Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Playing the Igbo Flute

Things Fall Apart, recent edition of novel published in 1958

Things Fall Apart, recent edition of novel published in 1958

Things Come Together 

The blog Brittle Paper had a fascinating article describing an ad for Wikipedia. The ad opens with Igbo flute music.

I didn’t know Wikipedia did visual ads like this.

The scene is an outdoor classroom, with the British-dressed teacher instructing the Igbo villagers who are his students. He asks first about William Butler Yeats. Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart is the answer!

Then he inquires if anyone knows the term multi-theism. Again the chief answers. I loved his response. See if you like it too.

The few phrases in Igbo are not critical to the story. But you have to watch to the end to see “the secret” revealed!

Pete Edochie, a well-known Nigerian actor, is the man beside the chief. He asks the chief how he knows so much!

The writer of the article said, “I was particularly fascinated that Okonkwo, the character played by the veteran actor Pete Edochie, was present in the story where a book about him was being discussed.”

I was puzzled by the reference to Okonkwo, because that wasn’t the name of the character in the ad. Then I realized that Pete Edochie played Okonkwo, the main character in the TV adaptation of Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. 

It aired in the 1980’s. I don’t think I saw it, so I’m guessing it was after I returned to the U.S. in 1986.

I also loved the Igbo flute playing at the beginning. If you’d like to read the whole article about this clever ad, you can find it here.

Lagos as an Inspiration

Ifeoma Obianwu Fafunwa, featured in The African Archive

Ifeoma Obianwu Fafunwa, featured in The African Archive

I’ve mentioned my friend’s daughter Ifeoma Fafunwa before. She is a playwright and has been interviewed in various media recently.

There was a post on Facebook by The African Archive of an interview with her.

She’s talking about Lagos. She said Lagos inspires her. “I can’t be anywhere else. Every day you go out and say, ‘You have to be kidding.’ [It’s] the only place I know where every time you go out, you see some madness. There are stories every day, everywhere. Some stories are too fantastic to tell! But they really happened.”

It’s true. That’s how Lagos feels.

Igbo Masquerades and the Igbo Flute

Did you watch the Wikipedia ad? Did you like the Igbo flute music?

Even before I saw the Wikipedia ad, I had already planned to tell you about the Igbo flute!

I write about the flute in my new book. It is in the section where I am describing the second stage of my husband’s parents’ wedding, called igba nkwu, or “palm-wine carrying.” I believe it took place in 1928 or ’29.

I used the term “native flute” to describe the instrument. But of course that is no description at all unless you are Igbo!

My Beta reader, Judy, asked what I meant. I’ve now revised the manuscript to say “Igbo flute.” I’ve tried to paint a picture in words.

Do you know what she is carrying, and why?

Do you know what she is carrying, and why?

The man’s family had already come once, four days earlier, to visit the woman’s family and ask for her acceptance.

At this second ceremony, his family is bringing the items of the bride price. At the end of the day she will leave with her new husband.

Here’s what I say in the chapter. I should mention the flute’s sound! But how to describe it? Can you help?

Igba Nkwu, Two Families Join

“On this day Samuel was accompanied by the same senior men and their wives, including his parents, who had come four days earlier. This time he was also joined by six members of his own age grade, the group of people born within three or four years of each other who form a community of equals. His older brother Ejike led this contingent. Again, the men had exchanged their loin cloths, their usual wear, for wrappers. The green and red lines on a white background were a stark contrast with their dark skin.

“The Onyemelukwe family brought along three musicians. The drummer came first, his instrument held over his left shoulder by a leather strap, his right hand holding the striker. He was followed by a man playing an Igbo flute, a hand-carved wooden instrument about eight inches long, with a wide opening to fit the lower lip, and holes to cover to make the melodies. The third struck an ogene, a bronze gong, with a short piece of wood.

African goats

African Dwarf Goats like the one taken by the groom’s family

“The women and the young men carried the calabashes of palm wine, the six chickens, and the yams.

Ejike led the goat. Samuel’s junior uncle had the ten shillings tied in a tattered cloth and the tobacco in a round tin container.

“The musicians begin playing well before they reached the compound. People living along the way came out to watch the procession. Some even followed them into the compound as they danced their way to the benches outside the obi where their hosts were seated.”

I’ve just learned that Peace Corps Writers will publish this second book. Now I have to finish editing!

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. I loved it. The ad.