Uchechi Princewill is a fiction writer and medical student at the University of Benin, Nigeria. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Story Tree Challenge Maiden Anthology, and PPW DREAM Anthology. He is also a winner of the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Council Unseen and Unspoken Poetry Competition.
Nigerian Wedding Music “Approved By God” and What Happens in Nigeria When your DJ Plays Music That Isn’t
My sister got married recently.
I could tell you a whole series of stories about weddings in Nigeria—Nigeria’s wedding culture is very diverse depending on the particular ethnoreligious identity of the ones getting hitched—and don’t even get me started on Nigeria’s wedding food culture. But those are for later. Here, I’ll tell you a little about the music at Nigerian weddings, using my sister’s wedding as an example.
The first thing you need to know is that Nigeria is about half-and-half Christian and Muslim, with a small (and growing) population of atheists, traditional and New Age spiritualists. Whichever of these groups you fall into determines where and how your wedding is held.
The second thing you need to know is that there are over 250 indigenous ethnic groups in Nigeria, and again, whichever of these you fall in determines where and how your wedding is held.
Then there’s the universal class thing. There’s poor (which is a lot of Nigerians, due to bad governance, a whole other story). There’s the middle class (the borders of this are ever-shifting, chased by inflation and rising costs of living; today’s middle-class is tomorrow’s poor). There's rich, so rich your sh*t flushes itself and you get a movie made about your lifestyle (no, I’m not bitter). Again, whichever of these you fall in determines what your wedding is going to be like.
Those are the three main factors. Easy, right?
My sister’s wedding was a Christian and Igbo wedding. The Igbos are one of the three major ethnic groups of Nigeria. As for class, let’s just say, with both families chipping in, we wrestled those ever-shifting borders.
During the church service, the pastor has preached a sermon which contained, with shown workings, a painstaking calculation of how much wine Jesus transfigured from water for a wedding. The pastor helpfully converted the volume of wine from whatever the Galilean measures were at the time to 33cl cans of malt (don’t ask me about the specificity of that; call it a transfiguration of his own). If you’re wondering what music gets played at the church service, it’s Christian music of the Nigerian variety. There are two popular grooves, this and this. Those are called “praise” and are meant to be danced to. There is also worship music which is slower, meant for soulful contemplation, and isn’t usually played at weddings but during normal Sunday services where there is a lot more time. Please note that, as with most attempts at providing examples of things, this is not exhaustive. These are popular examples, but Nigerian Christian music is like Nigerian music in general—a shapeshifting, tone-shifting, feel-shifting thing of many different languages (although English, Igbo and Yoruba are the most popular).
For the reception, we convene at an event center. It has a bar, a pool, and a hall where we will have the festivities.
Nigerian wedding reception music exists for one purpose and one purpose only. To be danced to. The dancing is exuberant, fevered, frenzied, frenetic, all those words. Waltzing? People do that now in Nigeria, but it is a foreign, western concept introduced by new-generation couples who really just can’t dance to Nigerian pop. Waltzing is easy. And if you can’t manage even that, just sway. Actual dancing—real Nigerian wedding dancing is something you get lost in. It requires energy. Eat before coming.
As for the music you can dance to, if you are atheist, traditionalist, or your Islam or Christianity is not the stringent type (if the really devout religious people think you’re too worldly), then congratulations! You can play all of Nigerian pop. Here is an example of a typical entrance dance. The dancing can get pretty crazy as the night goes on, with enough risqué moves to shock your sensibilities. Watching the example I provided should give you a fair, somewhat shallow understanding of Nigerian wedding dance culture. If you choose to search for more and fall down that rabbit hole, do have fun.
On the other hand, if your religiosity is of the devout variety (you believe secular music is sinful), then there’s church music for you. You’ll dance, but you’ll be dancing to God. Like here, an entrance dance to the tune of a Christian praise song. And here, a vlog of the dance section of a highly conservative Christian wedding (the audio quality is spotty, but it should be fine with earphones for a quick listen). Most of the dance moves are the same (just drop the risqué ones!), but the songs have to make sure to mention God, Jesus, Hallelujah, or Amen, and be sung by artists who are known to be religious. It’s a spectrum. The cutoff is decided by the general opinion of the church you attend.
My sister’s wedding was of the devout variety. Both my sister and her husband are horrible dancers, but they danced anyway. Most of the dances turned into a waltzy thing where they held each other and swayed. Holding each other and swaying does not require much practice. The body knows what to do. Their touches were awkward, testing things. It was cute to watch.
The MC doesn’t fail to remind them that they now have the license to be intimate. Once the pastor pronounces you man and wife, people become a lot less policing about physical contact. But still, this is a Christian wedding of the devout variety. Your pastors are watching. Maybe don’t grind in front of them.
The couple kiss. It is awkward. You’d think they’d never kissed anything before in their lives. They kiss a few more times. “Nobody, absolutely nobody,” my friend Joe tells me later, “wants to make out, or perform the basics of making out, in front of parents, church people, and cameras.” I accept that her logic makes a lot of sense. In fact, some churches frown on kissing at all at the reception. Some awkwardness on the part of my sister and her spouse is expected.
They are swaying to the music when things get spicy. A song comes on. The song is Joromi, by Simi. The holy music stops. The DJ has made a cardinal mistake. He has played a song that is not strictly endorsed by God. And it doesn’t even have words like “hallelujah” or “amen” in it. The horror! Some people are frowning.
My mother gets up. “No.” she says.
The DJ gets the memo. He changes the song. It’s such a jagged, awkward change that I would have laughed if I thought I could get away with it. The dust settles. They continue dancing. The top brass of the churchgivese a fraction of a nod in approval of such decisive action. All is well. There is no war in Ba Sing Se. At least until the next wedding.
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