Music and Dance as Elements of Worship in Yoruba Religion
Akinfenwa, O. B.*
Religion is an important issue in human life. Every human being believed in the
existence of the Supreme Being who is known as God. The concept of God is universal in
African Society and the world at large. The Yoruba people like all Africans people have
the concept of God. This can be seen in the names and attributes given to the Supreme
Being, which are descriptive of His nature and character. There is no image or temple to
represent the Supreme Being, because he cannot be compared with any graven image.
The Yoruba people joined other African people to accord the Supreme Being the due
respect and honour through worship.
The paper focuses on the importance of Music and Dance in the worship of the
Supreme Being as been practiced by the Yoruba people. The Supreme Being is
worshipped by the Yoruba through the divinities who are seen as intermediaries between
Him and man. The divinities according to Yoruba believe are created by the Supreme
Being for a purpose. They His ministers and act for Him in the theocratic government of
the world. They have no absolute existence or authority of their own. Their authority is
derived from Him and delegated by the Supreme Being. Every act of worship in
Yorubaland has ultimate reference to the Supreme Being who must sanction it.
The paper further discusses the symbolic meaning of Music and Dance in worship of
the Supreme Being through the divinities. Example of songs rendered during worship of
some of the divinities and their importance in Religious circle are cited. The paper
concludes by analyzing the outstanding role music and dance play in worship of the
Definition of Terms
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English; (2001:92-221). Music is the
act of combining vocal or instrumental sound in pleasing ways, while dance is moving
rhythmically to music. It is a series of steps and movement that march the rhythm of a
piece of music. Music and Dance therefore goes hand in hand in worship.
The Yoruba of Nigeria occupy a large area. They are found in South-Western part of
Nigeria and in some part of Republic of Benin and Togoland. Predominantly, the Yoruba
belong to the Ogun,Oyo,Ondo, Osun, Ekiti,and Lagos States of Nigeria. Part of Kwara
State are alsoYoruba. The Yoruba people speak the language though with dialectal
variation. Part of the dialectal groups are Egba, Ijebu, Ibadan, Ife, Oyo, Ijesa, Ekiti,
Ondo, Ikale, Ilaje etc. They have the same cultural heritage and ideological beliefs which
serves as basis of their Religious beliefs and practices. (Awolaluand Dopamu, 2005:2).
Since Yorubaland is vast and wide examples will be drawn from the Oyo Yoruba, Ijesa,
and Ekiti axis. This is to contribute meaningfully to the topic under discussion and to
avoid overgeneralization. Though the Yoruba share the same cultural ideology there are
variation in their practices. This variation gives meaning to their lives and enrich their
culture and Religion.
Worship in a secular sense means the honour used in addressing a person of note. For
example, a court judge is addressed as “His Worship” or “ Your Worship”. Worship may
also be regarded as the respect, admiration or devotion for object of esteem. As a Religi-
ous exercise, worship is a means of honouring spiritual Being or an act of veneration paid
by man to such a spiritual beings (Awolalu, 1979:97-98).
Worship is an imperative urge in man. It beginning may be traced back to the basic
instinct, which was evoked in man by the fact of his confrontation with the numinous.
Man perceived that there is a power other and greater than him, a power that dominated
and controlled the unseen world in which he felt himself enveloped; a power, which he
therefore made by intuition to be the ultimate Determiner of Destiny (Pratt, 1946:30).
Underhill (1996:3) defines worship as a response to the creature to the external. Kay
(1992:7) also defines worship as a response to the Eternal and expatiates upon those
aspect of Eternal to which man respond. According to him, worship is man’s response to
the nature and action of God. From his definition, we are able to know that worship is
truly offered by man to a Being Higher than himself. That, this response is conditioned
by a person’s conception of the divine Being according to his mental development (Kay,
1992:7). Worship involves the performance of devotional act in honour of the Supreme
Being. It is presupposes a yearning for God and it is a means of glorifying the source, the
sustainer and the end of life. It confirms man’s acknowledgement of the Transcendent
Being who is independent of the worshipper but upon whom worshipper depends.
According to Dopamu, (2005:125) worship is an expression of man’s attitude towards
God and other spiritual beings. It is an act of communication and communion between
man the supersensible world, a means of retaining God-man relationship, the channel
through which an upset of the balance if such relationship is rectified and restore.
Worship is the inward expression of spiritual realities by means of the physical, the
medium or channel by which divine power are presented to man.
Worship in Yoruba Religion
In Yoruba Religion, worship is a prominent factor. It begins, controls, and ends all
the affairs of life for the Yoruba people. The Yoruba people believe in the existence of
the Supreme Being who is the creator of the world and in the divinities and spirits who
act as His Minister and intermediaries between Him and man. Worship is, therefore,
accorded to the Supreme Being to whom man owns his beginning and who is the
determiner of man’s destiny.
