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Nigerian Art Music

Bode Omojola

2. Historical Background of Modern Nigerian Art Music

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1European influenced musical idioms have been emerging in Nigeria since the beginning of this century. These idioms can be classified into four distinct categories: indigenous church music, urban syncretic popular forms, modern folk opera and Nigerian modern Art Music. The emergence of these forms is a result of an historical process which began in the middle of the nineteenth century. Three main factors can be identified as directly responsible for their growth.

  1. the emergence of a Western educated, African elite and the consequent creation of a viable atmosphere for the practice and consumption of European music, which was vibrantly sustained in the nineteenth century by economic and political factors largely dictated by Europe

  2. the eventual frustration of the Westernised African elite who had hoped to gain more political and economic power from their European counterparts

  3. a spirit of cultural awakening, when the educated African elite in Nigeria, who initially distanced themselves from the local populace and, therefore, traditional Nigerian culture, later realised that political and economic independence needed to be preceded by a greater awareness of their own culture

2The greatest challenge to European power took place, naturally, in the Church, since it was the most important focal point for educated Africans in nineteenth century Nigeria. Within the Church itself, African Christians agitated for missionary policies more sympathetic to African customs and beliefs. One of the significant results of this agitation was the emergence, by the beginning of this century, of Nigerian hymnody. In addition to being the bedrock of the growth of modern Nigerian music, the new indigenous church music constituted the most significant artistic symbol of the nineteenth century Nigerian challenge to European hegemony. The main features of this historical process will be highlighted in some detail.

The Multi-Cultural Setting of Lagos and its Environs

3Within the geographical area now defined as Nigeria, European influences were, in the nineteenth century, limited to coastal towns such as Lagos, Abeokuta, Calabar, and regional centres such as Ibadan and Onitsha. The nineteenth century setting of Lagos and its environs, including Abeokuta and Badagry — the area known as the citadel of Christianity in Nigeria — clearly illustrated how some Nigerian towns were transformed in the latter half of the nineteenth century from their pre-colonial rural setting to a relatively cosmopolitan environment. In addition, nineteenth century European influences were perhaps more noticeable in this area than in any other part of the country. As a result, the nature and pattern of the development of modern Nigerian music have largely been influenced by the nineteenth century cosmopolitan setting of Lagos and its environs. It is for this reason that the discussion that follows concentrates mainly on this particular area.

  • 1 See M. Omibiyi, Islamic influence on Yoruba music, African Notes 8(2), 1981.

4Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, musical activities in Yorubaland (where Lagos is situated) were mainly traditional. Although there had been some external influences on Yoruba musical life1 they were either too minimal, or not different enough in principle from Yoruba musical tradition, to precipitate a fundamental change or initiate a new idiom. It was due mainly to the arrival of returning ex-slaves from the West Indies and Brazil, and European businessmen, missionaries and colonial administrators that a social niche was created for the initiation and development of a new, European, musical idiom. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, European contact with Nigeria, which dates back to the fifteenth century, was mainly on a commercial basis. Britain passed an act in 1807 which made it illegal to trade in slaves. In addition, it established a squadron with the responsibility of freeing any recaptured person found in Sierra Leone. About the same time, freed slaves from the West Indies were settling in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Many of these freed slaves were descendants of the Yoruba people of Western Nigeria, and a good number of them chose to go back to their original home. The British assisted them and by 1850 at least 3 000 thousand had returned to settle in Badagry, Abeokuta and Lagos; they were called Saros by the local people.

5It was not until the introduction of Christian missionary propaganda in Badagry and Old Calabar in 1842 and 1846 respectively that settlers began to arrive from outside Nigeria.

6The Church Missionary Society (CMS), the largest of all such societies, established their first mission in Badagry in 1845 and a year later in Abeokuta. Other missions included the Methodists at Badagry, 1842; the Baptists at Ijaye, 1853 and the Catholics at Lagos, 1867.

  • 2 Biodun Adediran, The Frontier States in Western Yorubaland 1600-1889, IFRA, Ibadan, 1994, pp. 181-1 (...)

7The Christian missionaries were eager to spread the gospel to other parts of the country. This was only possible where peace reigned and this was far from the situation in Yorubaland, where a series of inter-ethnic conflicts were taking place. The Fon of Abomey,2 who lived in the present day Republic of Benin, led a series of invasions against the Egba in Abeokuta, while two different factions (one led by Akintoye and the other by Dosumu) were struggling for the throne in Lagos. Ostensibly, as a result of these internal wranglings and at the request of the missionaries, the British Foreign Office and Admiralty took over Lagos in 1851. Ten years later a further step was taken by the British who established the colonial regime with the acquisition of the colony of Lagos.

8Meanwhile, missionary and commercial activities continued to expand with the corresponding rapid transformation of Lagos into a multi-cultural urban society. For example, in 1866 there were at least 1 500 Saros, 1 200 Brazilians and 42 Europeans in Lagos. The local population stood at 25 000. Emigrants (the Saros and the Brazilians) were the initial congregations of the new churches. While the Saros, with their Sierra Leonean background of English liberal education were employed as teachers in the mission schools and as civil servants in the colonial administration; the Brazilians, most of whom were uneducated, were employed as construction workers. According to Ajayi:

  • 3 J.F.A. Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891. Longman, London, 1965, pp. 51-52.

... the missionary movement kept most of them (the Saros and the Brazilians) together in a few focal centres; gave them scope and management. For the Sierra Leoneans they offered commercial opportunities, employment as catechists, evangelists and school masters. For the Brazilians, houses to build, roads to construct and facilities to practice the arts they had acquired.
It was the emigrants who introduced the missionaries into the country and they were an essential and integral part of the missionary movement.3

9As a result of their relative social advantage (compared with their local Yoruba counterparts), the Saros were among the first Nigerian educated elite. They were not just part of the missionary movement in the country, they also constituted a significant medium through which European concert music grew. They had been exposed to European music not only in the West Indies but also in Sierra Leone through the Christian faith, as well as through Western education. They developed a taste for European, especially Victorian, concert tradition and theatre music that, as will be shown below, they sought to promote in Nigeria. Their desire was assisted by the cosmopolitan and social setting of Lagos which provided the venue and the audience for the performance of European and European derived musical idioms.

