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Nigerian Art Music

Bode Omojola

3. Nigerian Composers and National Culture: A stylistic survey of Nigerian Art Music

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1Although it was through the Church that the concept of music as a contemplative art received widespread popularity in Nigeria, it was left to the efforts of formally trained composers and musicologists to forge new idioms and styles in their works to develop a modern tradition of Nigerian Art Music. While the earliest of them, T.K.E. Phillips, started composing in the 1920s followed by Fela Sowande in 1940, it was not until the early 1960s that several Nigerian composers, who chose to compose in the idiom of European classical music, emerged. Receiving their initial training in the Church, many of them later went to Europe and the United States to study music at a conservatoire or university.

2Constantly aware of the sacred relationship between a musician and his society in traditional Nigeria, and having chosen a largely foreign, mostly European idiom for their creative expression, the works of these composers are often characterised by striking experimentation aimed at bringing about a resolution and synthesis of opposing styles and techniques.

3This chapter serves as a general introduction to the lives and works of prominent Nigerian composers as well as the major objectives and beliefs which form the basis of their creative efforts. The discussion is not exhaustive. Emphasis has been laid on what is considered to be the significant trends in Nigerian Art Music, as reflected in the works of the most prominent composers.

Fela Sowande (1905-1987) Pioneering works

4Fela Sowande is undoubtedly the father of modern Nigerian Art Music and perhaps the most distinguished and internationally known African composer.

5The 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.

6Fela 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.

7This later became a motivation for him:

  • 1 E. Southern, interview with Fela Sowande — the Chief Priest of Music. Black Perspective in Music v (...)

... 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.1

8Apart 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.


  • 2 ibid.

9In 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.2

10Most 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.

  • 3 For a list of Sowande’s compositions see chapter 7.

11In 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.3 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.

12Despite 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.

13In 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.

Nationalism in Sowande’s Music

  • 4 For a list of Sowande’s research work see the bibliography at the end of this book.
  • 5 F. Sowande, Ifa (Yoruba divination). Unpublished manuscript. n.d.
  • 6 F. Sowande, Oruko Amutorunwa. Unpublished manuscript. n.d.

14Sowande’s career in broadeasting continued in Lagos in the 1950s as he became Head of Music and Music Research of the Nigerian Broadeasting Corporation (NBC). This post afforded him the opportunity to conduct further research into the traditional music of Nigeria, especially of the Yoruba. His interest in traditional music continued to increase while at the NBC, and in 1962 he took up the post of a Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. During his stay at the University he carried out research not only into traditional Nigerian music but also into traditional religion.4 In Ifa5 (Yoruba divination) for example, he examined the concept of divination among the Yoruba, while Oruko Amutorunwa6 was a list of Yoruba sacred names with their symbolic meanings.

15No other work reveals Sowande’s appreciation of Nigerian culture and his strong belief in cultural nationalism more than his Folk Symphony (1960). At the peak of his research activities at the Nigerian Broadeasting Corporation, just before he became a Research Fellow at the University of Ibadan Sowande was asked by the Nigerian Broadeasting Corporation to write a work to mark the Nigerian Independence celebrations. This work, the Folk Symphony, was premiered on October 1st, 1960 during the Independence celebrations. It was later performed, in 1962, by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall through the sponsorship of the African Cultural Group of New York. The work gives a very strong reflection of African elements and it could be argued that it marked the climax of Sowande’s commitment to nationalism. It is not that the basic stylistic features of the symphony are significantly different from those which appeared in his earlier works, such as Oyigiyigi and the African Suite. They remain essentially the same: the use of African folk tunes, treated in nineteenth century European harmonic style as well as Yoruba—inspired heterophonic procedures, the employment of conventional European forms — such as sonata and rondo — and the evocation of the rhythmic idiom of traditional Nigerian music. What is presented in the Folk Symphony is a more mature and organic reconciliation of these culturally different elements.

16Before composing the Folk Symphony, Sowande had written vocal works based on Afro-American gospel tunes. These include Roll de Ol’ Chariot (SATBB, 1955), My Way’s Cloudy (SATB, 1955), De Ol’ Ark’s a-Moverin (SATBB, 1955), and De Angels are Watchin’(SATBB, 1958). The thematic ingredients of these works (that is Afro-American tunes) share the use of African derived modal, especially pentatonic, scales with the thematic elements of the organ works. While, however, the melodies of Sowande’s organ works are generally hymn-like in character, the Afro-American tunes used in his choral works are characterised by a lively rhythmic character. These songs (gospel songs and spirituals) had been originally composed for use in the African inspired Christian churches among the blacks in the United States.

17The difference between the thematic ingredients of the organ works and those of the choral works highlights the stylistic gap between the two categories of works. As exemplified in Oyigiyigi and Kyrie, Sowande’s organ works are often characterised by detailed attention to motivic development, the use of intricate European formal procedures, especially the fugue, and an explorative and relatively complex harmonic-tonal language. On the other hand, the choral works show more incorporation of African music in the use of such elements as the call and response pattern and the evocation of the principle of collective improvisation.

18It is important to view the conception and realisation of Sowande’s nationalist principles within the confines of his educational and professional training as well as in the larger socio-cultural and political climate of Nigeria during the active period of his compositional career (1940-1960). His stated objective, to compose works which are conceptually and structurally relevant to his African background, is in tune with the general wind of nationalism blowing across Nigeria in the 1940s and 1950s. Although he was born in Nigeria and remained there until he went to England in 1934, European rather than African music dominated his professional training. It is, therefore, not surprising that Sowande’s views on nationalism are, despite his commitment to them, marked by a characteristic open-mindedness. 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.

19He therefore warned against:

  • 7 F. Sowande, Nigerian music and musicians, then and now. Unpublished manuscript, p. 89.

uncontrolled nationalism in which case nationals of any one country may forget that they are all members of one human family with other nationals.7

20Closely linked with his philosophy of cultural reciprocity was a belief in the principle of cultural pluralism. It is on this basis that he divided a society’s music into different categories. According to him:

Where the organization of the raw materials of sound into socially sanctioned and meaningful formal and structural patterns in a society, over a long time in the far distant past, is anonymous, then we have the folk music of that society intimately related to that society’s day to day life.


When known individual members of a society begin to organize the raw materials into formal and structural patterns, consciously and deliberately, then each of these individuals presents his society with what, for ease of reference, we may term the society’s new music.

22The modern composer, according to Sowande, can go outside his own tradition to borrow elements from other musical traditions, the result of which is the Fine Art in Music of that society. In Nigeria, new Art Music is divisible into two categories;

  • 8 F. Sowande, 1965. The development of a national tradition of music. A paper presented at a seminar (...)

European forms used without reference to Nigerian elements in the music (and those that fuse) European forms with one aspect or other of Nigerian elements.8

23Sowande’s compositional style has reflected this duality, and African elements do not feature in all his music. In Because of You (soprano solo and piano, 1954), Songs of Contemplation (tenor voice and orchestra, 1955) and Out of Zion (SATB and Organ, 1955), for example, Sowande retains his romantic heritage in harmonic language and the choral pieces lack the folk elements of his organ works.

  • 9 These are compositions written by Yoruba organists for use in Anglican churches in Nigeria.

