Oja: The Igbo Speaking Flute

Photo source: Afrocritik

The typical Igbo person loves music, especially the traditional music made with Igbo musical instruments. The love for music by the Igbos cannot be overstated; is it the vibes, the thrills, the dance, name it! Igbo traditional music gets you in the mood. That mood to flaunt wealth, pour libations, express emotions and generally be merry. Contemporary Igbo music like those from Flavour, Phyno, etc have a mix of Igbo traditional sounds. These sounds are unique as it retains the essential characteristic of the Igbo traditional music where it “speaks”.

Igbo music elicits responses almost in a communicative sense as the musical instruments in themselves speak. In Igbo land, musical instruments are not only used for making music, they are also used to communicate to both man and spirit, translating and emitting daily experiences and events. What then is traditional Igbo music without a flute?

The Oja , also known as Opi is known as the talking flute. The sound produced from this flute is not just a random sound played but an esoteric art, making Oja the soul of Igbo music. It is known as the only instrument that speaks to gods, calms down an angry spirit, gives courage  and strength to the weak. Oja is made from wood and carved into different shapes and lengths. In some parts of Igbo land, Oja is believed to choose and speak to its master (ogbuoja).

The Igbos have a fable about a great wrestler called ‘Oja Adili’, who after beating every wrestler known in the land, led by the music of the Oja headed into the land of the spirits and successfully wrestled with some of the finest wrestlers in the land of the spirits. He refused to go home and instead boasted that he wanted the best wrestler. The spirits came together, deliberated on how to stop Oja Adili. They decided to send him his ‘chi’, a wiry erratic spirit who lifted him up with one hand and flung him on stony earth.

The above fable is often used in instructing man never to challenge his ‘chi’, but the ancestors also drew out a lesson about the Oja from the story: Oja is so enchanting and it’s spirit intoxicating enough to lead men to perform great exploits, and at the same time it can lead a man to his destruction. This is what the Igbo mean when they say “Oja adufuo dike” (the Oja leads a strong man astray).

This powerful instrument is so hypnotic that it leads men to part with their money. A good Oja player need not beg for money before he is serenaded with it. It is probably the reason in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, had more people loaning him money despite being a chronic debtor. 

There aren’t enough Oja players today, nor are there enough people interested in learning to play Oja these days. The few players of Oja do not understand the essence, the intricate art, and significance of playing the Oja. They use the instrument as a means of begging for money at occasions where important people can be seen.

To fully appreciate the Oja, one must learn to listen.