Oral Literary Criticism and the Performance of the Igbo Epic

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This paper is a continuation of a series of studies in which I have been looking at various aspects of the possible relationships between the poetics of oral epic performance among the Ohafia Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria and traditional aesthetic principles as voiced by local connoisseurs, ordinary listeners, and the bards themselves, either in the course of performances or in interviews recorded outside the various performance contexts. As I have pointed out in the earlier studies (Azuonye 1983, 1990a-d, and 1992), oral literary criticism is by no means peripheral to the Ohafia Igbo oral epic tradition. My field investigations of its dynamic interplay with performance confirms Parry’s (1928) and similar observations by subsequent scholars that oral literary criticism not only mirrors and defines the ethnoaesthetic standards by which singers, performances, and particular tales are ranked and enjoyed within a society, but that, in addition, it provides valuable parameters for the critical analysis of the features of the oral texts both in relation to their ethnohistorical significance and for the comparative understanding of some cross-cultural features of the genre to which they belong.

In providing further illustrations of the dynamic interrelationship between performance and oral literary criticism, I will focus here on one specific principle invoked by a highly articulate bard and oral critic, Ogbaa Kaalu (OK) of Abia Ohafia, in a detailed critique of the performances of another bard, Kaalu Igirigiri (KI) of Abia Ohafia, which I tape-recorded in April 1976. If I go so far back in time to draw my data, it is simply because the kind of evidence that they represent has since then not turned up again in my field studies with the same kind of clarity that I find in the set of data presented in this paper.


Published in Oral Tradition, 9/1 (1994): 136-161: http://journal.oraltradition.org/issues/9i/azuonye

This paper was originally presented at a conference on “The Epic in Africa, Middle East, and Asia: Current Trends in the Scholarship” organized by the Department of Folklore and Folklife, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, on February 28, 1992. Revised versions were subsequently presented to the faculty and students of the Department of Black Studies, University of Massachusetts at Boston, on April 8, 1992; and at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, under the joint auspices of the Council on African Studies, the Yale Center for International Area Studies, and Silliman College, on April 14, 1992. I am deeply grateful to Professors Margaret Mills (University of Pennsylvania), Jeremiah Cotton (University of Massachusetts at Boston), and Hugh Flick (Silliman College, Yale University), for creating the forums for these presentations. My gratitude also extends to Professor Dan Ben-Amos (University of Pennsylvania) for comments and encouragements that have led to a substantial reworking of the original text.



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