Yoruba People: Language, Culture & Music

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Africa is home to many cultures, and each is distinct in its own ways. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and traditions of the Yoruba people, and talk about why they have become such a popular topic around the world.


Humans evolved in Africa. That means that humans have lived in Africa longer than anywhere else, have had more time to develop distinct cultures, and these cultures have had more time to grow, change, and adapt. So it's not surprising to learn that Africa is one of the most diverse places in the world, home to dozens and dozens of distinct ethnic groups. One such group which has been gaining international attention for their arts, music, and role in African history are the Yoruba. The Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, and are also found in Benin and Togo to a smaller degree. Really, they are not a single people but rather a collection of groups that all share a common language and culture and who have made an impact on sub-Saharan Africa. This continent may be the ancestral home to all of us, but to the Yoruba it's still a place they're proud to call home today.

Most Yoruba are concentrated in Nigeria

Yoruba History

So, who are the Yoruba people? In terms of ethno-linguistics, the Yoruba belong to the Niger-Congo language family, which covers many cultures of that region. The Yoruba first appear in the written record from their interactions with Portuguese traders. Unfortunately, the early Yoruba people were not just merchants in this market but also parts of it; a large number of African slaves transported to the colonies of the Americas were Yoruba. This heritage is one reason for the recent global interest in Yoruba traditions. The Yoruba region was invaded in the 19th century by another ethnic group, the Fulani, who pushed them south into the regions they occupy today. In the early 20th century, most Yoruba people fell under control of the British Empire, where they remained for about 60 years before Nigeria gained independence.

That's the official history of the Yoruba, but there is another as well. According to Yoruba mythology, their people descended from a god-hero named Odua, sometimes spelled Oduduwa, who helped create the earth and was the first to live upon it. Yoruba society to this day is kinship based, with each clan claiming a common ancestor, and Odua is seen as the ancient ancestor of all Yoruba clans.

Yoruba Language

The Yoruba language is shared by all Yoruba people, although they may speak different dialects. It is a tonal language, which means that a single syllable can have multiple meanings depending on the intonation of pitch of how it is said. However, it is written using the Roman alphabet. By some estimates, up to 22 million people speak Yoruba throughout Africa.

Yoruba Culture

As already noted, Yoruba societies are kinship-based, with each clan claiming a shared common ancestor. Traditionally, Yoruba clans lived in large compounds featuring a single entrance, a large courtyard, and rooms for each family. Today, traditional compounds are being replaced by those made of cinderblocks and iron and which have running water, electricity, and other services. Many Yoruba, however, are also moving to the cities in search of work. Yoruba in the cities tend to congregate into ethnic enclaves, some of which can get pretty large.

Yoruba communities are basically agricultural, with men performing the labor but women taking a large role in selling agricultural products in the markets of Nigeria and Benin. Yoruba farmers grow lots of yams, corn, and peanuts (staples of their diet) but also cash crops like cacao which provide an income. Men are responsible for most physical labor, while women occupy much of their time with basket-weaving and other chores. Yoruba society is patrilineal, with women moving into the clan compound of their husbands.

One thing about Yoruba culture that has fascinated many people is their religion. Although there are many who practice Christianity and Islam, many Yoruba still adhere to their traditional religion. Yoruba religion is complex, featuring well over 100 deities, but only one supreme god that rules them all, named Olorun. The Yoruba calendar is full of religious holidays and rituals to worship these gods, most of which are practiced even by Christian and Muslim Yoruba as a form of cultural dedication.

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