Philanthropie Societies and Concert Activities

  • 4 L.C. Gwam, Great Nigerians, Lagos Daily Times, n.d., p. 40.

10A significant feature of the social atmosphere in Lagos was the formation of voluntary philanthropic societies that often organised concerts either to raise runds for new church buildings or for pure entertainment. Membership of these societies was largely confined to the Saros. Names which featured prominently in their activities included Samuel Ajayi Crowther (who was later to become the first African bishop), J.L. Davies, Robert Campbell, J.O. Payne and Herbert Macaulay. These personalities had been trained by the Church Missionary Society of Freetown and had a solid background of English liberal education with an emphasis on English, study of the Bible and music, before coming to Nigeria. For example, J.L. Davies who came from Freetown, in 1856, became the wealthiest trader in Lagos. A devoted Anglican, it was he who donated the land on which St. Paul’s Church was built in 1872. He helped to found the Lagos Grammar School in 1859 and the first Lagos public library in 1872. His wife was a singer and pianist. Both were members of The Academy, a cultural and philanthropic society which organised the first European concert to be held in Lagos in 1861.4 The first president of this society was Robert Campbell, a Jamaican, who later became the richest publisher in Lagos. In 1862, he left The Academy to found The Anglo-African, a society which promoted a cordial relationship between the British and the African community in Lagos. The society was also helpful in promoting European classical music concerts.

  • 5 Lagos Observer, 9 November 1882.
  • 6 African Times, 1 March 1876.
  • 7 African Times, 1 May 1876.

11Another body, The Philharmonic, was formed in 1873 by J. Otunba Payne. Most of the concerts organised by this society took place in the Philharmonic Hall, later known as Phoenix Hall.5 Another such musical society was The Lagos Espirit de Corps formed in 1876. Its musical director was also J. Otunba Payne.6 The African Times of 1 May 1876 reported one of its most successful concerts. The concert was organised by Lt. Governor Lees to welcome Sir William Hewett, the British Consul in Lagos, who had just returned from a tour of Ekitiland. ‘All the principal people, native as well as European, were there... ‘ 7

  • 8 Lagos Times, 18 December 1880.

12The Brazilian community also featured, though less prominently, in the concert activities of nineteenth century Lagos. Although their Catholic and language background kept them away from the Black emigrant community there were occasional references to their concert activities which often attracted a wide audience. The Brazilian Dramatic Company, which was directed by P.Z. Silva, was the most important channel for presenting Brazilian organised entertainment in Lagos. One concert organised by this society took place in 1882 to mark the birthday of Queen Victoria.8 In 1884 another society, The Mechanics Amateur Dramatic Association was formed.

  • 9 Lagos Observer, 19 June 1884.

13Like the Brazilian Dramatic Company, this society was mostly made up of Brazilians. One of its concerts, recorded in the press, was held at the Phoenix Hall in 1884.9

Activities of Church and Mission Schools

14The church complemented the activities of private bodies in the organization of European musical activities mainly through its mission schools. These schools also provided training for African musicians who later became the pioneers of indigenous Nigerian church music. In addition to the use of hymns and liturgies, performances which featured instrumental and vocal items from the classical tradition were organised by mission schools.

  • 10 Lagos Observer, 9 November 1882.
  • 11 Lagos Times, 12 October 1881.

15The first of such schools was the Lagos Grammar School which was established in 1859. In 1872, the school formed its own entertainment society. In the same year this society staged a concert to raise money for a school harmonium. Musical training and concerts were also emphasised at a sister school, the CMS Female Institute, founded in 1872. Robert Coker, a composer who was popularly referred to as the Mozart of West Africa, maintained a high standard of musical training in the school. The first Nigerian to study music to a professional level, Robert Coker was trained initially at the CMS Institute at Abeokuta before proceeding to England in 1880. He returned to the school — the CMS School, Lagos — to organise annual concerts with the help of another Saro, Dr. Nathaniel King, who was then the choirmaster at St, John’s Church, Aroloya, Lagos.10 He and Robert Coker were the two most influential names associated with school and mission organised concerts in Lagos towards the end of the nineteenth century.11 The activities of Lagos Grammar School and the CMS Grammar Schools are only a few examples of the importance attached to musical training in the programmes of many of the secondary schools in nineteenth century Lagos.

The Concerts

16The programmes of concerts illustrate the influence of Victorian England on the musical life of Lagos in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century. Prominently featured in these programmes were songs, vocal duets and quartets, religious plays and musicals, arrangements of English folk songs and excerpts from cantatas and oratorios, especially the music of Handel and Mendelssohn. Instrumental performances were generally restricted to those on the harmonium, the piano and the violin, with occasional appearances of the police band. Musical items were often performed along with plays and poetry that showed a particular fascination for Shakespeare. Traditional Nigerian pieces were rarely performed, even though most of the performers were African.

  • 12 See Lynn Leonard, The growth of entertainment of non African origin in Lagos, M.A. thesis, Ibadan, (...)

17Publicity for concerts organised by schools, churches and private organisations was usually by word of mouth and through hand-made and printed posters. Tickets were distributed mainly in schools and churches at prices which ranged between two and four shillings (10 and 20p). But these prices were often more than the local population could afford and only the Saro emigrants could attend. Since it was not until 1890 that Lagos had electricity, candies, kerosene, gas and palm oil lamps provided the lighting.12

18It is necessary to emphasise that although European musical culture flourished in Lagos and other towns like Abeokuta and Badagry, it never really influenced the musical tastes of the local people — that is — the traditional Yoruba. The Saro who organised these concerts existed in a class of their own, separated socially from the indigenous people. As a result, Yoruba musical tradition continued almost totally untouched by European music. This situation, which is different from that which obtained in Igboland, continued till the end of the nineteenth century, and it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that syncretic forms began to emerge amongst the Yoruba. Anthony King explains this phenomenon very clearly. According to him:

  • 13 Anthony King, Nigerian music. In: New Grave Dictionary of Music, Vol. 13. Macmillan, London, 1980, (...)