24Considering the influence of the Church on his professional career, it is not surprising that many of Sowande’s compositions have religious associations. For example, the theme on which his Oyigiyigi is based is a Yoruba salute to God while his Prayer is based on a theme of supplication. Church anthems such as St. Jude’s Response (SATB with organ), Oh Render Thanks (hymn anthem SATB with organ, 1960) and Out of Zion (SATB with organ, 1955) reflect another aspect of Sowande’s religious compositions. While the organ works use Yoruba-Anglican9 choral tunes, the anthems to religious texts are set to original music. His predilection for compositions which have a religious association, however, also emanates from a fundamental belief rooted in African traditional culture. Music in Yorubaland is used in religious worship to invoke ancestral and deified spirits, to transform man from his actual, materialistic world to an imagined, spiritual plane. This function represents the most profound role of music in the traditional Yoruba world. Sowande’s belief in this religious function of music is summarised in his statement that:

Whereas on the social level (music) communicates with the men and women of the society, on the ritualistic and religious levels it communicates with the gods and goddesses of the group’s pantheon with the forces of nature, which it impresses into the service of the group through their priests and seers.

25He continues:

  • 10 op. cit., p. 67.

What the contemporary African has lost — if Nigeria is indicative — is the recognition and acceptance of the metaphysical correspondence through which sound can become for us —as it was for our traditional man — creative and evocatory.10

26The influence of Yoruba religious music. on Sowande’s style of composition goes beyond the level of its conception. Although the incorporation of the dynamic, rhythmic character of African music is strongly reflected in his orchestral works (such as the African Suite), his organ works (such as Gloria, Kyrie and Oba Aba Ke Pe) are marked by an expressive quality that derives from their legato character. It is not in all cases that African music makes use of pulsating dance-like rhythms. African vocal music also often possesses a legato character. Sowande believes that it is in such features that the best expressions of Yoruba music are to be found and they are usually restricted to music used in religious rituals. According to him:

  • 11 Preface to Prayer, 1958, Ricordi and Co., New York, p. 1.

African music is popularly supposed to consist, in the main, of red-hot drum rhythms and wild tunes which must be called melodies for want of a more appropriate term. It needs to be stressed, therefore, that there are melodies in Nigeria, properly so called, which would compare favourably with anything found outside Nigeria on every level. While many of these melodies pulsate with keen and arresting rhythms, others are solemn chants which use no drum-rhythms at all and approximate more closely to the Catholic plainsong than to any other type of music.11

27To Sowande, therefore, the musical legacy of the African Church does not represent any fundamental difference or change from the nature and the role of music in traditional religious worship — the use of music for the purpose of communion with God in the Church represents a continuity of, rather than a break from, traditional African norms. It is this belief which accounts for Sowande’s conception of religious works and the fact that virtually all his major organ pieces are based on Yoruba Anglican pentatonic melodies.

28Sowande’s style shows influences from diverse sources. These include nineteenth century European harmony, Highlife and Jazz idioms, Yoruba- Anglican liturgical music and Yoruba traditional music. These sources reflect the diverse nature of his professional activities: a church organist, a band leader who played in Nigeria in the 1930s and played jazz in London, and a researcher and collector of Nigerian traditional music.

29His patronage of nineteenth century European music occurs mainly in the realm of harmony and in the use of folklore elements. His use of form, however, generally remains within the bounds of classical practice, notably in the use of sonata, fugue and theme and variations.

30It is important to note in any study of Sowande’s works that he was able to reconcile his objective as a composer (to write works which have an African character) with his desire to be part of the tradition of European classical music. In other words, although his works have been influenced by the nationalist tradition of European nineteenth century music, the use and the choice of stylistic materials in his works are often guided by nationalist considerations. For example, although his harmonic language maintains affinity with late nineteenth century European style in its use of dissonant- contrapuntal textures (as will be demonstrated in chapter 4) it has a conceptual relationship with the harmonic principles of African music. The adoption of this particular harmonic style is often conditioned by Sowande’s own interpretation of African music and his desire to incorporate that interpretation into his works.

31Sowande’s compositions can be grouped under six main categories which reflect the diversified nature of his professional career. These are:

  1. Folk song arrangements
  2. Organ works
  3. Sacred choral works
  4. Solo art songs
  5. Afro-American choral works
  6. Orchestral works

32A general survey of these works from his early arrangements such as the Three Yoruba Songs to his last major work — the Folk Symphony, reveals that African nationalism continues to recur in the conception of most of Sowande’s compositions. But manifestations of this objective often differ from one work to another. For example, although most of his major organ works are based on Yoruba melodies, the treatment of the melodies often takes one of three forms. Thus, in works such as Oyigiyigi and Kyrie, the melodies are presented within harmonic and formal contexts which are predominantly European. In a work like Gloria, European and African techniques co- dominate, while in Ka Mura and Prayer the treatment of themes reflects a predominantly African approach.

33Sowande’s contributions to the development of modern Nigerian music, both through research and composition, have been well acknowledged. In 1956 he was honoured with an M.B.E. for ‘distinguished services in the cause of music’; with an M.F.N. (Member of the Federation of Nigeria) in 1964; with a chieftaincy title, Babagbile of Lagos, in 1968, and an honorary doctorate degree in music by the University of Ife in 1972. He relinquished his post as Professor of Musicology at the University of Ibadan in 1968, when he left Nigeria for America where, between 1968 and 1972, he was Professor of African Studies and Research Programme at Howard University, Washington D.C. From 1972 to 1987, he was Professor of Musicology at the University of Pittsburgh. He died, in March 1987, at the age of eighty-two.

34Sowande’s style marks only the beginning of an era in the history of Modern Nigerian Art Music. Although his ideas on nationalism provided a working premise for the composers who came after him, those ideas are now regarded as being too cautious and restrictive to help bring about a national tradition of Nigerian modern Music. African idioms must be used in greater abundance in modern works, both from a conceptual and structural perspective, for an authentic national tradition to emerge.

Samuel Akpabot (1932- )

35Compared with that of Sowande, Samuel Akpabot’s style is relatively homogeneous. Virtually all his works are typified by a recurring approach in which elements of Highlife music combined with those of his traditional culture, Ibibio, are fused with features of European tradition. Often rejecting the expressionist, even avant-garde style of Euba, and the nineteenth century European heritage of Sowande, Akpabot’s strong reliance on Highlife and Ibibio traditions is symptomatic of a personal vision of the role which Nigerian and modern African composers should perform in society.

  • 12 Expressed in a personal conversation with the author, Ibadan, January 1985.

36Samuel Akpabot was born on 3rd October, 1932, in Uyo, in Akwa Ibom State. At the age of eleven he came to Lagos for his education at King’s College, a school often referred to as the ‘Eton of Nigeria’ and where European music was taught. It was, however, in the Church that Samuel Akpabot received the most significant introduction to European music. He was a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos, under Phillips. According to Akpabot ‘it was in Christ Church that I was introduced to a great deal of European masterpieces; I sang all of them before going to England and that turned out to be a very great advantage’.12 Those masterpieces included Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Today, Mendelssohn remains Akpabot’s favourite composer, although his influence seldom appears in his own works. As well as being a chorister he also found time to play in bands, the most popular of which was the Chocolate Dandies, formed and led by Soji Lijadu. In 1949 when Akpabot left the choir, his voice having broken, he formed his own band, The Akpabot Players; T.A.P as it was popularly called.

