Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Roots of "Art Music"




I didn't know what to expect when I posted a recording of Fela Sowande's African Suite a couple of weeks ago, but the reaction has been surprisingly positive, not only in comments and emails but in the the number of downloads.

I say "surprisingly positive" because I didn't know what people would make of this effort to fuse African traditional music with European classical forms. Turns out that African "Art Music" isn't the obscure back ally that I thought it was. Not only is there a lot of it out there, it is the subject of a surprising amount of scholarship. Andreas Wetter directs us to two articles on his website Ntama, and the internet offers up considerable analysis for those who are interested.

Reader/listener

George Williams Aingo - Akuko Nu Bonto

Ghanaian composer Ephraim Kwaku Amu was a trail-blazer in the field of transcription of traditional African songs. He was born in 1899 and began teaching in 1920, contemporaneously with his musical education under the Rev. Allotey-Pappoe.

Soon he had composed a number of popular songs, including "Mawo do na Yesu" ("I Shall Work for Jesus"), "Onipa," "Da Wo So" and "Yen Ara Asase Ni." His cultural nationalist tendencies led to a break with the Church, and he left for London in 1937 to study at the Royal College of Music. It was here that he learned to fuse African polyphony with European forms of music. In the late '60s Amu was the director of the University of Ghana Chorus, which recorded the LP Ghana Asuafo Reto Dwom (Ghanaian Students Sing) for Afro Request Records (SPLP 5027). Amu's composition "Ennye Ye Angye Da," included on the album, was the basis for "Joyful Day" in Sowande's African Suite. From the liner notes, the lyrics are as follows:


This is a joyful day.
Why be sad, when all around is happy and merry?
Work and merrymaking alternate each other to make life enjoyable.
We pledge to engage in both, work and merrymaking, each in its appropriate time to make life happy and merry.
University of Ghana Chorus - Ennye Ye Angye Da



Miles Cleret of Soundway Records asked my wife Priscilla to translate some Igbo-language songs for inclusion on the upcoming Volume 2 of the amazing Nigeria Special. Interestingly, in light of our subject matter, one of those songs, "Egwu Umuagboho" ("The Young Maidens' Dance") is by Joy Nwosu Lo-Bamijoko (above), one of the leading lights of Nigerian Art Music. Ms. Nwosu was born in 1940 and has lived in the United States since 1996. In 1961 she journeyed to Rome on an Eastern Nigerian Government scholarship with the ambition of becoming an opera singer. Here she studied in several conservatories for ten years. Returning to Nigeria in 1972, she became Producer of Musical Programs for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and became a Musical Lecturer at the University of Lagos in 1975, holding a number of posts in that institution until 1992.

Ms. Nwosu has recorded several LPs in Nigeria and is responsible for numerous popular compositions. "Egwu Umuagboho," recorded with Dan Satch Joseph's band, is quite unusual for an Igbo song, reflecting her operatic training. It is based on the traditional girls' dance of Nwosu's Enugu region. Lyrically it is more of a "tone poem" than a straight narrative, adress to a girl named Agnes: "Beautiful Agnes. . . what slight is done to another person? . . . peace, peace Udoegwu. . . anger and quarrel. . . Agnes, it's me talking, Agnes, it's me calling:

Joy Nwosu & Dan Satch Joseph - Egwu Umuagboho

"Egwu Umuagboho" is unavailable for download at this time. Many thanks again to

5 comments:

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gracenotes said...

Many thanks for the additional info. I knew that Akinla reminded me of something I'd heard before! We'll never know whether Sowande was familiar with the Aingo recording, although there seems no reason why not. Amu is a new name to me, so all very interesting, and Joy Nwosu likewise.

Music City said...

The two flute tracks on the University of Ghana Chorus LP (the very first and the very last one on the album) are so fresh and beautiful too!

Thanks for these erudite notes and for your amazing blog! It's just fantastic.

Renegade Eye said...

You have amazing knowledge on African music.

Anonymous said...

shake keane also did a version of akinla. from memory this was based on material collected by mike mckenzie. someone might know more