The initial separation of a mission educated elite from the rest of the community (the Yoruba natives) caused a widening division of Christian church music and school music and its teachers from Yoruba music as a whole. The division acted as a barrier behind which Yoruba music as a whole was able to flourish unaffected by the music introduced by the missionaries, the commercial entrepreneurs and finally the colonial administration. In fact it was not the Yoruba musicians who had to come to terms with the music of the invading culture but the musical among the new elite who in time found that they had to adapt to traditional music.13

19It is important to see the origin of modern Nigerian music against the background of the need felt by the nineteenth century Nigerian elite to compose music that, unlike European music which they had hitherto patronised enthusiastically, would be more relevant to Nigerian culture. Since the early training and social experience of these educated Africans had been mainly European in content, and considering the fact that their knowledge of African music was extremely limited, European forms provided the stylistic framework of the immediate attempts to compose Nigerian music. Thus the African elements which are used in their works often exist only on a peripheral level. This stylistic paradigm — the use of African elements within European structural framework — continued to be the dominant trend in modern Nigerian music for some time.

20Newspaper critics in the nineteenth century often emphasised the need to maintain very high standards in the performance of European music in Nigeria. Reviewing a concert in the Lagos Observer of 21st June, 1883, ‘Cherubino’, a regular arts critic of the paper, wrote that ‘Miss A. Johnson is decidedly a brilliant player though I fancy she was unfortunate in the selection of the piece which was a variation of the Blue Bells of Scotland. Consisting of long runs, the air being led with the left hand and a lot of fireworks darting from the right, she, however, was master of her scales’. In another review he wrote that:

  • 14 Lagos Observer, March 2 1882.

... those who had experience of musical performance in Europe fully understand the reason why ours in this country is always below par. In Europe, artists are specially trained for their work. They advance from the province to the capitals. They are accustomed to act and sing every night of their lives and therefore gain an ensemble totally unknown in this country.14

21The cordial relationship which existed for most of the nineteenth century among the various cultural groups in Lagos was, however, not to continue forever. Towards the end of the century, for political, economic and cultural reasons, the Black community in Lagos began to question the dominance of the Europeans. European musical activities suffered in this process and traditional Nigerian music began to find its way into the church and on to the concert platform.

Schisms within the Church and the Genesis of Cultural Nationalism

22It was a general belief among the Saros that as time went on there would be more opportunity for them to occupy senior cadre posts within existing institutions; the church, mission schools and the civil service. The reverse was the case. They were also largely deprived of participation in political decisions. In 1872, the Lagos Local Government, which was established in 1861, employed its first African representative only after much agitation. In addition, European commercial activities increased in Lagos, especially after it became a colony in 1861, as more French and German businessmen arrived to compete with each other. In 1879 British companies on the Niger were amalgamated to form the United Africa Company — a stronger body to withstand the competition of the French and the Germans. The big European trading companies naturally forced most of the African small-scale traders into bankruptcy.

  • 15 E A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact on modern Nigeria. Longman, London, 1960, p. 243.
  • 16 ibid., p. 197.

23Within the various Christian denominations, tension was beginning to develop in the hitherto cordial relationship between Africans and Europeans. African clergymen were not appointed in sufficient numbers. The few existing African clergy were not being promoted. European church leaders wanted Africans to abandon some of their traditional customs, such as polygamy and traditional ritual ceremonies. As Ayandele observed, Africans were taught to ‘regard traditional customs and institutions with abhorrence... for the adoption of European culture was an outward sign of the inward transformation from the pagan to the Christian life’.15 As a result, the Africans began to reassess their relationship with the Europeans. As they became more self-assured they simultaneously demanded a more positive approach to traditional African culture from their European colleagues. In 1881 the first pamphlet advocating the establishment of an African Church was published.16 Seven years later the first ‘African’ Church was formed, the Native Baptist Church.

  • 17 J.S. Webster, The African Church among the Yorubas. Clarendon Press, London, 1964, p. 62.

24According to Webster, ‘the precedent set in 1888 was repeated in 1891, 1901 and 1917 until every mission in Lagos — the CMS, the Wesleyan Church, the Baptist and the Catholic — had been fragmented.’17 Thus the United Native African Church, a breakaway faction of the African Church and the Methodist Church (UAM) was formed on August I4th, 1891. The United African Methodist Church was founded in 1917 while the African Church was founded in 1901 by a breakaway faction of St. Paul’s Church, Breadfruit, Lagos. The Aladura Church and the Cherubim and Seraphim which epitomise the Africanisation of Christianity in Nigeria were founded in the 1920s and it is in these missions that we find the earliest use of African music within the Christian Church.

Music in the New African Churches

25One of the most important issues which engaged the attention of the early leaders of the new churches was the extent to which European elements should be retained in the new churches, especially in regard to hymns, liturgy and dogma. Traditional music had been banned in the orthodox churches since it was said to carry pagan connotations.

The Performers of Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1927

  • 18 ibid.
  • 19 ibid.

26It had been used only on a few occasions for evangelical purposes and was not considered fit to be used during proper services. As Webster stated, when the United Native African Church used it in 1891 during church services, they were ‘prosecuted in the Courts for profaning a holy edifice. African music was not respectable, associated with the old rather than the new Africa. Many, especially in Lagos, had lost their ear for it. It was becoming foreign’.18One of the strongest advocates for the use of hymns based on, or derived from traditional African music was Mr. Mojola Agbebi, leader of the Native Baptist Church. He actually instructed members of his church in Ekitiland not to use European hymns in the Church for seven years to allow traditional music to take its rightful place in Ekiti churches. Agbebi’s efforts were complemented by those of A.K. Ajisafe, an outstanding hymnologist, who pioneered the use of native airs in his church, the U.A.M. (Eleja) in 1917. In addition, drums were introduced by the Ethiopian and Brotherhood Churches, two small missions established in 1918.19

27The efforts at incorporating traditional African music into the Christian liturgy acquired greater significance when, in 1918, The African Church Choir was established. Its main objective was to improve traditional folk tunes — so that they could be used during church worship. This choir was formed by A.K. Ajisafe with the encouragement and assistance of Aboyade-Cole, then a priest at African Bethel Cathedral in Lagos.