37In addition to leading a band, Akpabot was also organist at St. Saviour’s Church in Lagos. Referring to the dual nature of his musical activities he said:

I would come back very late in the night from night clubs and steal into the Bishop’s court where I lived (with Bishop Vining, then, of Lagos) and the following morning go to play for both the Holy Communion Service and the Sunday Mattins !

38In 1954 he went to London, to the Royal College of Music, to study organ and trumpet. His teachers included John Addison, Osborn Pisgow and Herbert Howells and he also met Thurston Dart and Gordon Jacob. He later left the Royal College for Trinity College. He returned to Nigeria in 1959 with an ARCM and LTCL and took a post as broadcaster with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.

  • 13 For a list of Akpabot’s works see chapter 7.

39It was also in 1959 that Akpabot’s compositional career began. Despite his wide exposure in England to European styles ranging from the pre- baroque to the twentieth century and despite his initial training at Christ Church — the citadel of the emerging tradition of Nigerian Church music — it was the Highlife idiom which dominated his first attempts at composition. His first work, Nigeriana, for orchestra (1959) was originally written as an exercise for his composition teacher, John Addison.13 After minor revisions it was later renamed Overture for a Nigerian Ballet. Conceived along the tradition of the nineteenth century European concert overture, the work is characterised by literal and allusive quotations of Highlife tunes strung together in a rhapsodic manner.

40In 1962 Akpabot left the N.B.C. for the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to become one of the pioneering members of the academic staff of the music department. Nsukka proved a stimulating atmosphere in which to compose. The university, itself, established in the same year as Nigeria’s independence, was generally regarded as a symbol of modern independent Nigeria. It was seen as one of the most important foundations for fashioning an artistic tradition that would reflect the national aspirations of the country. Between 1962 and 1967, Akpabot wrote four works which clearly reflected the prevailing nationalist euphoria of that time. The works are Scenes from Nigeria, for orchestra (1962); Three Nigerian Dances, for string orchestra and percussion (1962); Ofala, a tone poem for wind orchestra and five African instruments (1963); and Cynthia’s Lament, tone poem for soloist, wind orchestra and six African instruments (1965). Both Ofala and Cynthia’s Lament were commissioned by the then director of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, Robert Austin Boudreau, who had been invited to Nigeria in 1962 by the Nigerian Arts Council. Ofala and Cynthia’s Lament were premiered in Pittsburgh in 1963 and 1965 respectively.

41While Scenes from Nigeria and Three Nigerian Dances belong essentially to the same category as Overture for a Nigerian Ballet; Ofala and Cynthia’s Lament reveal a greater emphasis on African (Ibibio) elements not only in the use of instruments but in the use of melodic and formal procedures. These two works show a prevalence of Ibibio derived melodic patterns and formal procedures dictated largely by extra-musical considerations. Ofala, in 1972, won first prize in a competition for African composers organised by the African Centre of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); forty-one African countries were represented. The prize winning work was a tone poem based on the annual ‘yam eating festival’ of the Onitsha people of Anambra State. Its formal outline is suggested by the format of the festival which it evokes. Although Cynthia’s Lament has a form that is not tied to an extra-musical element, it is also a tone poem. Its conception is described fully by the composer:

  • 14 Personal interview, January 1985.

Cynthia Avery was the 16 year old daughter of the white American Vice-Chairman of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra of Pittsburgh with whom I stayed during a visit in 1963 for the premiere of Ofala. After the performance, we went to the Conrad Hilton to have coffee with Mr. Boudreau. The rather silly waiters deliberately avoided serving Miss Avery and myself (we were seated together a short distance from the girl’s parents and Mr. Boudreau, who were served). This so distressed Miss Avery that she stormed out into the foyer, sobbing, ‘I don ‘t know what has become of my people !’ I decided to write a short piece for her, and on my next commission two years later, I produced Cynthia’s Lamente.14

42An important feature of the work is that Cynthia’s Lament is reinterpreted in African musico-dramatic terms. The harmonic-tonal framework of the work is, like Akpabot’s previous works, still almost entirely diatonic, and it is only in a later work, Nigeria in Conflict, for wind orchestra and eight Nigerian instruments (1973), which is a commentary on the Nigerian Civil War, that Akpabot began to use key changes and chromatic punctuations.

  • 15 For a discussion of this and other features of Ibibio traditional music see: Akpabot, S. 1975. Fun (...)
  • 16 Expressed in a conversation held with the author in January 1985.
  • 17 Ibid

43Akpabot is the one Nigerian composer who has written almost entirely for the orchestra. His choice of instrumentation is, however, also conditioned by the need to project the features of traditional African instruments, as exemplified in Nigeria in Conflict consisting of those which are typical of Ibibio music. They are the gong, woodblock, rattle, wooden drum and xylophone. In the same vein his favoured use of wind instruments is determined by the fact that they can be more readily used to provide melo-rhythmic fragments, similar to those played by the Uta Horn orchestra (an Ibibio orchestra) consisting of horns made from elephant tusks.15 By combining these two categories of instruments (European wind and Ibibio percussion) in, for example, Ofala and Nigeria in Conflict, Akpabot hoped to achieve an orchestral effect in which ‘African instruments are treated on an equal footing with Western instruments and not as exotic instruments which they are not.’16 In addition, by using melodic and harmonic elements inspired by traditional Nigerian and Highlife idioms and formal schemes akin to African procedures, Akpabot was courting popularity. According to him modern Nigerian composers should not engage themselves in writing works the appreciation of which will be restricted to the educated elite: ‘it is for this reason that I often ignore European standard form, in favour of formal techniques commonly employed in traditional African music.’17

44At the end of the civil war in 1970 Akpabot became a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, and the two works written there continued to reflect the nationalist element of the pre-war works. These were Two Nigerian Folk Tunes for choir and piano, (1974) and Jaja of Opobo, a folk opera, sung and spoken in Efik, English and Ibo (1972). Akpabot’s nationalist zeal has, however, been curtailed in his two most recent works: Te Deum Laudamus, (Church anthem, choir and organ, 1975) and Verba Christi, (a cantata for three soloists, chorus and orchestra) commissioned by the Nigerian Broadeasting Corporation for the World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) which took place in Lagos in 1977. The two works brought back echoes of the Church, the foundation of his musical training. The Verba Christi is his largest work to date and is notable for its use of musical materials from diverse European styles ranging from Victorian choral tradition to twentieth century atonality. Despite its strong European leaning, Akpabot’s approach to the use of the tone row, motivic processes and melodic conception in Verba Christi still bears the influences of African music. The adoption of the distinctly European format in his most recent compositions does not indicate a turning point in his composition career; rather, it reflects the varied nature of his artistic temperament, itself a reflection of the diversity of musical resources at his disposal. Now a professor of music at the University of Uyo, Akpabot has continued to write works which have very strong nationalistic characteristics.



