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Before Fela Anikulapo was Fela Sowande….. The father of modern Nigerian Art Music



Fela Sowande is undoubtedly the father of modern Nigerian Art Music and perhaps the most distinguished and internationally known African composer. The most significant pioneer-composer of works in the European classical idiom, his works mark the beginning of an era of modern Nigerian Art Music. Building on the work of the composers of Nigerian church music, Sowande has laid a foundation on which younger generations of Nigerian composers have continued to build. His belief in political and cultural nationalism has been reflected in different ways in his musical compositions. The nature and development of these beliefs have been determined and influenced by the circumstances of his cultural environment, his upbringing, his training and his career.

Fela Sowande was born in Lagos in 1905 into a middle class family. His father, Emmanuel Sowande, was a priest and one of the pioneers of Nigerian church music at the beginning of the century. As Sowande himself recalls, his first contact with Western music came through him:

My father was a priest (who) taught at St. Andrew’s College, (Oyo), the mission’s teaching training institute… Music was around and I suppose some of it rubbed off on me.

This later became a motivation for him:

… to study European music properly… At that time I thought it as a liability, but I think on looking back it was quite an asset

Apart from parental influence, a more important influence came from the Church through Dr. Ekundayo Phillips, earlier mentioned. As a choir boy at Christ Church Cathedral in Lagos under Phillips, Sowande was introduced to the mainstream of European Church music repertoire as well as the Yoruba experimental compositions popular at that time in Lagos churches.

In addition to being a chorister, Sowande also studied the organ under Phillips and he recalls how he regularly listened to Phillips playing Bach, Rheinberger and others. Most of Sowande’s works were not written until after his period of study in England. In 1934 he went to London to study European classical and popular music. As an external candidate at the University of London he studied the organ privately under tutors who included George Oldroyd and George Cunningham, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists with credit in 1943, the highest English qualification for organ playing. He was awarded the Harding Prize for organ playing, the Limpus prize for theoretical work and the Read prize for the highest aggregate marks in the fellowship examination. Sowande also obtained the degree of Bachelor of Music of the University of London and became a Fellow of the Trinity College of Music.

In addition to academic pursuits, Sowande engaged in a host of professional activities while in England. He was the solo pianist in a London performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1936, and he was Organist and Choirmaster at the West London Mission of the Methodist Church from 1945 to 1952. It was during this period that he began active composition; it is not surprising that many of his early works were written for the organ. The Church element which formed the basic foundation of his musical career continued to be the axis of his musical life. Organ works written during this period included Oyigiyigi, Kyrie, Prayer, Obangiji, Gloria and Ka Mura. These, like virtually all Sowande’s organ works, are based on Nigerian melodies. This stylistic trait represents Sowande’s objective of giving his works an African flavour. As a composer, he always felt the need to communicate to an African audience. He recollected how he used to sample the reactions of the Black members of his congregation in London each time he played any of his works:

If they kept walking out I knew I was not getting to them. But if I was able to communicate my ideas to them they would sit down and I would say O.K. I got them… I have to communicate, otherwise I feel I am doing nothing. If those who listen to my music cannot hear what I am saying… to me it’s sheer waste of time.

Despite the very strong influences of European nineteenth century music on his work, the use of African melodies as thematic material seemed to him to be a major way of incorporating elements of African music in his works.

In 1941, four years before Sowande started playing for the Church, he was appointed musical adviser to the Colonial Film Unit of the British Ministry of Information in London. His main job was to provide background music for a series of educational films designed for Africa. He also gave many lecture programmes with musical illustrations for the BBC Africa Service. The lectures were given under the general title, West African Music and the Possibilities of its Development. For the film music and the lectures, he collected African melodies. These were later to be developed into original compositions, in particular, Six Sketches for Full Orchestra and the African Suite, both of which were issued by Decca Records in London in 1953. Compared with his organ works (such as Oyigiyigi and Gloria) these works show a more African derived rhythmic and harmonic character. Considering the educational objective of these works, such characteristics are not unexpected. In them the more intricate formal procedures used in the organ works were deliberately abandoned.

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