28The cultural revival in the church spread to the concert platform. For example, Herbert Macaulay, a man who later became the father of Nigeria’s nationalist movement for independence, formed a society known as the Melodramatic Society. This society promoted traditional music by organizing a series of concerts which featured Yoruba music prominently. Also, in 1911, Claude Pratt, one of the outstanding singers of the period, recorded several Yoruba songs.

29The cultural reawakening of the African Churches also spread to the orthodox churches whose leaders were initially reluctant to use African music in their churches. Apart from their alleged paganistic character, Yoruba songs were banned because they were ‘offensive songs’ not worthy of being used in holy worship. According to Governor Moloney of Lagos, an informed music enthusiast:

  • 20 C.A. Moloney, On the melodies of Madingo, Ewe, Yoruba... of West Africa, Journal of the Manchester (...)

... the native character (of the Yoruba people) partakes often of a nature spiteful and revengeful on the occasions of trivial offence and gives rise to many songs of an offensive turn which have necessitated at times, in support of public peace, the interference of the Government as to grants of permission to sing or play in public. This is why in Yoruba no attention to setting to music native airs seems to have been given.20

30Despite their alleged ‘offensive and pagan character’, African songs were, from the beginning of this century, allowed to be used in the Anglican churches. This is because the orthodox churches began to lose converts to the new African churches in increasing numbers. Music became the chief means of propaganda among the churches — new and orthodox — a feature which sheds light on the age long importance of music in religious worship in Africa. At St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Lagos, Emmanuel Sowande, Father of Fela Sowande, the leading Nigerian (African composer) of African modern art music, and others such as Canon J.J. Ransome-Kuti (grandfather of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, one of Nigeria’s most popular musicians) began to introduce traditional songs (set to Christian texts) for use in the church at the beginning of this century. These were only a few instances of the increasing tendency for European leaders of orthodox churches to allow the use of traditional music in the church. In a letter written by a C.M.S. parish leader, Rev. J. White, to Governor Moloney towards the end of the nineteenth century, he states that:

  • 21 ibid., p. 290.

The Otas (a sub-ethnic group among the Yoruba) being reported to he famous native poets and musicians and finding a difficulty to teach the new converts to Christianity English tunes, I asked them to compose their own hymns and songs, which they did, subject to my corrections with regard to things unscriptural, and the collection contained in the book is the result. They are used to this day in divine worship. There is nothing like rhyming or metre. The hymns and songs being their own composition, they are intelligibly sung by old and young, and I have no doubt that the use of it has tended to deepen their devotion.21

31Personalities who have, in the first half of this century, emerged as the greatest champions of indigenous hymnody include T.K.E Phillips, W.W.C. Echezona, A.K. Ajibola, Reverend Ransome-Kuti, G.B. Oriere, Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte, Okongwu, N. Okoli, Olaolu Omideyi and Dayo Dedeke. Their works were to later provide a foundation for the emergence and growth of contemporary Art Music in Nigeria.

  • 22 Ayandele, op. cit. p. 241 ff.

32The increased interest in traditional music was only part of the wind of cultural reawakening blowing in the late nineteenth century. It is necessary to mention further that the Saros conceded the fact that they knew very little of the African traditional culture which they sought to project. Consequently they realised the need to learn more about traditional culture. This is clearly seen in the number of research projects into Yoruba folklore that were begun towards the end of the nineteenth century. These included Yoruba Mythology (1896) by Moses Lijadu and Yoruba Heathenism (1899) by James Johnson. Institutions which promoted such research were The West African Psychical Institute established in 1901 and The Lagos Native Research Society founded in 1903 under the secretary ship of the Reverend H. Atundaolu.22 Other notable features of this cultural nationalism were the increased use of traditional dress and the adoption of traditional names by the Saros to replace their original English names. For example, David B. Vincent became Mojola Agbebi, while J.H. Samuel (the man who founded the Lagos Institute in 1901) became Adegboyega Edun.

The Emergence of Urban Popular Music: Highlife

  • 23 See for example, E.M. Smith, Popular Music in West. Africa. African Music 3(1), 1962.

33Parallel with, and as significant as the syncretic experiments in both the orthodox and indigenous churches in Nigeria was the emergence of a modern, urban, popular music idiom usually referred to as Highlife. The concept of Highlife will, however, have to be seen in a wider context than has been suggested in the few studies on this topic.23

34In Nigeria, Highlife describes not simply a musical genre but also a musical phenomenon. While it is possible to identify the common stylistic features of Highlife music it is also plausible to view the term as a generic label which encompasses and defines different manifestations of the results of the contact between European and African music.

35As a genre, its emergence in the 1950s in Nigeria epitomised an historical process which started in the last half of the nineteenth century. Highlife symbolises the musical acculturation which has taken place in Nigeria, not only within formal institutions and contexts like the church and the night club, but also in the informal, everyday musical life of the people. For example, European influenced African melodies commonly used in the everyday life of Nigerians, are part of the modern musical phenomenon which Highlife defines. Highlife defines in basic terms the nature of the musical syncretism which permeates the entire spectrum of modern Nigerian music: the incorporation of African rhythmic vitality with European derived harmony.

  • 24 For a study of Juju music see A. Alaja-Browne, Juju music: A study of its social history and style. (...)

36Within the history of urban popular music in Nigeria, Highlife as a genre occupies a pivotal historical and musical position. By integrating the rhythmic vitality of African music with European tonal harmonics, by combining traditional Nigerian instruments with European ones, Highlife music stands historically and structurally between the European-style band music of nineteenth century Nigeria and the neo-traditional urban, popular Nigerian music which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Forms such as Juju and Apala music (noted for their reduced if not negligible use of European tonal harmonic principles and European instruments) can be appropriately seen as continuing the Africanisation process initiated by the emergence of Highlife music in the 1950s.24

  • 25 D. Copland, Go to my Town Cape Coast: The social history of Ghanian Highlife. In: Eight Urban Music (...)

37As an artistic phenomenon, Highlife music, like Nigerian hymnody, is symbolic of the cultural as well as political awareness which anticipated the nationalistic struggle in Nigeria. Highlife is therefore not ‘merely the result of mechanised or passive acculturation but a creative, incorporative response to the political impact and cultural challenge of the West’.25 In addition, as a genre, it highlights the emergence of a new status for the Nigerian musician. In contrast to the predominantly communal role of traditional musicians, the emergence of Highlife music marks the incorporation of Nigerian music and the Nigerian musician into the imported, capitalist, cash economy.