Ayo Bankole (1935-1976)

45Ayo Bankole’s musical style takes a line from the cautious approach of Fela Sowande although later in his career he also, like Euba, saw the need to lessen the stylistic bond between his works and European classical music. Like Sowande, he maintained close links with European conventional practice in the use of forms and formal procedures such as the sonata, the fugue and the cantata. Despite the relationship between his works and those of Sowande, Bankole’s style is defined by a personal approach to reinterpreting elements of traditional Yoruba music and their fusion with European idioms. Thus although his harmonic style generally remains within the bounds of tonality, it is frequently characterised by features such as whole-tone scales, modality, the interval of the tritone and much use of chromaticism, often within a tonal language defined through repetition and emphasis rather than orthodox harmonic procedures. The affinity between these features and the impressionistic and folklorist works of Debussy and Bartok is clear. But their use in Bankole’s music is also often governed by considerations which emanate from nationalist intentions. An analysis of his work in Chapter 5 clarifies this point.

  • 18 See Chapter 7 for a list of Bankole’s works.

46Bankole’s career follows a similar pattern to that of Sowande — the Church being the most important factor in his creative output. Born in 1935, in Lagos, his father was the organist of St. Peter’s Church, Faji (in Lagos) while his mother taught music at Queen’s School, Ede, Western Nigeria. The musical family into which he was born provided necessary encouragement for the beginning of a musical career that was to produce one of Nigeria’s leading composers. On his father’s suggestion, he became a chorister and a student under T.K.E. Phillips at Christ Church, Lagos. In the same year, 1945, he entered the Baptist Academy Secondary School (also in Lagos) where he also received music lessons. In 1954 he became a clerical officer at the Nigerian Broadeasting Corporation and it was there that he met Fela Sowande who gave him advanced organ lessons. Bankole’s contact with the most important African composer of the day, at that stage of his career, is significant. Sowande’s works, in their nationalist orientation, provided immediate motivation and inspiration for Bankole. By the time he was leaving for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, in 1957, he had started to compose. These compositions include two piano works, Nigerian Suite and Ja Orule.18 Like the organ works of Sowande, some of which Bankole had already played, these pieces make use of simple Yoruba folk tunes and rhythmic patterns. In their modally inflected harmonies, pedal notes and ostinati, important stylistic features were established, and these recur continuously in his works.

47During the three years that Bankole attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama he studied piano, composition and organ for the G.G.S.M. — the graduate diploma in teaching. In 1961, having distinguished himself as an organist, he was awarded a scholarship to study music at Clare College, Cambridge. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in music in 1964 (and was awarded a Master’s three years later). In addition, Bankole also obtained the FRCO in 1964, the second Nigerian to obtain this highest British professional qualification for organists, a great achievement. Bankole’s greater exposure to the works of European composers while in England and his insight into Yoruba music are reflected in the wide range of experiments made in his works at this period.



48His compositions over these six years included three piano sonatas: Christmas Sonata (1959); The Passion (1959); and English Winterbirds (1961); a cantata: Baba Se Wa ni Omo Rere (Father make us good children), for female choir and chamber orchestra (1958); solo songs: Three Yoruba Songs (for bass and piano, 1959); part songs: Three Part Songs (for female choir, 1959) and an organ work: Toccata and Fugue (1960).

49Two points about these works are significant. First they represent the most popular of Bankole’s works in Nigeria today, and second, the range of styles presented in them reveals Bankole’s eclectic approach to composition. For example in the Three Yoruba Songs there is the juxtaposition of sharply contrasting styles. While the first song, Iya, maintains close links with the nineteenth century in the use of its predominantly diatonic harmonies, recurring accompanying patterns and spontaneous appeal, the second and third are striking in their use of impressionist-coloured dissonant intervals — especially the tritone and major seconds — to weaken and temporarily suspend the background tonality. Contrasting vividly with the tonal language of works such as The Passion Sonata and English Winterbirds is the atonal language of the Toccata and Fugue.

50The juxtaposition of elements which are inherently opposed to each other often occurs within a single work and, as in The Passion Sonata, this is not always successful. Bankole’s use of diverse materials within a work often stems from his efforts to fuse elements of traditional Yoruba with those of European music. Thus, the quasi-bitonal language of Ja Itanna To’n Tan, the second of the Three Yoruba Songs, derives from the juxtaposition of the inflectionary tonal quality of Yoruba vocal style with an harmonic style noted for its lavish use of chromaticism.

Stylistic Eclecticism in Bankole’s Works

51On the completion of his course at Cambridge in 1964, Bankole went to the University of California to study ethnomusicology. There he also met Roy Travis, and like Euba, during his stay at UCLA he considered writing works which would explore the use of traditional instruments and group improvisation. The two works conceived along these lines were Ethnophony (for traditional African instruments, 1964) and Jona (for narrators, singers, dancers and traditional instruments, 1964). Again, like Euba and Uzoigwe, Bankole’s experiment along these lines was to be short-lived. On his return to Nigeria in 1966, he went back to writing works in notation that could be easily recreated in performances. Although he was a senior music producer at the Nigerian Broadeasting Corporation (NBC) in Lagos from 1966-1969 and later lecturer in music at the University F Lagos Rom 1969-1976, when he died, he was actively involved with choir work in Lagos.

52His own choir was part of his Musico-Cultural Society and he was also choirmaster of the Chapel of the Resurrection for a brief period. It is, therefore, not surprising that most of the works written by him at this period were vocal pieces. They included Adura fun Alafia (Prayer for Peace), for soprano solo and piano (1969); Ore Ofe Jesu Kristi (the Grace of Jesus Christ) for unaccompanied choir (1967); Fun Mi Ni Beji No.I (Give me Twins) for unaccompanied choir (1970); Fun Mi Ni Beji No. II (1970) and Ona Ara (Mysterious Ways), for full chorus, soloists, organ and Yoruba instruments (1970). The most significant feature of these works is that, in them, Bankole abandoned the relatively complex, harmonic and formal character of works such as Toccata and Fugue and English Winterbirds, for a simple folk- inspired style. Such a compositional decision was necessary since these works were written for amateur choirs whose audience was mainly drawn from the Christian community in Nigeria, noted for its conservative musical taste. Despite their simplicity, the music is characterised by a fine taste, which reflects Bankole’s ability to achieve a successful and satisfying effect through simple material. Like his early vocal works, such as the Three Part Songs, these works are characterized by a fusion of Yoruba inflectionary tonal patterns with European conceived harmonies. In Fun Mi Ni Beji No. I and Ore Ofe jesu Kristi, melodic lines which are word-borne are treated polyphonically.

53Like Sowande, Bankole’s compositions are not always composed to present elements of African music. In a preface to Toccata and Fugue, one of his most Europeanised works, Bankole wrote that:

  • 19 Preface, Toccata and Fugue, University of Ife Press, 1978.

