Have you heard the mystical sound of udu drums? Relaxing, almost hypnotizing, it carries you into a different world: The land of the Igbo. Below, I'll tell you about the origin and traditions of these African pottery drums.
If you are looking to buy an udu, it is very unlikely that you'll find an authentic one from Africa. The traditional instruments are too fragile for export. That's why Western manufacturers started to produce modern versions of the African udu:
The Igbo people is an African tribe that occupies a region in southeastern Nigeria. In their language, "udu" means pot. And that's exactly what these drums originally were: simple water pots.
A potter once struck an extra hole in its side while crafting a water pot and discovered the beautiful sound that resulted from it. This musical pot has many different names in Nigeria: udu, abang mbre (pot for playing) or kim kim, just to name a few.
Traditionally, only Igbo women produce udus and other pottery. This beautiful video shows the process:
But why only the ladies? Because pottery is too dangerous for men: The needed clay is collected in sacred locations. The presence of a man in those secret spots would be a serious offense and cause him to become - impotent!
At least that's what the tradition says. Or is it just a clever trick of the Igbo ladies to scare the men off? In fact, pottery was a very profitable business in Igboland. Every single person depended on pots to fetch water, to cook, to store palm wine, to eat soup, to wash hands, for rituals, and and and...
Whether the women intentionally kept the business to themselves or not, selling pots was certainly their great source of income. It improved their power and social status.
Unfortunately though, this profitable business for Igbo women is a thing of the past: The wave of plastic products from East and West has hit Africa. No need to mention who benefits now.
Just like other African percussion instruments, udus have religious functions. The Igbo also use clay pots and other pottery ware for rituals and ceremonies.
It can be hard for us Westerners to imagine what that means. Here are some examples of who may set up a traditional shrine and why:
The pottery and other sacred items become a medium for spirits, ancestors and gods. The Igbo make prayers and sacrifices before them to please the spirits and ask them for help and guidance.
During these rituals, the deep haunting sounds of the udu drums are believed to be the voices of ancestors.
Today, the sounds of musical pots praise God in churches, because nowadays most Igbos are Christians. And even men fearlessly play it to entertain audiences in bars.
Of course, also famous African stars and Western percussionists have noticed the peaceful and mystical sound of this African instrument: