The Ikoro drums used to be an important feature in the way of life of the Igbo people. In fact, the 250-year-old Ikoro Obibiaku drum still stands in Umunze, Anambra.
When it came to ceremonial affairs in ancient Igbo land, points of reference usually include: the village square, gods/ancestors and music.
These are major pillars in the Igbo cultural community, among others. The village square was where everyone gathered whenever there was a ceremony and the ancestors were had to receive appellation before the events could start. Music transcended the type of event in question. Whether it was a wrestling match or crowning, there was always music.
Music in the ancient Igbo land involved Udu, Opi/Oja flute, Ogene and of course, the drum. There are actually many types of drum in Igbo cultural music but the Ikoro slit drum is of most significance.
The slit drum
To appreciate the cultural significance of the drum, one has to understand the importance of trees in Igbo spirituality.
According to top Igbo historians, Ukpuru explain this: “Trees are important in Igbo spirituality as symbols of life and channels to the earth force. A child’s umbilical cord is buried with a newly planted fruit tree (ili alo) — this becomes the child’s tree of life (nkwu alo) which secures lands, confirms the child’s blood relation, and bonds them with the Earth Mother, Ala.
Settlements were named after plants, like achara (bamboo), uga, and ahiara (giant leaf grass), many started at the base of large trees. They are ritual, the ogirisi for the deceased, abosi, ngwu a symbol of wisdom (where the term okongwu comes from), agba, ogbu (fig tree) often used for the living, and so on.”
To an average Igbo person, the Iroko is the king of all trees. When a great person dies, “an Iroko has fallen” is a common euphemism. It is also believed that the Iroko houses spirits and is a portal for the ancestors. It is a symbol of resilience, strength and virility.
“Oji (Milicia excelsa), commonly known as iroko, is a very large tree considered to have mystical powers. It was planted near shrines to give the same impression as a cathedral. Oji stands for strength, nobility, and resilience. Its wood is used for important ritual items.”
The Ikoro were big community slit drums of Igbo people.
It is a slit drum that consists of two horizontal slits and produces a distinctively hollow sound, usually vigorously played with two sticks. Sometimes, it is played using fists with tremendous effort. Ikoro experience involves architecture, music, dance drama, sculpture, politics, and warfare, religion and orature. The tree is picked by the deity and cut down and then carved. The Ikoro is played during wars, festivals and other great events including emergencies like wars. It conveys messages across communities that own them.
Most communities seek the Iroko for the construction of their slit drum because of its massive, tough and durable nature.
The history of Ikoro Obibiaku
In the village of Umunze in Orumba north Local Government of Anambra state, lives an Ikoro drum right in the middle of the market, Nkwo.
According to a research paper published by University of Nigeria in 1990, the giant Ikoro wooden slit drum of Umunze is made from a single oji (Iroko) tree. Carved about 250 years ago, its diameter is about 250cm compared to a normal cylindrical slit drum of diameter a little above 30cm. The Ikoro Obibiaku is about 8 feet tall, big, heavy, expensive and physically imposing. G.T. Basden (1921) found out about the drum in the early 20th century and called it the “wonderful tom tom of Umunze.”