... no conscious effort is made to inject African traditional styles... and if these are felt their roles should not be exaggerated.19

54As the composer admits, the influence of Max Reger is felt in the Toccata and Fugue especially regarding the use of chord clusters. In addition, the emotional temper of the piece is suggested by Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H, which he played frequently in the period shortly before he composed the work. Bankole’s patronage of European conventional procedures is, however, clearly shown, not only in the formal conception of Toccata and Fugue, but also in the use of periodic and symmetric phrases and the traditional process of motivic development. In its use of conventional European elements, the work maintains strong links with some of the significant works of the Second Viennese School. For example, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire which, despite its atonal character, still contains residual tonal features and conventional formal patterns. It must, however, be pointed out that a work like the Toccata and Fugue constitutes the exception rather than the rule. The need to fuse European and African elements represents the most important basis for his compositional career. In no other work is the syncretic basis of his works more sharply focused than in his last major work, the Festac Cantata for chorus, soloists, wind orchestra and Nigerian traditional instruments (1974). This work represents a summary of Bankole’s compositional style, since virtually all the diverse elements of his previous works are combined in it. The combination of European and traditional instruments, the juxtaposition of diatonic, tonally conceived, harmonics and atonal textures, the use of Yoruba inspired modal (harmonic and melodic) procedures and harmonic-tonal features which suggest an affinity with Bartok and Debussy are all used within a work which symbolises the pervading eclectism in Bankole’s output.

Akin Euba (1935 )

  • 20 For an introductory study on the life and works of Akin Euba, see J. Uzoigwe, Akin Euba: An introd (...)

55Like Sowande, Akin Euba’s20 ideas on the need for African composers to maintain a strong link with traditional African music have been reflected both in his compositions and research work. Clear parallels often, therefore, occur between his writing and his composition. The writing shows Euba’s strong commitment, far beyond that of any of his colleagues, to a search for a contemporary African society. In one such piece he stated that:

  • 21 A. Euba, Preface to a study of Nigerian music. Ibadan 21, 1965, p. 53.

... as a participant in the new Fine Art Music (in Nigeria, he) has been puzzled for a long time in his search for a style of composition which would distinctly reflect his cultural heritage and which would be a natural extension of this heritage... Having been brought up primarily in the Western tradition and being all too aware of the force with which this tradition is encroaching upon native culture, this writer has felt the need not only for a preservation of his Country’s folk tradition, but for a logical direction of the processes of acculturation in such a manner that their products will be not a severance from but a continuation of the past.21

56Euba’s search for an authentic idiom of modern African Art Music has been exemplified in a variety of ways and, as the discussion below will show, they are usually valid interpretations of the principles governing the organisation of traditional African music.

57Akin Euba was born on 28th April 1935, in Lagos, and was formally introduced to Western music by his father, who was a pianist. He later attended the C.M.S. Grammar School (now Anglican Grammar School), Lagos, where he continued lessons in the rudiments of European music. In addition, Euba had private piano lessons from Major J.G.C. Allen, a colonial administrator in Lagos, and a man to whom Euba would later dedicate his piano work; Scenes from Traditional Life (1970). These initial musical experiences are significant. He made rapid progress at playing the piano, winning in 1950 a medal at a competition organised by the Ministry of Culture. According to Euba:

  • 22 Uzoigwe, ibid., p. 18.

From 1950, things improved after I won my first Silver Medal at the Nigerian Festival of the Arts. This turned me from an obscure member of the School to a kind of star. This small recognition of my achievements may have reinforced my progress towards a musical career.22

58On Major Allen’s recommendation, Euba secured a government scholarship in 1952 to study music at Trinity College, London. There he studied harmony and counterpoint under Eric Taylor, composition under Arnold Cooke (a former pupil of Paul Hindemith) obtaining his Fellowship of the Trinity College of Music, London (FTCL) in piano and in composition in 1957. Euba’s compositional career started at Trinity College where he wrote his orchestral piece, Introduction and Allegro, and the String Quartet (1957). In both works he experimented with atonality.

59Euba returned to Nigeria in 1957 to join the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) as a producer in the Music and Music Research Unit. It was during his stay at the NBC that he began to develop a research interest in traditional Nigerian music. He recorded and produced for broadcast, various traditional music performances from different parts of Yorubaland. When, in 1962, Euba was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship to study in the United States he opted for ethnomusicology at the University of California where in 1966 he obtained an M.A. degree.

60Euba’s compositions written between 1959 and i960 reveal the influence of his new interest in traditional Yoruba music: the use of Yoruba melodies and rhythmic idioms are vividly shown in his Six Yoruba Songs (1959), Two Yoruba Folk Songs (1959), and The Wanderer (for violin, cello and piano, i960). It was, however, not until he arrived at the University of California that he started experimenting with the use of traditional African instruments. At UCLA, he came in contact with Roy Travis, an American composer who himself composed works such as the African Sonata (piano, 1966) and Collage for Orchestra (1968) in which African rhythmic idioms are strongly featured and who was his teacher. Akin Euba also took courses on the elements of traditional African music and the possibilities of their incorporation into his works. This widened his horizon. According to him:

  • 23 J. Uzoigwe, op. cit., p. 23.

The atmosphere at UCLA was very suitable for composers wishing to experiment with non-Western resources. We not only had theoretical courses in several of the world’s musical cultures but also had actual ensembles from these cultures in which we would play... My studies at UCLA indicated to me in what ways I, as a composer seeking to develop an African idiom, could proceed. I became aware for the first time that one of the most important methods by which I could Africanize my works was to employ African traditional instruments.23

61The immediate results of this experience are shown in his Three Yoruba Songs (for baritone and iya-ilu, chief drum 1963), Igi Nla So (for piano and four Yoruba drums, 1963), Four Pieces (for African orchestra, 1966) and Olurombi (for symphony orchestra, 1967). In all these works, Euba explores the rhythmic nuances of traditional Yoruba music in combination with twentieth century European atonality.

IGI NLA SO gudugudu, kanango, lya-the, kerikeri, piano.
Akin Euba

IGI NLA SO gudugudu, kanango, lya-the, kerikeri, piano.Akin Euba

62The use of an atonal harmonic texture to present African rhythmic elements is not simply an attempt by Euba to identify himself with a twentieth century European tradition. It represents a reinterpretation of a stylistic tendency of traditional Yoruba music. Thus, Euba’s experiments in works such as Three Yoruba Songs and Igi Nla So are based on an interpretation which sees Yoruba drum music as having a quasi-atonal quality.

63While the use of traditional instruments is an interesting development, it brings with it a particular problem. With the present state of music scholarship in Nigeria there is as yet no music school that emphasises the teaching of traditional instruments at the level it deserves. As a result, literate musicians who can play traditional instruments are indeed very few. This means that works such as Igi Nla So which make use of traditional instruments rarely get performed in the form in which they exist in the score. Traditional musicians who can play the traditional instruments used in the works cannot read music.

Euba’s Concept of African Pianism

64It is, however, important to explain how Euba has tried to overcome this problem. In some of his piano works written after Igi Nla So he abandoned the use of traditional instruments, relying on the piano alone to capture and evoke the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic textures of traditional Yoruba music. The works in which this new experiment take place include Four Pictures from Oyo Calabashes (1964), Saturday Night at Caban Bamboo (1964) and Scenes from Traditional Life (1970). Euba’s use of the piano to evoke the textures of traditional African music is based on the concept of African pianism which he has evolved himself. This concept defines a compositional approach through which the piano can be used to evoke the rhythmic, textural and formal characteristics of traditional African instrumental music. In addition, Euba believes that capturing the essence and the spirit of traditional African music is more important than a mere use of traditional folk tunes.

