Gospel Singers And Use Of ‘Ifa Slangs’ (I)
Gospel Singers And Use Of ‘Ifa Slangs’ (I)

Nigerian gospel singer Tope Alabi recently stirred a controversy when she performed a Yoruba song in a church setting, which some online reports claimed included “Ifa slangs,” referring to the Yoruba oracle and its associated terminology. While I came across a brief video online, I am unaware of any subsequent explanation given by Alabi regarding her song. Nonetheless, I would like to delve into the matter and share my perspective, drawing from the video and my understanding of Yoruba culture, its traditional religions, and how they influence the language used by Yoruba Christian worshipers and gospel singers like Alabi. This topic has been on my mind for the past few years, as I have contemplated the similarities between Yoruba cultural expressions and those found in modern religions.

It is evident that traditional religious practices preceded the arrival of imported religions. The traditions and cultural practices of a people were shaped by their traditional beliefs and worship systems. In ancient times, the priests of traditional religions held esteemed positions within society, acting as initiators and custodians of social and religious values. The declarations made by these priests regarding the desires of the deities influenced the actions of political and administrative leaders, such as kings or Obas. Over time, the culture and sayings of the people began to reflect the pronouncements made by the priests concerning the wishes of the land’s deities. The words and expressions used by the priests became part of the oral tradition passed down from generation to generation.

It is without doubt that early converts to modern religions brought some of their beliefs and cultural expressions with them. The initial foreign missionaries would have faced the challenge of eradicating traditional religious concepts from new converts’ minds and introducing new ways of worship. Even the verbal expressions of the converts had to be deliberately modified. For instance, Christian missionaries discouraged converts from calling out the names of the gods they once worshipped when they encountered something that frightened them. However, it is difficult to imagine that indigenous interpreters working with the early Christian missionaries used any other name for the Christian God than the local names they were familiar with from traditional worship. The interpreters would have translated using common expressions and sayings that people were accustomed to as traditional worshipers. This was the only way to ensure comprehension.

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To this day, Yoruba-speaking Christians use names like Chukwu, Chineke, Osanobua, Ubangiji, Olorun, and Olodumare in their worship. The word “Olorun,” which means “owner of the heavens,” is easily understood by Yoruba-speaking Christians who may not be fluent in English. The word “Olodumare” is even more familiar. I imagine that “Olorun” or “Olodumare” were the names initially used by interpreters working with early Christian missionaries to refer to the Christian God. This choice would distinguish the Supreme Being from other gods that Yoruba converts were familiar with from traditional religion.

Interestingly, the name “Olodumare” is still commonly used by Ifa worshipers today, as well as in daily conversations. However, it was this name that the early Christian missionaries used when translating the Holy Bible’s phrase “Mimo, mimo, mimo, Oluwa, Olorun, Olodumare” (Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God Almighty). It is worth noting that the word “Odu” is found within the name “Olodumare.” In Ifa panegyric, “Odu” refers to a chapter or verse, much like a poem within a collection of poems. I doubt any Yoruba Christian would have an issue using the word “Olodumare” when referring to the Christian God, as it is arguably the most profound or exalted name for the Supreme Being in Yoruba culture. However, it was initially used by Ifa priests. I mention this to illustrate the close ties between culture and how it continues to influence modern religious worship, regardless of attempts to separate them by imported religions.

I mentioned earlier that the name “Olodumare” was traditionally used and is still used by Ifa priests and worshipers. Among the various forms of traditional worship in Yorubaland, Ifa was the most prevalent, as it was considered the revealer of the intentions and plans of other divinities. If I recall correctly, Ifa was the state religion in ancient Ile-Ife and was also widespread in Oyo and other Yoruba towns. The priests of traditional religions drew insights from various sources, including human experiences and the work of creation, which often found expression in the words they uttered and the panegyrics used in their religious practices. From my perspective, the words used by Ifa worshipers do not diminish their truth for Christian worshipers. Christian worshipers have simply adapted them for use when focusing on the Christian God, making necessary adjustments to words and songs used in their worship.

Over time, numerous words derived from Yoruba traditional religion have entered everyday usage and have become common among the people in their communities. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear an average person in a Yoruba community say to a priest, particularly during annual traditional festivals, “Abore, ebo a ru, ebo a da o


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