Sunday, April 06, 2008

Yoruba Martial Arts

My good friend Asis - Blacksmith and Martial Artist

I took a serious interest in the culture of the Yoruba people of Southwest Nigeria in the late 80's. Throughout the 1990's I was fortunate to be able to study under some very knowledgeable Elders such as Medahochi Kofi Omowale Zannu, Chief Adebolu Fatunmise, and Dr. Afolabi Epega. I made my first “pilgrimage” to Yorubaland in 2001, and have returned every year since with a new group of select, intrepid students for continuing education.

The Yoruba have an indigenous martial arts tradition that is largely unknown outside of West Africa. Interestingly enough, their arts appear quite different that the Muslim-influenced martial traditions typically found in the North. A close parallel to the Filipino Martial Arts is that the Yoruba styles are essentially the same theme with variations from village to village. I have observed these fighting styles in Ode Remo, Sagamu, Ile Ife, Ibadan, Abeokuta, as well as in ethnically Yoruba enclaves found “next door” in the Republic of Benin.*

The Yoruba word for warrior is Akin (literally “A Brave Person”). Akin can refer to a prolific military leader or even a distinguished hunter (Ode). In traditional culture, hunters exist on the very fringes of society, and have an extensive awo (secret knowledge) pertaining to fighting and combat, yet are not what we would think of as “martial artists” in our common usage of the word. Some of the terms used to describe martial arts practitioners as we would think of them are: Oniijakadi, Alonilowogba, and Eleeke.

The umbrella term for the martial art of the Yoruba is “Gidigbo”. If this word has an exact translation, I am unaware of it. Gidigbo encompasses various sub-disciplines such as wrestling (catch-as-catch-can), punching, and kicking - similar to the neighboring Hausa martial arts of Dembe, Ishakafa, and Kukawa - as well as fighting with machetes. Gidigbo matches are sometimes organized around important social functions, although regional tournaments just for the sake of sport are also common throughout the year. The bout typically begins with both opponents facing off, hands crossed (Enter the Dragon style) and quickly closes to all-out grappling - with elbows and head-butts added for good measure. When one of the wrestlers is thrown or otherwise knocked to the ground the match is concluded. Its all in good fun, but take it from me they do it with great gusto and it is very easy to be injured. Broken fingers, dislocated elbows/shoulders and torn knees are quite common.

The savvy Oniijakadi does not rely on mere physical strength alone, but brings all manner of strange charms (juju), incantations (awure) and paraphernalia obtained from a trusted Onisegun (medicine man) to the fight in order to gain an edge over the competition. This is very similar the concept of orasion (prayers) and anting-anting (amulets) in Filipino martial culture.

Whenever I go back to Nigeria and Benin, I have a number of teachers and sparring partners that I hook up with to learn new techniques or to rekindle old rivalries (strictly in a friendly way!) Of course, I spring for the refreshments afterwards, and I also reciprocate by teaching them some Kali in return (there is no problem finding sticks). On our most recent trip to Ijebuland, I had the teenagers collect old pillowcases, rags, and sandals and with some duct tape that I had brought we had a perfectly functional outdoor boxing gym - complete with heavy bag and focus mitts - and were soon working on punching drills. Being that I neglected to introduce the concept of a mouthguard, I hope those kids still have their teeth by the time I go back next year.

* I am in the process of editing footage of West African Martial Arts including matches, festivals, interviews with fighters and teachers, and other cool surprises that I have filmed during my travels. Stay tuned.


João Paulo Esperança said...

Any relation to capoeira? I just remembered that candomblé rituals still use the Ioruba language and there are some Ioruba words in some of the capoeira songs used in the "roda".

guro jeff davidson said...

I don't know much about the relationship of Candomble and Capoeira, my friend. I think that Candomble would have Yoruba influence, and I think Capoeira would have more Kongo influence.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I'm Yoruba and I was just curious if we had any kind of martial like a lot of Asian countries do...

Clarence In Africa said...

Hello, I'm interested in what you have learned about Yoruba martial arts. My girlfriend's family is actually from Ijebuland and I you like to communicate with you on martial arts contacts there. my email is Do you have any video of the fighting there?

guro jeff davidson said...

Hi Clarence, thank you for your comment. Yes, i do have video of the fighting there, and its not for the squeamish. Feel free to email me or call me and I'll see if I can help you out.


Anonymous said...

Good Evening,
Have you heard of a fight stlye called Ljala ? Only interesting because I heard it mentioned on a wordpress site !

Anonymous said...

Hello, I wondered if you have heard of a Yoruba martial style called 'Ljala' - I saw it written in reference within a wordpress document, but had never heard of it! Have You?

guro jeff davidson said...

Se Alafia ni @ Olanrewaju,

Thank you for the question. I have never heard of that word. Perhaps you mean "IJALA"?

IJALA is not a martial art, but rather it is form of poetry mostly chanted by hunters praising the Orisa Ogun.

Ore re


Unknown said...

Greetings, and great work. May I ask: does Ijakadi/Gidigbo contain joint manipulations, breaks and dislocation as well open hand hits and restraing techniques useful for none lethal encounters where you want to immobilize an attacker? Again, great work, and thank you!

guro jeff davidson said...

Greetings Ken. Gidigbo on the physical level is essentially what we might call "folk-wrestling". Much like you would see in places like Iran, Turkey, Mongolia, etc.

It is not organized like the martial arts systems of Asia, and is very adaptable. There are a variety of techniques that will vary from village to village. My own expression of the Yoruba martial arts is highly informed by Kali and Silat.

Anonymous said...

Mr Davidson,

Please answer the following questions, you state above that Gidigbo has head butts and elbows what are these techniques called in the Yoruba language?? Also what are the hand striking techniques called in this system in Yoruba??

I read somewhere on the net that the Yoruba have a fighting technique called Iqba, what is this and what are the techniques??

Please reply

Carlos Thompson said...

Martial Arts of Africa - Gidigbo:

Unknown said...

Hello - you mentioned you were editing some footage of the Yoruba arts. Is any of that available to share publicly?