38In the discussion below, the historical factors which help bring to life the structural and phenomenal character of Highlife will be explored.

The Origins of Highlife Music in Nigeria

39The development of Highlife in Nigeria is related to a number of factors which are not mutually exclusive. The most important of these are:

  • the establishment of British-style brass bands on the West African coast as early as the 1850s

  • the influence of the hymnal style of the missionary churches

  • the musical activities of the Rifles’ band formed by slaves freed from the West Indies

  • the importation of European influenced multi-cultural syncretic forms, especially the rhumba and the calypso, from the New World to West Africa

  • the fluid political state of the West African coast before the emergence of nations as we know them today, which facilitated an inter-regional movement of people, including musicians. This movement aided the development of urbanised syncretic forms which functioned as the forerunners of Highlife.

40As a result of the constant interaction between institutions and peoples of the West African colonies, the historical development of Highlife in Nigeria was closely linked to musical events in other colonies, especially the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Sierra Leone.

  • 26 J. Collins, Ghanaian Highlife. African Arts 10: 1, 1976.

41It has been suggested that the Fanti coast of south-west Ghana was the first region in West Africa where existing factors led to the emergence of Highlife music.26 This area had one of the earliest contacts with Europe, dating back to 1482 when Fort Elmina was built by the Portuguese. The existence of indigenous dance music prior to the arrival of the Portuguese ensured easy assimilation of European brass bands, especially military band music and popular European songs and ballads played by regimental fife bands. The arrival of freed Brazilian slaves in the 1930s, bringing with them rhumba and calypso styles, also helped to consolidate the growth of band music in this area.

42Copland, writing on the Fanti area, noted that Fanti:

  • 27 Copland, op. cit., p. 97.

was the first (part of Africa) to develop a purely indigenous Westernised social and economic elite who identified with and assimilated Western cultural values and (even) to varying degrees become hostile to their own native political, social and cultural systems.27

  • 28 L. Bruce, Introducing the Highlife. Jazz Monthly, July 1969, p.3.

43The cosmopolitan setting of Freetown also provided another important setting for the inter-mixture of music from different cultures. It soon developed into an important commercial centre following the resettlement of returning slaves from America. Historical sources have identified the existence of a syncretic dance music genre, called the Gumbey, in Freetown. According to Lee Bruce it was played by the coastal people who made use of ‘imported’ African drums from the West Indies in combination with European instruments like the flute and the trumpet. Gumbey music is one of the precursors of Highlife and has ‘certain rhythmic similarities to it’.28 The cosmopolitan atmosphere in Freetown also favoured the local growth of syncretic forms like calypso and rhumba because of the strong cultural links between the city and the Caribbean (New World). Considering the similarities between the structural features of these syncretic forms and Highlife, it is plausible that they provided some of the resources for its emergence.

  • 29 ibid., p. 4.

44It was, however, in Ghana that Highlife in the form it is known today was first played. By the beginning of this century, brass bands had spread from the Fanti area to other provincial cities and as Copland has noted, it eventually became customary for British-style bands to include traditional, especially Akan, melodies in Western four-part harmony during their evening entertainment. Such arrangements were known as adaha or konkomba and constituted the antecedents of Highlife music in Ghana. Lee Bruce has suggested that the rhythmic character of these bands must have lacked the vitality of Highlife since their instrumentation consisted entirely of brass instruments such as tubas and horns.29

45The early part of this century also witnessed the development of dance orchestras in Ghana which played ballroom music to entertain the new African educated elite. The most notable of such groups was the Excelsior Orchestra formed by a group of Ga musicians in 1914.

46Like in Ghana and Sierra Leone, the existence of regimental bands in Nigeria, especially following the ceding of Lagos in 1861, the transformation of cities like Lagos, Calabar and Onitsha into cosmopolitan urban centres and the rapidly expanding tradition of orthodox and indigenous church music, provided the environment for the emergence of syncretic forms which anticipated the emergence of Highlife music in the fifties. For example, one such form, the konkomba was reported to be in existence in Nigeria in the 1940s. Characteristic features of this genre included the use of melodies constructed along calypso lines harmonised with cyclic, repetitive European harmonic progressions, and a syncopated rhythmic character. The musicians who played the konkomba were Israel Nwaba, G.T. Onwuka and Okonkwo Adigwe, all from Igboland. Instruments were generally restricted to an acoustic guitar, traditional drums, especially the conga and the ubaka — Igbo mbira. The social arena within which performances took place were the local palm wine bars which provided the venue for the emerging urban working class. Indeed these ‘palm wine bar’ syncretic forms represented a humble variant of the more sophisticated music of the night clubs at which British- style bands entertained the elite.

47One prominent popular syncretic musical genre found in palm wine bars in Western Nigeria is known as agidigbo, whose name is derived from a Yoruba instrument of the same name (similar to the Igbo mbira). One of the greatest exponents of this form of music was Adeolu Akinsanya whose band — the Rio Lindo Orchestra — an agidigbo band, became a household name in Nigeria between 1953 and 1959.

48That such syncretic forms flourished in Nigeria from the beginning of the century to the 1940s is confirmed by Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte — the father of Igbo church music. His observations also explain how such forms were often transformed as they moved from one geographical region to another. The general view that Ghana is the home of modern West African popular music is also reflected in his observation.

  • 30 Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte, Music in Nigeria. Nigerian Music 1961, pp. 3-4.

