Fela Sowande: an early exponent of Nigerian art music

I’ve done a significant amount of research for the blog thus far, learning a great deal about the Western classical tradition in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to New Zealand. Almost all of the countries I have profiled are home to a few notable composers who are regarded as figures of national importance decades after their death. However, perhaps due to the very prominent status of traditional music in many African countries, I found relatively few such composers in the African continent. Today, I’ll profile perhaps the most famous African composer of Western classical music, Fela Sowande.

Fela Sowande.jpg
Fela Sowande (Wikipedia)

Olufela Obafunmilayo Sowande was born on May 29, 1905 in the town of Abeokuta in southwestern Nigeria. He was greatly influenced by his father Emmanuel, a priest and early innovator in Nigerian church music, and sang in several church choirs at a young age. Later in his childhood, Sowande studied organ with composer and organist Dr T. K. Ekundayo Phillips; he also served as a bandleader, playing both jazz and a popular form of music called highlife which combined Western and traditional Ghanaian ideas.

In 1934, Sowande left his native Nigeria to study European classical and popular music in London. During his time in Europe, he was soloist at a performance of Rhapsody in Blue and met several notable musicians, particularly in the jazz world. In addition to playing in a piano duo with Fats Waller, he accompanied the well-known jazz and pop singers Adelaide Hall and Vera Lynn on the organ in a few 1939 recordings and served as theatre organist for the BBC. Just prior to World War II, Sowande studied organ with the well-known British organists George Oldroyd and George Cunningham, and in 1943 he was named a fellow of the Royal College of Organists. During World War II, he obtained a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of London and worked as musical advisor for the Colonial Film Unit, writing background music for government films.

Unlike many of the composers I have profiled thus far, Sowande started composing much later in his life, writing his first significant work at the age of 40. In 1945, he was appointed as organist and choirmaster at the West London Mission of the Methodist Church, and it was here that he began to compose organ music. Much of Sowande’s organ works combine conventional Anglican church music with Nigerian melodies that were popular among the black members of his congregation; these pieces, such as Obangiji, written in 1955, exemplify his unique style of writing.

In addition to writing for solo organ, Sowande also composed solo songs and choral and orchestral works. Although his works in all of these genres maintain their characteristic richness and color, I find Sowande’s orchestral music to be the most compelling expression of his style. One of his prominent works in this genre is the vibrant “African Suite” for string orchestra, which hearkens back to the Romantic era while also incorporating fascinating rhythmic ideas.

From the information I can find, it seems that Sowande decreased his compositional output after leaving the BBC Africa Service around 1960 and moved towards teaching and ethnomusicology. After initially taking up positions with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and the University of Ibadan, he moved to the U.S. in 1968, where he taught at Howard University, the University of Pittsburgh and Kent State University until his retirement in 1982. Five years later, in March 1987, he passed away at the age of 81.

Although Sowande’s compositional career seems to have lasted under two decades and much of his work is unpublished or out of circulation, his existing recorded music is written in a unique idiom, combining the traditional musical forms of his country with European influences in a very different way than African-American contemporaries like William Grant Still had attempted. Sowande’s distinct musical voice merit a greater place in today’s concert halls.

As usual, if you enjoyed reading about this forgotten composer, please leave a like or a follow. I haven’t yet decided on a composer to profile in my next post, but stay tuned!

(I would loved to have included more details about Sowande’s orchestral works – and more information about him in general – but there seem to be almost no recordings of them around besides the linked movements of the African Suite, and the only extended-length biographies of him that exist are rather disorganized and fragmentary; I used Wikipedia and AfriClassical.com, listed as a source under the Wikipedia article. If anyone has more information or can point me to a good website detailing his works, leave it in the comments and I’d be happy to write more!)

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