65According to him:

  • 24 A. Euba, 1970, Traditional elements as the basis of new African art music. African Urban Notes, Vo (...)

It is true that (African modern) composers have often attempted to Africanise their works by making use of African tunes and rhythms, but in their preoccupation with Western forms, such borrowing has been quite minimal and their works must be regarded as an extension of Western art music rather than a continuation of African tradition in music.24

66It is not that European elements should be discouraged in modern African works, but they should not suppress the African features used in such works. Thus he does not:

  • 25 ibid., p. 53.

advocate a total insulation of African music from foreign influences since such influences are often enriching, provided they are compatible with and do not tend to dominate the native tradition.25

67Despite the strength of African idioms in such works as Igi Nla So and Olurombi, Euba’s most nationalist works were not composed until the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Neo-traditionalism in Euba’s Works

68In 1966, after the completion of his Master’s degree at UCLA, Euba took up an appointment with the University of Lagos as Lecturer in the music department. A year later, while still at Lagos University, he registered as a part-time doctoral student at the University of Legon, Ghana, where, in 1974, he obtained his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology after submitting a thesis on Yoruba dundun music.

69From 1967 onwards there was a drastic change in Euba’s approach to composition. In 1967, Euba left the University of Lagos for the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, a place renowned for its interest in the cultural heritage of Nigeria. Located in the place of mythical origin of the Yoruba — Ile-Ife — the University has initiated important research into different aspects of Nigerian culture. The Institute of African Studies, the University’s main organ for this cultural objective, has different sections for music, dance and drama. In addition to research, this institute also lays emphasis on the practical aspect of those courses. Regular performances took place in the University’s Oduduwa Hall. Euba worked as a Research Fellow in the institute and coordinated ‘Ori Olokun’, a group of semi-professional artistes. Euba’s time in the University resulted in his re-examination of his initial ideas as to how a modern African composer can satisfy the aesthetic needs of contemporary African society. This has in turn resulted in compositions significantly different from his earlier works. In an article written in 1970, Euba expresses certain important ideas which formed the basis of his change of approach to composition. Instead of writing works which only make use of African elements within a predominandy European structural context, African composers who genuinely want to maintain strong links with African culture in their works should take a close look at the principles governing African traditional music. According to him:

  • 26 ibid., p. 54.

Compositions written by Africans... even when (they have)... utilised elements of African music have generally conformed to European ideals to such a degree that the African elements have been overshadowed by the Western. The influences at work here are so forceful that the music produced must be regarded as representing an almost total rejection of African norms. On the other hand, by judicious selection, African composers can leave themselves open to foreign influences which are so peripheral in nature that the core of their music retains its identity. (For example) Africans can accept the idea of a new music designed for aesthetic listening without necessarily committing themselves to using foreign materials in the creation of this music.26

70Works written by Euba which accept the idea of a new music designed for aesthetic listening, but which do not use many European elements, include Dirges for speakers, singers, and Nigerian instruments (1972), Two Tortoise Folk Tales, for speakers and Nigerian instruments (1975), Morning, Noon and Night, a dance drama for Nigerian instruments (1967) and Alatangana, a dance drama for Nigerian instruments (1971). These works were composed while Euba was at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ife. Since most of the performers could not read music, the works were conceptualised on an oral basis. This approach naturally removed the initial problem which Euba had in performing his earlier works such as Three Yoruba Songs, which make use of dundun drums. According to Euba, composers could adopt this approach while the training of African musicians able to play traditional instruments from notation goes on.

71The reception given to the works each time they are performed both within and outside Nigeria has given Euba encouragement to continue along these lines. Apart from the use of traditional instruments, they reflect certain important, basic features of traditional African music: flexibility and spontaneity in performance and the integration of music, dance and drama. They also often have a quasi-utilitarian character. For example, by using poems which have a political theme in Chaka (1970), Euba is able to adumbrate the African tradition in which a musical performance also performs an extra-musical function. Chaka, for soloists, chorus and ensemble of traditional African instruments, makes use of a text based on a dramatic poem about a famous nineteenth century Zulu warrior, dedicated to the Bantu Martyrs of South Africa. The poem was by Leopold Senghor, former President of Senegal. The work was first performed at the Ife Festival of the Arts, University of Ife in 1970 and was later presented at a command performance before Leopold Senghor in Dakar in 1972. The third performance of the work, attended by this writer, was in London, at Brent Town Hall, in 1986. Since an absolute score does not exist, each time the work is performed it takes a slightly different form. The wide reception and commendation which Euba’s orally conceived works received both within and outside Nigeria is illustrated in the successful presentations of Alatangana. Like Chaka, the work was taken abroad after performances at Ife and Ibadan, and was performed during the 1972 International Festival of the Arts in Nancy, France. Its enthusiastic reception is summarised by critic Yoland Thiriet, in Le Journal de Nancy:

  • 27 Translated in the editorial: Alatangana African Arts, 1972, p. 46.

The performance is a result of a choreographic effort of a high order. modern melodies and rhythms revitalize the traditional repertoire to produce a means of unique richness. At first sight the performance is folkloric. But its depth is not lost on the attentive spectator for long. For the traditional aspect is carried by an undercurrent of marks of masterful technicality... The complexity of the performance runs the risk of being distracting. But its richness of rhythm, its diversity and its pageantry are sufficiently arresting and win our attention.27

72Like other works in its category, the musical conception of Alatangana is aleatoric. As Euba has said:

  • 28 L. Glen, 1972, Music to think about Africa. Musical America, August, p. 29.

Essentially, I gave the barest of direction to the performers about the kind of music they should play. Then I let them play at will without synchronizing their rhythms. So every time this dance-drama is played the music is different.28

73Despite the success of these orally-conceived works, Euba realises their limitations. One major problem is that there is a limit to which his own creative intentions can be portrayed by performers (traditional Africans) who generally fall back on their own knowledge and judgement in presenting his (Euba’s) ideas.

74Thus, although originally orally conceived, for three-part choir and five Nigerian instruments, his Abiku No. II, (1968), was later scored. The decision to score the work highlights Euba’s dilemma and continuous search for an appropriate medium in which to present his creative intentions, since he had to resort once again to the use of notation in a work written for African instruments. The score of Abiku No. II, however, is significant in that it shows the ingenuity of Euba in capturing and redirecting the compositional techniques of traditional Yoruba music to suit a contemplative presentation. By scoring the work, Euba has provided us with an opportunity to examine the main compositional features of his orally-conceived works, since the work represents a written example of the techniques employed in the conception of the orally-based works. Apart from the use of Yoruba drumming procedures, central to the conception of Abiku, is:

  • 29 A. Euba, Traditional elements as the basis of new African Art Music, op. cit., p. 55.

The exploitation of the tonal characteristics of African languages to produce a kind of music in which speech tones, without being turned into melodies having discrete pitches, assume musical importance in their own right and could be used multi-linearly.29

75Euba’s experiments at fusing European and African elements are typified by a commitment and articulation which exceed that of any other Nigerian composer; and the musical realisations of his ideas are guided by a personal style noted for its intellectual depth and maturity.