In the early part of the twentieth century, about 1915 or a little later, a type of music came from Gold Coast to the Rivers province in Nigeria. It was known as the Asiko. It was brought by the ships’ crews and passed over to their commander working on the beach. Within a short time, the natives started to copy the music of the strangers and almost three years afterwards the music became general among all who live along the coast. About 1920 the music changed into what was known as the Ijaw and was sung and danced for many years by the people of the Rivers province. About 1940 the music passed northward through Southern Nigeria where it changed from Ijaw to Okon bo to Abaina. And as it changed, the singing and dancing changed with it. Now the difference between the Abaina and the Asiko is so great that if the ships’ crews who brought it to the Rivers province heard it they would not recognize it as Asiko.30

49Harcourt-Whyte’s observation is based on personal memory and it is not supported by any concrete evidence. Given his own personal involvement in Nigerian music, he is generally regarded as one of the authorities on modern Nigerian music. More important, however, is the fact that his observation supports two main points mentioned earlier: that there was a great deal of inter-regional musical exchange among the colonial regions of West Africa and that syncretic forms which anticipated the emergence of Nigerian Highlife were common in the country in the first few decades of the century.

50There is a cultural reason why there was a rapid rise of urban popular music in Nigeria, especially in Yorubaland. The Yoruba have a flourishing tradition of social and festival dance music. In addition to the use of music within a sacred context, music is also employed during social events such as ikomo (naming) and igbeyawo (marriage) ceremonies for recreational purposes. Examples of such social dance forms are etike, adamo, palongo, kiriboto and bembe music. The flourishing tradition of Yoruba festival and social music provides a favourable background for the assimilation of European derived popular dance forms. It could, therefore, be claimed that the emergence of Highlife and its allied syncretic forms in Nigeria did not constitute a fundamental musical change — with regard to the social function of music. It only represents a transfer of a musical tradition to the slightly different social-musical context of the night club culture. The association of music with dance, the performer-audience interaction and the use of improvisation and extemporisation — features which characterise the performance of Highlife — are also typical of much of traditional Nigerian music.

51By the early 1950s, dance bands were already flourishing in the larger cities of Nigeria like Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna, Enugu, Onitsha and Calabar. The most popular of such bands was the Chocolate Dandies Orchestra in which the present Oba of Lagos, Kabiyesi Oyekan, played. Other notable bands of the period were: The Akpabot Players led by Sam Akpabot, who later became one of the prominent composers of Nigerian modern Art Music; the Western Toppers Band led by King Kendy Adex; The Good Band led by Chris Ajilo and The Triumph Club Band led by Fela Sowande, who is the most significant African composer of modern African Art Music.

52According to Sam Akpabot, most of these bands played dance music such as the quick step, waltz, rhumba and the type of dance music epitomised by Victor Sylvester’s band. While some of the members of these bands, such as Soji Lijadu (saxophone), Sam Akpabot (trumpet) and Tunde Derby (organ and piano) could read music from staff notation, many such as Bala Miller and Victor Olaiya, who received an honorary doctorate degree in music from the Soviet Union in 1967, could not.

53New pieces, therefore, were often learnt by rote. In addition, as illustrated in the orchestra of The Western Toppers Band, instruments were generally restricted to European — the guitar; brass instruments, especially the saxophone, trumpet and trombone; and drums such as the conga and side drum.

54The influence of E.T. Mensah, father of Ghanaian Highlife music, on the development of Nigerian Highlife is significant. The development of Highlife in Ghana is synonymous with the rise of Mensah since it was he who first played Highlife music as we know it today. Continuing the experiments of the earlier syncretic forms (such as the konkomba) he forged a distinctive style characterised by a more dynamic rhythmic character and the use of lyrics in Akan or pidgin. In addition, he enlarged the percussion section in his band to include more traditional instruments, especially drums. His earliest record, for example, Trumpet Highlife, illustrates these characteristic features.

55The availability of Mensah’s records in Nigeria and, most significantly, his Nigerian tour of the late 1950s had a considerable influence on Nigerian musicians such as Adeolu Akinsanya, Rex Lawson and Victor Olaiya, who in the late sixties, became the pioneers of Nigerian Highlife.

  • 31 See Collins, p. 64.

56The term Highlife, which originated in Ghana,31 was coined by local people. Gate fees charged for attending concerts or night clubs in which such music was performed were normally too exorbitant for the local people who were not exposed to Western ideas. They therefore saw such social gatherings as symbolic of the economic disparity between them and the educated elite who patronised Highlife concerts. While the genre is, on the one hand, an artistic symbol of the nationalist activities of the Nigerian elite, it also highlights the social gap between them and the people they sought to influence.

57The Church often provided a training ground for performers of Highlife. It was not uncommon to find locally trained organists or ex-choristers becoming prominent Highlife exponents. Apart from the colonial regimental bands, it was mainly through the Church that European music was introduced to the populace. For example, the basic principles of European tonal harmony, germane to the performance of Highlife, are embedded in both orthodox and indigenous Nigerian hymnody. The Church provided many of the musicians and helped to create an audience for the practice and appreciation of Highlife.

58Other media which complemented the role of the Church included the emerging record industry, the rediffusion network and the sound tracks of imported films. That the basic harmonic progressions and (sometimes) the homophonic texture associated with protestant hymn tunes are common musical properties of Highlife attest to the importance of the Church in the consolidation of this genre in the country. Musicians such as Samuel Akpabot and Tunde Derby, who featured prominently in the Highlife scene of the 50s and 60s, received their initial training in the Church.

59It is also significant that some of the most notable composers of modern Nigerian Art Music such as Adam Fiberesima, Fela Sowande, Samuel Akpabot and Okechukwu Ndubuisi have at one time or another played Highlife. These facts illustrate the link between the different segments of modern Nigerian music. Nigerian church music constitutes the bedrock of the development of modern Nigerian music. Nigerian church music and Highlife often provide stylistic source materials for the works of composers of Art Music — the genre in which the most profound interactions between Nigerian and European elements have taken place.

60To illustrate the stylistic features of Nigerian church music, we shall now briefly discuss the lives and works of Ekundayo Phillips and Ikoli Harcourt- Whyte.

