My story of the udu

Origins Of The Udu

The udu is a clay pot drum that was invented by the Igbo women of Nigeria. It is traditionally a women’s ceremonial instrument, but these days it is played by men as well. The word udu means ‘vessel’ in the Igbo language (essentially a water jug with an additional hole in the side), and this gentle instrument induces a sense of peace when played.

Power Of The Udu

Power Of The Udu

I have been using the udu for about thirty years in a variety of contexts. In this time I have come to learn about the power of this unique instrument. I have travelled far through my music, but I am yet to come across a musical instrument that brings about a state of calm more effectively and with greater ease than the udu. I am referring to playing it as well as being in the presence of its distinctive sound.

I have used the udu for therapeutic purposes, played it in sessions with children for fun, explored its sonic properties to demonstrate complex science principles in schools, enjoyed it with my family for relaxation and bonding, shared its rhythms with communities at a slavery museum to exorcise the demons of memory in a stress-free group environment, and played it in creative arts workshops and many other social and educational settings.

Over the years I have also played the udu with my partner to stimulate the dance of our children when they were in her womb and as they emerged and developed into the independent individuals who now direct the flow of our shared rhythms.

I am fascinated by the natural composition of the udu – fire, earth, water and air. In this way the construction and sound of the udu embody the essential parts and principles of every living entity. In the language of my people the Zulu, the word for air is umoya. This is also the word for spirit, which is the fifth and most vital element in the nature of creation.

My practice is strengthened by my acknowledgement and acceptance of this concept from my culture. The inhalation of the spirit brings us closer to the nature of our being, who we are. To me this makes the udu the perfect instrument for inducing a sense of wholeness and wellbeing. It is with this understanding that I continue to use this instrument in my global creative efforts.

THE STORY OF EUGENE SKEEF’S UDU PROJECT

In my post as Director of Music Development at the Pavarotti Music Centre in post-war Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina, I experienced a lot of interest in the udu (the Nigerian clay pot drum) when I carried it on music-healing journeys. It was the first one brought to the region. I also used it on a recording with Brian Eno at the Pavarotti Music Centre. On that session we featured Oha Maslo and Atilla Aksoj, two young Bosnian musicians I taught to play the udu. Even after I had returned to my family in London the resonance of the udu stayed with them. Oha and Atilla were left with the idea to create this instrument in Bosnia.
Another project I initiated with Atilla and Oha was to translate the negative effects of war into a positive healing experience. The idea was to hunt for weapons of destruction scattered around the war-torn environment and transform them into drums and other musical instruments of peace. Whilst searching for these items I found that there was a pottery tradition in Bosnia, but because of the devastation of the war the potters were not easy to locate. The dream back then (1997) was to create an udu-making industry for the shattered economy and also to contribute towards the rehabilitation of this country’s damaged communities. In my absence, Atilla and Oha found the potter Avdo Besic.
At the turn of the century I was presenting a BBC Radio 3 concert programme by Ladysmith Black Mambazo from Durban in South Africa to celebrate the dawn of the new millennium. The festival included me performing on the udu alongside poets Benjamin Zephaniah from Britain and Pitika Ntuli from South Africa. The readings were held at a museum that had been converted from a government building that was once the headquarters of the city’s infamous Native Administration Department, a regional centre of apartheid’s insidious system of Black labour control. While the museum was now a place that was seeking to reflect Durban’s urban growth and the history of its residents, it was felt by members of the audience that the building still carried a residue of that negative pre-democracy history.
At the end of the performance a group of women in the audience came forward to comment on what they felt was the “healing sound” of the clay pot. They thanked me for soothing them and immediately wanted to know more about the instrument, asking me if I could teach them to make and play it. I told them that the instrument was called an udu, and yes I could teach them to play it, but no I could not teach them to make it as I was not a potter; but I told them that I knew a potter called Clive Sithole with a studio not far from where we were, who was about to become a part of my international udu project, who I would ask to teach them.
These women were in the company of Sam Moodley, a stalwart member of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement. I knew Sam from our activist days in the seventies. She told me that the women were participants of the community work she was doing, and that they were all victims of domestic violence. I vowed to embrace their cause through the udu project.
This was the main impetus for me to develop the Udu Project into an international inter-cultural initiative. To achieve this I set up Umoya Creations as a charity. Umoya is the Zulu word for spirit, breath, wind, temperament and rumour.
The originators of the udu are Igbo women from the eastern region of Nigeria, who use it mainly for ceremonial purposes. I figured they would be the best people to consult on the making of this beautiful instrument. So in 2005 I traveled to Enugu in eastern Nigeria, where I met expert udu makers Victoria Eze, Angelina Okoro, Grace Ugwoke and Uzor Amaka Ugwoke. I filmed these amazingly gifted women in their village of Umuoyo Esimba Nrobo demonstrating the whole process of making an udu, from kneading the clay to firing and playing the completed pot drum.
The udu is currently very popular among recording artists in the west and it is fast becoming, like the djembe, one of the most sought-after percussion instruments in world music. However, the commercial interest in the udu has had no meaningful benefit for its originators. It is this inequality that has also challenged me to implement an ambitious programme to bring about an equitable exchange for the Igbo and the communities worldwide who participate in the Eugene Skeef Udu Project (So far projects have been established in Nigeria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, South Africa and Britain).
Eugene Skeef

Udu Poetry

Poetry inspired by the udu

Susan Bernstein poem for Eugene

My Udu Videos

Udu Song with the London Philharmonic
Orchestra

Eugene Skeef Dreadlocks Udu

Libation to the Spirits of Love

Udu Meditation In Seven

Upcoming Events

11 August 2018 – Meet Me At The River – Lewes, UK

An inspired gathering at the Robin Van Creveld-founded Lewes Community Kitchen (http://communitychef.org.uk/) to share my music, poetry and stories with an audience in an intimate setting. This will be an immersive creative experience at the confluence of the River Ouse and the rhythmic tides of the rivers of my youthful South African memories.

12 August 2018 - FORESTS ARE US – Lewes, UK

This is a creative project initiated with the brilliant musician and workshop leader Thomas Christen. We will focus mainly on making music with an adult group using the natural resources we will find in the forest at Vert Woods, an inspirational, working community woodland (https://vertwoods.co.uk/) – both in terms of the indigenous materials and the sounds of birds, other creatures and the generous acoustic and ambience of the environment.

September 2018 - South Africa - storytelling/workshops/masterclasses/performance

The acclaimed South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe has invited me to contribute to her storytelling festival in Durban in the first week of September.

I will use this time to start raising funds towards community educational projects I intend to do through my newly established South African non-profit company Umoya Creations.

I plan also to conduct some workshops and masterclasses connected to Beyond The Stars, my multimedia project devoted to memorialising Bheki Mseleku, the legendary South African musician who left this plane in 2008. To this end I am being helped by Aymeric Péguillan, the jazz impresario in South Africa who is highly regarded in the country as a promoter of South African jazz through the creation of professional platforms for quality performances. Aymeric has teamed up with Andre Petersen, contemporary pianist and lecturer at Wits University in Johannesburg to bring to fruition my creative vision of positioning Mseleku back at the forefront of especially young musicians’ creative education and exploration.

Bookings

Availability

I am generally available to be booked for a variety of engagements including performances, creative workshops, masterclasses, storytelling, lectures/talks and leadership training.

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Please note that my fee varies according to project.

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