Lazarus Ekwueme (1936-)

76Lazarus Ekwueme is perhaps the most learned of the most prominent group of Nigerian composers. A product of such famous schools as the Royal College of Music, London, Durham University, England and Yale University in the United States of America, Professor Ekwueme holds a sizeable number of degrees and diplomas including B.Mus, M.Mus, M.A., Ph.D., L.R.S.M. and F.T.C.L.

77Born in 1936 in Anambra State of Nigeria, Lazarus Ekwueme had much of his music education in Britain and the United States, studying under such great names as Sir Adrian Boult (conducting) and Gordon Jacob (composition). In line with the varied nature of his academic training, Ekwueme has not only been an active composer, he has also displayed striking competence in different areas within the music discipline. A professor of music in the University of Lagos, Nigeria, he has authored many academic publications on music, including journal articles and books. He has also led an active career as a singer and conductor. His Laz Ekwueme National Chorale has been an active ensemble in the performance of classical music in Nigeria, boasting a repertoire of a highly varied nature.

78His compositional career began actively during his student days in England and since then, he has written works which reflect a varied genre. His works can be grouped under four categories. These are (a) original choral works; (b) choral arrangements; (c) opera; (d) chamber and large orchestral work. Works in the first category include: Sopuru Chineke Nima Mma Nke Idi Nso (O Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness) SATB, 1958; Chineke No N’ulo Nso Ya (God is in His Holy Temple) SATB a capella, 1976; and Zidata Mo Nso Gi (Send Down Thy Holy Spirit, O Lord) SATB, 1989.

79Works in the second category include Let My People Go (Negro spiritual) for tenor/soprano solo, SATB, 1989; Chi Chi Bud (Jamaican folk song) for soprano solo, SATB 1970; and Eku Ewu (Yoruba folk song) for soprano solo, SATB and piano, 1976. His only opera is tided A Night in Bethlehem while Dance of the Black Witches is a chamber piece and Nigerian Rhapsody an orchestral work.



80A survey of Ekwueme’s works reveals a pervading element of nationalism. Like all the composers earlier mentioned, Ekwueme’s compositional objective in most of his works is marked by a striking attempt to create syncretic works in which elements of European and African music are imaginatively woven together. Relying on a well grounded knowledge of European and African music, he has been able to successfully marry distinct and different musical elements to create a new tradition of musical composition especially in the realm of vocal music. Works which bear eloquent testimony to this include Nno ( Welcome) SATB, in which the Igbo drum language is convincingly simulated within a European-derived tonal texture; and Olele (Yoruba melody), arranged for solo voice and piano (1961) and typified by a percussive tension arising from the hemiola character of the piece; again, within a generally restricted European tonal background. Other features of Ekwueme’s style include the use of the African derived call and response pattern as in Nne Neku Nwa (O Mary, dear Mother) for SATB in which a nonsense word Zamiliza becomes a recurring answer; the setting of Igbo texts to modes other than major or minor keys as in Zidata Mo Nso Nke Gi which employs a transposed Dorian mode; the use of rhythmic and tonal ostinato as in Hombe and the use of parallel harmony as in Obi Dimkpa (SATB).

Meki Nzewi (1938-): His Musical Philosophy

  • 30 See chapter 7 for a list of works by these composers.
  • 31 Meki Nzewi, 1992, Ese music: Notation and modern concept presentation. Iwalewa-Haus, University of (...)

81We shall now turn our attention to the compositional activities of Meki Nzewi, who by virtue of age and experience belongs to the older generation of Nigerian composers, but whose approach to the development of a contemporary tradition of Nigerian Art Music is perhaps, the most radical and avant-garde. Born in 1938, Nzewi studied music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka before proceeding to the Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, where he had the privilege of studying under the renowned ethnomusicologist, John Blacking. Prior to his studies in the United Kingdom, Nzewi had experimented with works conceived along the European tradition and similar to most of the works by other Nigerian composers earlier discussed in this chapter.30 Such works include three musicals; The Moonsage Hero, Kunje and A Drop of Honey and two piano works: Searching, Nos 2 and 3. His musical vision however changed dramatically following his education at Belfast and after realising the predominant European basis of his earlier works. His commitment to the evolution of a more relevant and viable tradition of contemporary music is manifested in his new approach to Art Music presentation, notably in his performances of traditionally Igbo Ese Music. He has not only notated Ese music for modern concert presentation purposes, for those who may be interested in performing it, he has also learnt how to play Ese musical instruments, a set of a tuned drum row consisting of four pitched membrane drums, plus one bass drum which is an open- ended single membrane drum of indefinite pitch.31 Nzewi believes that many examples of traditional Nigerian music are classical enough to be performed as contemplative music. In addition, it is only through a good mastery of traditional music that a solid foundation can be laid for an evolution of authentic and relevant Art Music in contemporary Nigeria.

Okechukwu Ndubuisi (1939- ) Contemporary Igbo Vocal Music

82Contrasting with Akpabot’s compositional preference for orchestral works is Okechukwu Ndubuisi’s predilection for writing vocal works. As the most important and consistent composer of modern Igbo vocal art music, his works represent some of the most articulate forms of that tradition.

83Okechukwu Ndubuisi was born on the 29th September 1939, in Item, Abia State of Eastern Nigeria. At the age of six he went with his uncle, a teacher, who was transferred to Ora in Edo State. It was in Ora, where he received his primary and secondary education, that he had his first formal contact with European music as a chorister in Ora Methodist Church. The organist and choirmaster, Mr. Odutola, from Abeokuta (in Western Nigeria) later gave Ndubuisi his first lessons on the piano and organ. In addition, Ndubuisi as a chorister had an early opportunity to develop his talent as a singer.

84At the age of 17, after his secondary school education, he went to Enugu in Eastern Nigeria, where he met a British engineer who was also a musician, who, impressed by his potential as a singer and pianist, gave him lessons in singing and piano free of charge.

85Two important developments took place in his musical life at Enugu. First, he played in jazz bands. As a pianist in these bands he was introduced to the basic principles of jazz harmony and improvisation. Secondly, in 1959, he met a Scottish Operatic Singer, Mrs. Grant Elliot with whom, in that same year, he formed the Enugu Operatic Society. Before the end of 1959, this society was able to produce the popular musical, The King and I. His involvement with this operatic company was significant in his musical career, for, a year later, he went to London to study music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Some of the courses he took at the Guildhall were in piano playing, singing, acting and composition. Ndubuisi recalls that one of his composition teachers, the late Professor Peter Wishart, was particularly ‘understanding enough to allow me to incorporate African elements in my composition exercises’, a practice he has followed ever since.

86On his return to Nigeria in 1966, and after playing with jazz bands in Enugu, he joined the staff of the Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he has remained ever since. It was here that his compositional career began in earnest. His stay at Nsukka afforded him the opportunity to meet students from different parts of the country with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds from whom he could collect the folk songs later used in his works. Thus, many of his works are arrangements, and they include O Se Va (Edo) for SATB; Nwa Mgbogho Delu Uli (Igbo) solo voice and piano; Ife Di Na Oba (Igbo) solo voice and piano, Nyarinya (Hausa) soprano solo and piano and Ogun Salewa (Itsekiri) SATB.