T.K. Ekundayo Phillips (1884-1969)

61It was T.K. Ekundayo Phillips who made the most significant contributions to the growth of Nigerian church music in the first part of this century. As organist and choirmaster of Christ Church Cathedral, the premier church in the Lagos Anglican Diocese, the responsibility fell on him more than any other person to encourage the growth of indigenous music in the church. He was born in 1884 and later attended the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Grammar School in Lagos. He received his first organ lessons from his uncle, the Reverend Johnson, and at the age of 18 he was appointed organist of St. Paul’s, Breadfruit, Lagos. He played the organ at St. Paul’s for 9 years. In 1911, he proceeded to the Trinity College of Music, London, to study piano, organ and violin. He thus became the second Nigerian (after Reverend Robert Coker who studied in Germany in 1871) to study music to a professional level. On his return from Britain, he was appointed organist and choirmaster at Christ Church, now Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos. He held his post until 1962 when he retired. In 1964, five years before his death, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of Music by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, for his contribution to the development of music in Nigeria. One of the most important achievements of Ekundayo Phillips was that he trained many of the prominent composers of modern African Art Music including Fela Sowande, Ayo Bankole and Samuel Akpabot. They are among the most prominent composers not only in Nigeria, but in Africa. His significant historical position in the growth of Nigerian church music and consequently, Nigerian modern Art Music, has been acknowledged by writers and musicians.

Ex. 1 Emio gbe oju mi soke wonni T.K.E. PHILLIPS

Ex. 1 Emio gbe oju mi soke wonni T.K.E. PHILLIPS
  • 32 L.E.N. Ekwueme, Nigerian music since independence, unpublished typescript, pp. 19-20.
  • 33 Personal discussion with Mr Olaolu Omideyi, Ibadan, January 1995.
  • 34 F. Sowande, Teaching of music in Nigerian schools, unpublished typescript, p. 30.

62Professor Laz Ekwueme described him as “pioneer composer, choirmaster and organist who influenced greatly the course of development of Art Music in Nigeria”.32 Olaolu Omideyi described him as the "fountain of church music in Nigeria" and a model of a perfect musician.33 Fela Sowande also noted that Phillips and others ‘provided us with such a good foundation that today we can now contemplate building upon’.34

Yoruba Music

63In 1953, Phillips’ book, Yoruba Music was published. This book can be regarded as a treatise (in spite of the author’s assertion to the contrary) on the compositional style of early Nigerian church music. Although the book was not published until 1953, even after it had been published, it was not generally accessible to church organists. It summarises those ideas which have influenced Nigerian church music composers.

64Central to Phillips’ views are the following observations:

  • Yoruba music is often based on the pentatonic scale.

  • Harmony rarely exists in Yoruba music.

  • Yoruba music, like all other musical traditions, is undergoing an evolutionary process.

65Thus, according to him:

  • 35 T.K.E. Phillips, Yoruba Music, Johannesburg, 1953, p. 9.

It is known that every nation’s music has always been identified with a particular scale at various stages of its development. For example the Europeans, as all other nations of the world, began with the pentatonic scale. This was followed by the seven-note scale with its modes, then the major minor modes and lastly as it stands today, the chromatic scale of twelve notes.35

66He continues that:

  • 36 ibid.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Yorubas have no such succession of scales yet. They have only the pentatonic scale to their credit, although at times some strange notes creep into their songs which might be regarded as the result of an instinctive feeling after variety and extension by means of embellishment.36

  • 37 ibid., p. 9.

67Phillips asserts that Yoruba music is similar to European medieval music of ‘roughly from about the tenth to the fifteenth century’. This is because ‘although the seven-note scale was in use in Europe at that time, so sparingly were the two notes Fah and Te (that is the perfect fourth and the major seventh) used, that the music of that period could almost pass as the pentatonic’.37 Other features which Yoruba music shares with European music are, according to him:

  • the use of unisonous singing

  • parallel singing with its offspring of descant

    • 38 ibid.

    the general avoidance of cadential semitones38

68Phillips’ observations are based on the belief that Yoruba music is often based entirely on the pentatonic scale and that the degree of the variety of melodic pitches employed in a piece or a tradition of music is reflective of the stage of that tradition in its developmental process. As he has also noted, features such as unisonous singing, parallel harmonics and the general absence of cadential semitones are indeed common in Yoruba music. Despite the controversial nature of Phillips’ observations, they have provided the stylistic bases for much of Yoruba church music.

69Phillips’ works reflect a synthesis of such features of Yoruba music stated above and elements of European music. Thus as can be observed in works like Emi O Gbe Oju Mi Soke Wonni, and his Yoruba Versicles and Responses, elements of his music include the use of melodies which reflect the intonational contour of words and the use of pentatonic melodies treated to European conceived diatonic chords. This stylistic paradigm has provided the basis for the development of Nigerian contemporary art and church music.

T.K. Ekundayo Phillips with Ken Jones (an organ builder) and Derrick Cantrell (visiting organist)

Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte (1905-1977)

70The stylistic features of Igbo church music are clearly illustrated in the works of Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte, the ‘father’ of Igbo church music. He was born in 1905 at Abonnema in Rivers State. Tragically, at the age of twenty, he was stricken with leprosy. Consequently, in 1924, he was among the forty-one lepers receiving treatment at Port Harcourt General Hospital. He was later transferred to Uzoakoli leper settlement in Imo State where he was healed.

Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte

71He firmly believed that his recovery was an act of God. During his stay at Uzoakoli leper settlement Harcourt-Whyte joined fellow lepers in daily prayers during which Methodist hymns were sung. It was through these hymns that he received the inspiration to compose. His compositions reflected the homophonic style of protestant hymns as can be observed in Rue Ole Mgbe and Chukwu No Rue Ebigh’ebi. Although Harcourt-Whyte also used parallel thirds and sixths in his part writing, this feature is less pervading than in, for example, the works of Dedeke. His use of contrary motion between two or more vocal lines often results in melodic parts which do not reflect the rise and fall of their texts.

72His harmonic vocabulary which generally revolves around the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant, precludes modulations and often contains elements which are, by conventional European standards, unsophisticated. Examples of such elements are the use of unorthodox voice leadings, which include consecutive fifths, unprepared and unresolved sevenths, and unconventional cadential formulae. As an illustration, in the eighth bar of Chukwu No Rue Ebigh’ebi, Harcourt-Whyte uses the third inversion of a dominant seventh chord in a manner which suggests both plagal and perfect cadence. Likewise in bar 3 of Rue Ole Mgbe the subdominant note is used in a rather unconventional manner at a cadential point.

