[Book Excerpts] Here’s what to know about Adamu Orisa Play before the next one comes along

July 17, 2021
Festivals & Culture

The last Adamu Orisha Play (also popularly known as Eyo Festival held on Saturday 20 May 2017, when the Lagos State government celebrated the state’s 50th anniversary. On that day, Lagosians and friends of Lagos witnessed another grand display of the Festival (aka Adamu Orisha Play).

Before then, the festival last held in 2012. And that is one of the unique characteristics of the festival: it is not an annual celebration like most cultural ceremonies in Nigeria are. Since its first appearance in September 1852, the festival has only been celebrated just 84 times to date.

There have been times in the past when, for 21 whole years, the festival wasn’t performed. Also, there have been years when the festival took place three (1903/4), four (1909), or five times (1906) within a short period.

The Eyo Festival is the cultural alter ego of Lagos, celebrated mainly in memory of a Lagosian who, while alive, contributed to the growth and development of the state. On another level, it is hosted in honour of a highly placed visitor (President of Nigeria, for example) to the city or to mark an important milestone, locally or nationally.

One was hosted to mark the visit of Queen Elizabeth in February 1956. And as far back as November 1917, one was held in honour of the Red Cross Society. Another was held on the eve of FESTAC ’77.

Eyo Festival is also part of the old established customs to mark the end of the reign of the king of Lagos and to usher in his successor.  A typical Eyo Festival is usually a pageant of colours powered by the energy and athletism of the masquerades, all dressed in flowing white garments.

What follows is an excerpts from “White Lagos: A Definitive and Visual Guide to the Eyo Festival” by Pelu Awofeso

The Eyo Hierarchy

Traditionally, Eyo festivals take place on a Saturday. A full week before D-Day, on a Sunday, members of the ‘most senior’ Eyo groups, the Eyo Adimu, identified by its black broad-rimmed hat (Aga), go on a public parade with the Opambata. They go visiting around the Island community, and at the sighting, the residents need no further confirmation that the festival would take place on the following Saturday. “When this happens, nothing on earth can stop the festival from taking place the coming Saturday,” a chief says.

The other Eyos, Laba (red hat on white), Oniko (yellow hat on white), Ologede, and Agere (purple hat on white) take their turns (in that order) on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday without fail. This strictness with cadre and other old established rules before, during, and after the celebration is one of the most appealing features of the Eyo heritage. That leaves Friday, the eve of the event, for tourists seeking the thrill of the fanfare to come.

On this night, Iga Iduganran, the permanent residence of the Oba of Lagos as well as whole areas surrounding it, becomes an open-sky party. Heavy-duty speakers boom with every kind of music—traditional (for the adults) and western (for the youths). Both sides of every street, chocked with celebrants, throb with tireless traders and meticulous merchandising. Beer, bread (toast), wooden fences, and lots more compete for space with hordes of shuffling feet.

Fifty meters from the palace is the Ojubo Yewa, a single-room shrine within the Onimole Court. Rarely opened, this particular room is key to the entire festival, because come the early hours of the festival day (Saturday), the superior five of the Eyo groups (starting with the Adimu and followed by the other four senior groups), plus a couple of other Eyo families MUST come into the premises to pay homage at the shrine.

“Until this ritual is done, none of the Eyos dare to march through the streets,” a participant who has been involved with these ceremonies for more than half a century told me.

Where did Eyo come from?

A typical Eyo procession by Eyo Laba Ekun on Lagos island. By Silvia Dona

There is still no consensus as to how the Eyo masquerade came to Lagos, or from where (Benin Kingdom or Ijebuland). Neither is there an agreement on which year it was first performed (1750, 1852, or 1854), and for whom. There are also many versions to the origins of the Eyo.

A version which appears to have gained the most ground says two persons who had come down from a locale called Ibefun (north of Lagos) introduced the display as part of interment rites for the king at the time, Oba Ado, married to their cousin Olugbani. Another version traces the beginnings of the festival to the ancient Benin Kingdom.

An inter-faith carnival

When indigenous Lagosians speak of the Eyo tradition, they do so with affecting pride and relish.

“Eyo is so intrinsically synonymous with Lagos that it can never fade out,” said an insider. Everyone—from the aged to the infants—spends quality time preparing for the big day; and when the day does finally come a major milestone is achieved.

What Samba is to Brazil, the Eyo is to Lagos. It is one of the very few popular local customs not yet eroded by Christianity or Islam, because the festival embraces both religions, as participants are either practicing Christians or Muslims.

An Eyo Procession on the streets of lagos Island. By Silvia Dona

Importantly, the people of Isale Eko take the festival and their faiths as one would two opposite pages of a book. One page leads to the next —life and death in this case— and no one book can be complete without either. 

“This is about the only tradition we still cherish as natives,” a blue-blood and deputy secretary to one of the core Eyo groups, the Laba Ekun, told me.

To borrow a time-worn cliché: The Eyo is made, not born. Though the festival is indigenous to persons born in the Isale Eko area of Lagos, wearing the Aropale (flowing white poplin) and the Aga (decorated, broad-rimmed hat) on D-day is by no means automatic.

To qualify as an Eyo masker, the intending indigene goes through gamut of activities, nearly all of them strict regimes that are observed to the letter. Discipline is a major tenet of the Eyo festival and it is one every aspiring participant imbibes in the early stages of preparation.

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