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Dr. Joseph Atoyebi

To the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, the West African talking drum is a family of four drums. The mother drum hangs from her player’s shoulder and is played with a curved stick held in the player’s other hand. The father is held and played in the same way. The son is a three-headed drum that’s slung around his player’s neck and played with two sticks, one in each hand. The daughter is held under one arm and played with a stick in the other hand, like her larger parents.


The mother and daughter are the real spokespeople of the family. For these two, tightly stretched strings connect the top to the bottom and players manipulate the pitch of their sounds by squeezing and releasing these strings. In this way, the mother and daughter drums, more than the rest of the family, imitate the tone-based Yoruba language.

Dr. Joseph Atoyebi is half Yoruba and half Igbo. He speaks eight languages, six of them fluently. He grew up on a military base in Enugu, Nigeria speaking Yoruba at home and at church, Pigeon English around the base, and Igbo in public, all while learning standard English in school.


When he grew up, he added two more languages. He picked up German while he studied for his PhD in linguistics from the University of Leipzig—and his doctoral dissertation is still the only book on the reference grammar of Oko, an indigenous tongue of Nigeria and Dr. Atoyebi’s sixth language.

With his doctorate in hand, he moved to Canada in 2010 where he teaches in the Department of English at the University College of the North, The Pas campus. He’s working on his French with two of his children, who speak it fluently.


His eighth language is gángan, the Yoruba word for “West African talking drum”. The instrument didn’t get its English name until the 18th century when European missionaries realized that the Yoruba people they were staying with weren’t just putting on so many drum concerts—they were carrying on actual conversations with other villages, which were miles away. 


Today, there are phones for communicating. But even in music, many gángan rhythms retain their ancient meanings like the ghosts of lyrics floating around and through an otherwise instrumental song. Visible to the initiated, invisible to the rest of us.


Besides leading workshops and performing at festivals, Dr. Atoyebi plays his talking drums every week with his Nigerian and Ghanaian church friends. They play “praise medleys”—strings of songs with no pauses that rely heavily on the talking drum and last 20 and 30 minutes. He is excited to share his passion for and knowledge of this beautiful instrument with Mall of the Arts.

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