Ex. 2a Rue Ole Mgbe (Until when, O God) Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte (notated by A.K. Achinuvu)

Ex. 2a Rue Ole Mgbe (Until when, O God) Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte (notated by A.K. Achinuvu)

Ex. 2b Chukwu No Rue Ebigh’ Ebi Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte (notated by A.K. Achinuvu)

Ex. 2b Chukwu No Rue Ebigh’ Ebi Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte (notated by A.K. Achinuvu)

73These two examples are symptomatic of Harcourt-Whyte’s predilection for the plagal cadence — the Amen pattern — which is a regular feature of protestant hymn tunes. Even when the upper parts do not suggest it, Harcourt-Whyte believes that the lowest part (the bass) can singlehandedly effect a plagal cadence. A fundamental factor in the use of unconventional progressions and voice leadings lies in the fact that Harcourt-Whyte usually conceived his parts in a linear fashion even within a homophonic texture. Thus, his harmonic vocabulary is often a product of both the vertical conception (typical of protestant hymns) and the contrapuntal movement common in Igbo traditional vocal music. His unorthodox harmonic procedures are manifestations of the ‘conflict’ between these two different musical syntaxes.

74Harcourt-Whyte’s strongest allegiance to Igbo traditional music can be found in the use of forms that develop structures and irregular phrasing. Even seemingly strophic forms are not strophic in the European sense of the form. Extensive variations are often made in the second and subsequent stanzas of some of his songs which place them outside the scope of a strophic form.

75Thus, it is the drawing together of musical elements from traditional Nigerian music (including pentatonic scales, call and response patterns and the sympathetic relationship between language inflection and melodic contour) and those from European music (such as diatonic harmony, and the use of strophic forms) that gives the stylistic core of Nigerian Church music. While in the realm of harmony, Nigerian-derived pentatonic scales usually concede to an all-pervading European diatonicism (as in the works of Yoruba composers), the formal synthesis between European and African procedures remains finely balanced, as in Dedeke’s works. The most prominent influence of traditional Nigerian culture on these compositions comes from the indigenous language. There is a general agreement among these composers that the correspondence between melodic contour and the rise and fall of language inflections is an important compositional premise. As a result, considerations of language have conditioned the different structural aspects of these works: melodic contour as in the works of composers like Dedeke and Phillips; harmonic technique as in the parallel harmonics of Harcourt- Whyte and Dedeke; and developing formal procedures as in the works of Harcourt-Whyte.


1 See M. Omibiyi, Islamic influence on Yoruba music, African Notes 8(2), 1981.

2 Biodun Adediran, The Frontier States in Western Yorubaland 1600-1889, IFRA, Ibadan, 1994, pp. 181-182, 185-186.

3 J.F.A. Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841-1891. Longman, London, 1965, pp. 51-52.

4 L.C. Gwam, Great Nigerians, Lagos Daily Times, n.d., p. 40.

5 Lagos Observer, 9 November 1882.

6 African Times, 1 March 1876.

7 African Times, 1 May 1876.

8 Lagos Times, 18 December 1880.

9 Lagos Observer, 19 June 1884.

10 Lagos Observer, 9 November 1882.

11 Lagos Times, 12 October 1881.

12 See Lynn Leonard, The growth of entertainment of non African origin in Lagos, M.A. thesis, Ibadan, 1967, pp. 29-33.

13 Anthony King, Nigerian music. In: New Grave Dictionary of Music, Vol. 13. Macmillan, London, 1980, p. 238.

14 Lagos Observer, March 2 1882.

15 E A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact on modern Nigeria. Longman, London, 1960, p. 243.

16 ibid., p. 197.

17 J.S. Webster, The African Church among the Yorubas. Clarendon Press, London, 1964, p. 62.

18 ibid.

19 ibid.

20 C.A. Moloney, On the melodies of Madingo, Ewe, Yoruba... of West Africa, Journal of the Manchester Geographical Society, 1889, Vol. 5, pp. 289-290.

21 ibid., p. 290.

22 Ayandele, op. cit. p. 241 ff.

23 See for example, E.M. Smith, Popular Music in West. Africa. African Music 3(1), 1962.

24 For a study of Juju music see A. Alaja-Browne, Juju music: A study of its social history and style. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Pittsburg, 1985.

25 D. Copland, Go to my Town Cape Coast: The social history of Ghanian Highlife. In: Eight Urban Musical Cultures, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1978, p. 97.

26 J. Collins, Ghanaian Highlife. African Arts 10: 1, 1976.

27 Copland, op. cit., p. 97.

28 L. Bruce, Introducing the Highlife. Jazz Monthly, July 1969, p.3.

29 ibid., p. 4.

30 Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte, Music in Nigeria. Nigerian Music 1961, pp. 3-4.

31 See Collins, p. 64.

32 L.E.N. Ekwueme, Nigerian music since independence, unpublished typescript, pp. 19-20.

33 Personal discussion with Mr Olaolu Omideyi, Ibadan, January 1995.

34 F. Sowande, Teaching of music in Nigerian schools, unpublished typescript, p. 30.

35 T.K.E. Phillips, Yoruba Music, Johannesburg, 1953, p. 9.

36 ibid.

37 ibid., p. 9.

38 ibid.

Table des illustrations

Légende Robert Coker
Fichier image/jpeg, 124k
Légende The Performers of Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1927
Fichier image/jpeg, 472k
Titre Ex. 1 Emio gbe oju mi soke wonni T.K.E. PHILLIPS
Fichier image/jpeg, 316k
Légende Dayo Dedeke
Fichier image/jpeg, 116k
Légende Olaolu Omideyi
Fichier image/jpeg, 188k
Légende T.K. Ekundayo Phillips with Ken Jones (an organ builder) and Derrick Cantrell (visiting organist)
Fichier image/jpeg, 212k
Légende Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Ex. 2a Rue Ole Mgbe (Until when, O God) Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte (notated by A.K. Achinuvu)
Fichier image/jpeg, 160k
Titre Ex. 2b Chukwu No Rue Ebigh’ Ebi Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte (notated by A.K. Achinuvu)
Fichier image/jpeg, 152k
Titre Original manuscript from Children of the Sun Ayo Bankole
Fichier image/jpeg, 236k
Fichier image/png, 156 octets

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1995

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