African Oral Tradition Then and Now: A Culture in Transition

Akintunde Akinyemi


Oral tradition is the vast field of knowledge through which cultural information and messages are transmitted verbally from one generation to another. It is the complex corpus of verbal arts created as a means of recalling the past. Sometimes oral tradition is used interchangeably with folklore or elements such as language and belief systems that are shared by a group; what gives a community its cultural and national identity. In contemporary usage, oral tradition or folklore means popular and group-oriented expressions of culture.1 Oral tradition is governed by certain characteristic features: the situation or the context of production, the audience, the language, and the structure or form of the art. One major feature of oral tradition, which relates to the nature of performance, is the involvement of the community in the creative process as well as in the criticism. Every performance is for and about the audience. The main objective of the performer is to entertain, amuse, and impress the audience so as to earn praise, admiration, and material gifts. In creative performance, members of the audience neither listen silently nor wait for the invitation of the performer before joining in. Instead, the audience spontaneously breaks into the performance with additions, queries, and comments. In her assessment of the importance of performance in African verbal arts, Finnegan stresses that a “full appreciation must depend on an analysis not only of the verbal interplay and overtones in the piece, its stylistic structure and content, but also of the various detailed devices which the performer has at his disposal to convey his product to the audience” (Oral Literature in Africa 13).

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