds, much like one would find in a village or on the way to Epe town. The main table is covered with Adire fabric and hold a set of carefully arranged gourds and calabashes; here is where palmwine will be served to interested persons in the course of the programme.
From their position on the stage, the MC announces the arrival of special guests and recognise VIPsalready seated.
The premises is already packed with excited locals who’ve turned up from communities far and near to associate with a tradition fast receding in the peoples’ memory. More guests stream in, looking all glam and excited. Then the participating communities pour in as groups, singing and dancing and drumming. From where I stand–near the palmwine shed–I watch the group from Ijomu, led by the Eleku (custodian of the Asa culture in the community) Chief Ifasola Oresanya, dancing so jubilantly; it feels like a groom’s engagement procession with family and friends in tow.
“He is also the Araba of Parafaland,” a young lady in the procession tells me. Like the other chiefs I have seen, he is dressed in white Buba, Sokoto and Agbada, topped off with a shiny yellow cap; he holds a fly-whisk on one hand and a carved walking stick in the other. A dozen or so chains of colourful beads adorn his neck, reaching down to his midrif.
I am immediately fascinated by the Okiri drum, mounted on the shoulder of a man holding two of its three legs firmly and beaten by another walking just right behind him. “It is because we are on the move,” a member of the party says, after they’ve settled down at the space allocated to them. “Once we sit down, like we are now, it is placed on the ground and beaten like most other drums.”
It turns out that beside the Asa heritage, all the participating communities where the practice is observed–Imota, Aga, Igbogbo, Isele, Mowo-Nla, Agura–also share a similarity in the musical instruments (Agogo, Erebente, Ate and Lele, among others) that accompany the performances, the most intriguing for me being the Apepe (dry bamboo sticks); producing a string of staccato klak-klak sounds when struck one with the other, it is mostly used by the women as they chant the songs which the Asa dance to.
I have never seen it happen anywhere else. “That’s how we met it,” one of drummers say. “That’s how our forefathers used them.”
The carnival performances begin shortly and I catch my first glimpse of the Asa as they walk delicately through the gates in white robes and coloured jackets — yellow, purple, blue, green, grey — each colour differentiating one community from the other.
With the turbans the Asa look like Imams, while the white garment bring the Celestial Church to mind. Standing on stilts as long as five feet, they tower above everyone else. The believe in time past, according to the newly published research, is that the stilts let the men see invaders far off and then take necessary steps to protect members of the community.
As I watch the Asa performers, young and old, entertain the crowd, I can tell it would take months and years of practice to master the art of balance and movement which walking long distances on a pair of stilts would require. Beginners, usually teenagers, are started off on their Asa journey mounting milk tins.
“You can learn most of the basics in a few weeks,” says Diran, who is holding stilts in his hands and was until recently an active climber. “We welcome anyone who wishes to learn with open arms. Years ago when our fathers were in charge of its affairs, Asa displays were usually held night to entertain the communities. There was no ritual or fetish practices involved and everyone and anyone could participate. But for some reason, it diminished in popularity and many people didn’t care for it anymore. It is a good thing it is being revived today.”
it seems betters days are ahead for Asa: the Lagos State government looks to include it in its the state’s cultural map henceforth. “Asa festival will thrive and we shall ensure that it is celebrated annually as a festival that cuts across Ikorodu Division,” says acting for Tourism and Culture, (Hon.) Mrs Adebimpe Akinsola to the IREP team who paid her a visit ahead of the festival. “We shall ensure that the festival happens.”
The Asa in overall appearance is almost indistinguishable from the Agere; but they are two different institutions differentiated by specific sartorial and other elements.
All images of Asa, courtesy of The Impact Newspaper/ Jagun Olukunle Adelabu