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 William Matczynski has passed on a couple of tunes that were direct influences on passages in African Suite. "Akuko Nu Bonto," a Fanti-language song by George Wiliams Aingo from Ghana bears a sharp resemblence to "Akinla" in the suite (and, I might add, to the classic highlife song "Saturday Night," which has been recorded by just about everybody). This version of the song was recorded in London in 1927 by Zonophone Records and distributed all across West Africa. It is included on the fascinating release Living is Hard: West African Music in Britain 1927-29 (Honest Jon's Records HJRCD 33). We can't tell you anything about Mr. Aingo but the CD Roots of Highlife (Heritage Records, 1992), now long out of print, collects a number of his recordings.
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:
University of Ghana Chorus - Ennye Ye Angye Da
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.
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 William Matczynski and to Priscilla. The beaded artwork at the top of this post is by Nigerian artist Jumah Buraimoh. You can learn more about him here.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Thursday, November 19, 2009
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.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:
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.
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.