Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nigerian "Art Music"

Over the years there have been efforts to adapt African music to Western "classical" instrumentation and forms. One of the countries where this has been most successful is Nigeria, where this genre is called "Art Music."

In his book The World of African Music (Pluto Press/Research Associates, 1992), Ronnie Graham briefly discusses Nigerian Art Music and regrets that it hasn't gotten more attention. Among the composers Graham cites are Lazarus Ekwueme, Samuel Akpabot and Josiah Ransome-Kuti, a pastor and choral music composer who was the grandfather of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

I've had little exposure to Nigerian Art Music. During a visit to Lagos in 1994, I came across a stack of LPs in the Jazz Hole, but passed them up (they were rather pricey), something I now regret. Recently, however, I was going through a box of my late father's things, and found a recording of African Suite (London LPS 426, 1951), probably the best-known composition of
Fela Sowande, left, considered by many the father of Nigerian Art Music.

Olufela Sowande was born on May 29, 1905, in Abeokuta, a historically important city that was the capital of the Egba United Government, an independent entity which became part of the British Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914. Sowande was introduced by his father, an Anglican priest, to choral music and was an accomplished pianist by the time he graduated from Kings College in Lagos. Exposure to jazz broadcasts from abroad led him to found the Triumph Dance Club Orchestra in the early 1930s.

During his studies in London to become a civil engineer, Sowande supported himself as a jazz musician, befriending a number of African American musicians in the process, notably Paul Robeson and Fats Waller. In 1940 he performed his own compositions on the BBC Africa Service and later served as Music Director of the Colonial Film Unit.

African Suite was recorded and released by Decca Records in the UK in 1951. This is apparently the same version, performed by the New Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Trevor Harvey, that I discovered in my father's posessions. The liner notes of a later recording state:

The African Suite, written in 1944, combines well-known West African musics with European forces and methods. For the opening movement, "Joyful Day," Sowande uses a melody written by Ghanaian composer Ephrain Amu, as he does in the fourth movement, "Onipe." In "Nostalgia," Sowande composes a traditional slow movement to express his nostalgia for the homeland (in itself a rather European idea). At the centre of the work is a restive "Lullaby," based on a folk original.

The finale of the Suite, "Akinla," traces a very singular musical history. It began as a popular Highlife tune - Highlife being a pungent, 20th-century style, combining colonial Western military and popular music with West African elements and a history of its own. Sowande then featured it as a cornerstone of his "argument" that West African music could be heard on European terms: the African Suite was originally broadcast by the BBC to the British colonies in Africa. Years later, in another colony far away, the sturdy Highlife dance tune became famous as the theme song of the long-running CBC Radio programme "Gilmour's Albums", a typically idiosyncratic choice of the host, Clyde Gilmour.
Despite working in a "Western" musical idiom, Sowande was very much a cultural nationalist and composed his last major work, Nigerian Folk Symphony, to mark his homeland's independence from Britain in 1960. However, Bode Omojola writes in his 1995 book Nigerian Art Music that:

He believed in the philosophy of cultural reciprocity and argued against what he called "apartheid in art." According to him: "We are not prepared to submit to the doctrine of apartheid in art by which a musician is expected to work only within the limits of his traditional forms of music." He therefore warned against: "uncontrolled nationalism in which case nationals of any one country may forget that they are all members of one human family with other nationals."
Following a long and fruitful career composing and teaching at Princeton, the University of Ibadan, Howard University and the University of Pittsburgh, Sowande died of a stroke in Ravenna, Ohio on March 13, 1987.

I confess that I'm not in a position to evaluate African Suite as a classical music composition, although it's certainly pleasant enough. The liner notes by Sowande (below, click to enlarge) shed some light on the thinking and influences behind the piece. I would be interested to hear from readers and listeners who have more personal knowledge of the folk tunes that were incorporated into the composition. African Suite is an illustration of the many varied forms that "African music" takes. Enjoy!

The New Symphony Orchestra - Joyful Day

The New Symphony Orchestra - Nostalgia

The New Symphony Orchestra - Onipe

The New Symphony Orchestra - Lullaby

The New Symphony Orchestra - Akinla

African Suite can be downloaded as a zipped file here.


gracenotes said...

I've known about this album for years, and have passed up at least one chance to buy it, so it's great to be able to hear it. On first listening, the orchestrated highlife Akinla is especially interesting, but I'm looking forward to giving it all some more attention. Many thanks for this.

Andreas Wetter said...

there are two articles on African Art Music by Godwin Sadoh on our Website Ntama:

infonerdtoo! (",) said...

that's ice.. keep it up.. :)

symbolkid said...

thank you alot. to my (non-african) ears it sounds absolutely european most of the time. wonderful music. would be great to listen to Nigerian Folk Symphony too.

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Chinedu said...

thanks for posting. the refrain is definitely very "African". I once had an idea of doing something quite similar and i thought it would be ground breaking. Looks I was beat to the punch 50 years ago. Wow! Thanks again!

Greg Scheer said...

Thanks so much for posting this. It's wonderful to hear the way musical cultures combine. I studied at the University of Pittsburgh, unfortunately right as Kwabena Nketia was retiring and before Akin Euba was hired. But that bad timing didn't keep me from experimenting with some African/Western compositions. Here's a string quartet I composed using African polyrhythms:

If anyone has leads to scores by African composers, I'd love to hear about them, especially things I could perform with my church choir.

9javatar said...

Hi Likembe,

I was looking for Naija art and cartoons and came across your great music blog. I like the fact that your taste is so ecclectic. Have you listened to the late King Solo Boy who is Efik? You might enjoy the sound albeit you may not understand what he is saying! Anyway I just started blogging in November and I'm trying to build traffic, so please could you add a link to my blog if you likw hat you see there. Thanks and Merry Xmas!

Godwin Sadoh said...

Greg Scheer, here are some publishers of African art music by Nigerian composer, Godwin Sadoh: - organ solos, choral works, hymn books. - organ solos and piano solos - organ/trumpet, trumpet/piano, Woodwind Quartet, Brass Quintet, Sax Quartet and orchestra etc.

Remember, All these compositions are by Godwin Sadoh [Official website:]