The Yoruba people respond to their spiritual world in different ways, hence they
accord worship not only to the Supreme Being but also to His functionaries- the divinities
and spirits. The people believe that if worship is given to these divine Beings regularly
and in the right time all will be well with man. On the other hand failure to perform the
customary rites and ceremonies will lead to serious problems. Worship in Yoruba
Religion take the form of rites and ceremonies and include prostrating, praying, invoking,
and hailing the spirit of the object of worship, making offering. Sounding the bell or
gong, singing, drumming, and dancing as occasion demands. Worship may be private,
offered by single person in a house, shrine or it may be corporate. Whatever form
worship takes, it is expected to be done in reverence and in the right mood and manner, if
the desired effect is to be achieved.
Every act of worship has distinct element, which are liturgy, sacrifice, cultic
functionaries and sacred places. Music and dance come up under liturgy. Liturgy
therefore, is an important element of worship in Yoruba Religion. It means the prescribed
form of public worship among the people. Although African Religion has no written
literature, it depends mainly on oral tradition. Lack of written literature is not barrier to
the understanding of the people’s approach to worship which has been preserved
undiluted from generation to generation. The Yoruba people approach their task with awe
and seriousness, always conscious of the fact that any omission in the normal order of
service or any wrong word uttered or song not properly rendered during the service could
incur the displeasure of the deity and jeopardize the efficacy of worship. Every act of
worship in Yorubaland has an ultimate reference to the Supreme Being who must sanct-
The Place of Music and Dance in Yoruba Religion.
The Yoruba are singing people, in their singing, which comprises of songs, lyrics, and
minstrelsy, they tell stories of past, the circumstances of the present and the hope and fear
of the future. Their songs are permeated with their beliefs. Songs are employed in almost
every sphere of their lives, in worship, in naming ceremonies, in wedding, in funeral, in
wrestling, in cultivating the farm, in working, in going to war, in praising the rulers, in
rocking babies to sleep and in many other activities. Such songs are usually attended by
drumming and dancing (Awolalu and Dopamu, 2005:31-32).
Songs usually conveyed sentiments or truth. They express people’s feeling of joy,
sorrow or thanksgiving. Songs in worship convey the faith of the worshippers, their
beliefs in and about the divinity; their assurances and with reference to their hereafter.
The praise names and the attribute of the divinities are revealed through songs used in
worship. Songs also enhance emotional and physical participation in the act of worship
and often lead to ecstatic experiences.
During worship when the singing and dancing penetrate wholly into every being of the
worshipper, spirit possession may follow and the possessed devotee may give message
from the divinity (Dopamu, 1979:131).
Music occupied an important place in worship of the Yoruba people. The music may be
quiet, loud, or noisy, that depends on the kind of worship in which occurs. It may be
singing accompanied by clapping or singing accompanied by instruments. The kind of
worship decides how full the instrument may be, two piece of bamboo sticks, or metal,
held by each member of the congregation, it may be drum, it may be a stick and a gong or
sticks and gongs, it may be these together.(Idowu, 1996:113-114).
In daily morning worship, music rarely occurs because the priest alone can offer the
sacrifice. But on the sacred day of the divinities there is usually singing in the set order of
worship. It may be accompanied with instrument. The type of instrument to accompany
the song depend on the status and the rank of the divinity concerned. Every divinity has a
set of praise name with stories which are recited about him in commemoration of his
origin, greatness, past deeds, ability and capability.
Hymns occur often on communal worship. Each divinity has his own set hymns, which
are connected with the cult. These are sung as occasion demands, either during the sacred
day worship or during the annual worship or the time of crisis or at funeral. In the set
order of worship, where they are strictly followed there are appropriate traditional point
at which hymns are sung. When such a place is reached, the hymns are struck up by the
officials, the congregation joining the chorus. The traditional number of the hymns and
the point at which they are sung vary with each liturgy, in some, there may be an
invocatory song a hymn of call to worship, a hymn of prayer committing the worshipper
to the care of the divinity and parting hymn, all set at intervals within the order of
worship. In other there may be a set of up to seven hymns coming together at the end of
Besides the hymns, lighter songs may occur during the ritual. This may come during
the annual worship after a successful casting out of kola-nut, these are song of rejoicing
that the offering have been accepted. (Idowu, 1996:114).
Examples of hymns and song in worship in Yoruba Religion are below.
1. Hymn of adoration in praise of Orisa-Nla.
Eni soju se’mu,
Orisa ni maa sin.
A dani bo ti ri,
Orisa ni maa sin.
Eni ran ni waye,
Orisa ni maa sin.
HE who makes eyes makes nose,
It is Orisa I will serve.
He who makes one as he chooses,
It is Orisa I will serve.
He who sent me here on earth,
It is Orisa I will serve.
2. Hymn of praise committing the worshippers to the care of the divinity
Sogungun fomo o.
Father of children,
Prepare medicine for the children.
3. A parting hymn at the close of annual worship.
A si maa rira leeminrin,
Odoodun laa ri yemeti.
We shall meet again next season,
Annually habitually appears yemeti. (Idowu, 1996:112)
4. Ifa hymns:
(a) Ifa jingin jingin,
Ifa mo gbo oro kan /2x
Won ni n wa joye ilesanmi.
Ifa full of praises, ifa I heard something,
that I should be contented at home.
(b) Ifa gba mi,
mi o lenikan,
yeye omo nii gbomo.
Ifa accept me,
I have nobody
Mothers accept their children.
(c) Ifa gba mi o ra mi,
Ifa gbe mi leke.
Irukere nii gbomo Orunmila,
Ifa gba mi o ra mi.
Ifa accept me wholly,
Ifa make me triumph.
Horsewhip rescue Orunmila’s child,
Ifa accept me whooly.
5. Songs during Egungun festival :
(a) Lead : Hee,hee/2x
Chorus : Haa, hee hee hee
Lead : E ma ma bawo je o
Lead : Hee, hee/2x
Chorus : Haa, hee hee hee
Lead : please don’t reveal the secret of the cult
Chorus : The cult
(b) Oni labiku o lo nile yi o
Oni lolomo o jere omo won.
Today, born-to-die will disappear from the land
Today, parents will witness the joy of their children
(c) Kolomo kilo fomo re,
Oni a ro.
Let every parent warn his child,
Today will be though.
As the Yoruba people show their love for music in their day –to-day life so also do
they use the art in worship. The praise name of each divinity is recited by the worshippers
at the beginning of any worship. Also certain songs dedicated to the divinities are song in
their honour as occasion demand. These songs are rendered to show the qualities and
nature of the particular divinity. The characteristics of the divinity are also revealed
through songs rendered during worship. In some cases, a fixed number of songs have to
be rendered in a particular order. The `numbers vary from one to two hundred and one.
Although the songs are not recorded, the officiating priests never forget the order in
which they should be song. The belief is that if the songs are not sung accordingly, the
sacrifice will not be acceptable to the divinities.
Dancing on the other hand is no less prominent during worship than songs. There is
therefore a place for dancing in the rituals especially during the sacred day worship and
during the annual festival celebration. The dances take definite form, depending on the
divinities to which the offerings are made. The dances which are ritualistic in nature is
more emotional responses to the rhythm of music, they are symbolic and revealed
something sacred. For example, there is a Yoruba statement
“Onisango to jo, ti ko tapa
Abuku ara re ni”
A sango devotee, who dance without flinging his feet and legs,
Does discredit to himself.
This is because during sango’s lifetime, he was a very graceful dancer, particularly to the
rhythmic drumming of baata drum, and always flinging his legs in a graceful manner.
His devotee, therefore must imitate him. Also the Obalufon devotee say “ osi laa jo ijo
Obalufon”. It is towards the left you move when you dance in honour of Obalufon. This
is to show that the devotee do not dance anyhow, but are constrained to conform in their
dance to certain form and patterns. (Awolalu & Dopamu, 1996:107)
According to Idowu, most of the dance are fixed patterns and must be done correctly.
Which foot goes forward first, which movement of the hand and body accompanying it,
which turns are taken next, and how many times each component of the pattern is to be
repeated; all these must be carefully observed. The speech of the musical instrument is
often designed to guide the dancers in their movement (Idowu, 1996:116).
Music and dance occupy important position in worship in Yoruba Religion. Without
these the efficacy of the people’s worship are reduced to nothing. The paper, so far
discuss the significance of music and dance in worship among the Yoruba. Through
music and dance the devotees always believe that their worship is acceptable and their
prayers answered. Music and dance also boost people’s health and give them the
opportunity to serve the Supreme Being better. A lot of mysteries are revealed through
music, which encourages the devotees to hold on to the divinities. When the musical
instruments are played and danced to, it brings spiritual inspiration and relief to man.
The origin of music and dance is a mystery, but their importance cannot be over
emphasized in Religious circle. People specialized on them and earned their daily bread.
Music and dance cannot be replaced by anything in the world. A world without music
and dance will face trouble. This is because of the important position they occupied in
worship. Man was made to worship the Supreme Being and the worship is not complete
without music and dance.
Awolalu, Omosade. 1979. Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, Lagos: Longman, Nigeria
Awolalu, Omosade and Dopamu, Ade P. 2005. West African Traditional Religion,
Ibadan: Macmillian Co.
Underhill, Evlyn. 1996. Worship, London: Macmillian Co
Idowu, E. Bolaji. 1996. Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, Ibadan: Longman Group Ltd.
Kay, J. Allan. 1992. The Nature of Christian Worship, London: University Press.
Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 2001. New York: University Press.
Pratt, O..1946. The Religious Consciousness, New York: Macmillian Co.