87Ndubuisi’s compositions have reflected the diverse nature of his training and experience. A survey of his works shows that the same set of stylistic features recur. His harmonic vocabulary often reflects influences from Highlife, jazz and Igbo traditional music with occasional and sporadic echoes of European folk inspired tradition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of these often dominates in a particular work. Thus in works such as O Se Va, Ozuitem Obodomu, SATB, and Mama G’abara Mu Mba, for soprano solo and piano, there is a strong Highlife flavour while there is an undisguised jazz orientation in works like The Blue Nocturne and War Dance, both written for the piano. On the other hand, the influence of early twentieth century English song composers, Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney for example, is strong in such works as Ife Di Na Oba, Na Mgbogho Delu Uli and Anwu Ti Mini Dze. Ndubuisi’s most successful works are those in which these diverse elements are integrated on an almost equal basis to provide a personal style. Such works are usually those not based on a folk song, that is, those that are entirely original. They include Anoro Anokwuku SATB (1973); Ajama-Kwara Ngwongwo, SATB (1979); Onina Manya Ogo, SATB (1972) Afufu Uwa, for voice, flute and piano (1975) and Nnwa Aramonu, SATB (1973). These works were written at a later stage in his compositional career (as their dates show), reflecting a more mature approach to fusing African and European elements than in earlier works such as Ife di na Oba and Anwu Ti Mini Dze.

88Apart from solo songs and part-songs, Ndubuisi has written two operas. These are Dr Feeles (1968) and The Vengeance of the Lizards (1966). The first was a propaganda work for the rebel Biafran Army in which Ndubuisi served during the Nigerian Civil War. The score was destroyed by the composer at the end of the war. The Vengeance of the Lizards, Ndubuisi’s most popular work, is, on the other hand, based on an Igbo myth in which traditional beliefs in secret societies, reincarnation and ancestral spirits are explored. The work, along with Bankole’s Festac Cantata, exemplifies the use of traditional Nigerian musico-dramatic elements within an imported European form.

AFUFU UWA Moderately quickly and expressively O’NDUBUISI

AFUFU UWA Moderately quickly and expressively O’NDUBUISI

89Like the other composers mentioned in this chapter, Ndubuisi believes that the projection of the Nigerian cultural heritage should be the major pre-occupation of any Nigerian composer. Since the socio-cultural environment of a composer is, however, inseparable from his artistic inclination, such a projection, even when not consciously done, will often manifest itself in his works.

Adam Fiberesima (1926- )

90Adam Fiberesima, who has also written fairly extensively for the human voice, was born in 1926 in the Okirika region of Rivers State. Fiberesima is mostly known for his two operas: Opu Jaja and Orukoko. His predilection for the operatic genre dates back to his college days — the period during which he wrote The Rascals. Written in 1945, the work, in its 1945 premier, featured a cast of Nigerian, English and American performers.

Joshua Uzoigwe (1946- ) His Works: An extension of Euba’s legacy

  • 32 See Chapter 7 for a list of Uzoigwe’s works.

91One of the younger generation of Nigerian composers significantly influenced by Akin Euba is Joshua Uzoigwe.32 His compositions are often characterized by a radical and often successful approach to the use of traditional Nigerian elements. He was born on January lst, 1946, and received his secondary education at the International School, University of Ibadan and King’s College, Lagos. Much of his childhood was, however, spent in his village, Ogidi, Anambra State, where he took an active part in traditional wresding, masquerade and moonlight musical plays.

92Like Euba, his time in secondary school was characterised by a strong desire to study European music. In 1960, his first year at King’s College, he joined the school choir which was directed by Major Allen, Euba’s former piano teacher. Major Allen also gave Uzoigwe piano lessons. On the completion of his secondary school education in 1970, Uzoigwe went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to take a diploma course in music. It was during his stay at Nsukka that his composing career began. While he was there he wrote songs mainly, which included the Four Igbo Songs (for soprano and piano, 1972) and Two Igbo Songs (Sot soprano and piano, 1973). These works clearly demonstrate Uzoigwe’s knowledge of the nuances of Igbo vocal music in their harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment and in the melodic pitches of the vocal part.

93On completion of the diploma course at the University of Nigeria in 1973, he went to Trinity College, London, where he studied music, piano, clarinet and composition. While at Trinity College, he wrote three works: Four Nigerian Dances, Lustra Variations (for piano, 1976) and Sketches (for piano, 1977). Like the piano works of Akin Euba, these works are characterised by a fusion of twentieth century European atonality with African (Igbo) rhythmic procedures. Like Euba, Uzoigwe also believes that the use of a tone row is not fundamentally different from the procedures of Igbo instrumental music, in which a specific number of tones can be assigned to certain instruments in an ensemble. Although Uzoigwe was yet to undertake his study on Akin Euba for his Master’s degree at Belfast, he had come across Euba’s works earlier, as well as those of Ayo Bankole, during the 1964 Nigerian Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos. Despite the stylistic affinity between Uzoigwe’s works and those of Euba, they reflect a distinctive and personal style. Uzoigwe’s approach to the evocation of the rhythmic and melodic textures of Igbo instrumental music in these works reflects his intimacy with traditional Igbo music as well as his radical way of re-expressing traditional elements within a new socio-musical context.

  • 33 J. Uzoigwe, op. cit.

94Uzoigwe obtained a GTCL diploma (Graduate Diploma of the Trinity College of Music, London) in 1977 after which he went to Queen’s University, Belfast to study ethnomusicology. For his M.A. programme at Belfast he wrote his dissertation on Akin Euba.33 Asked why he chose a study on Euba, he replied that:

  • 34 Expressed in an interview with the author at Nsukka in March 1994.

I have spent three quarters of my professional career studying European music. I felt it was time I studied the works of a senior colleague of mine who has similar compositional intentions as me. The choice eventually fell on Euba not only because our lives have crossed each other before but also because our lives have similar patterns.34

95That Uzoigwe, like Euba, reassessed his approach to composition as a result of his ethnomusicology studies at Belfast is not surprising. He had initially defined Modern African Art Music as:

  • 35 ibid.

a literary distillation, or better still, an invocation of certain features that are characteristic of traditional African music by literary African composers with or without the inclusion of other musical elements from other cultures outside the continent.35

96One of the most important problems any African composer has to face is the proportion of outside elements which can be integrated in their compositions without losing strong links with traditional African music. Thus, while he had used African elements in his earlier works, such as Lustra Variations and Sketcbes, the fact that they were written for the piano and not for traditional African instruments is to Uzoigwe indicative of their limited African character. As a result he moved to writing works which make use of African instruments. During his study at Belfast he composed Masquerade (for iya-ilu and piano, 1980) and Ritual Procession (for African orchestra, 1981). In both works there is an element of aleatoric. While at Trinity College, Uzoigwe had listened to aleatoric works by the Polish composer, Witold Lutoslavski, including his Second Symphony, and had seen the possibility of using the same procedure to imitate the improvisatory feature of African music. While his Masquerade was born entirely out of improvisation, in his Ritual Procession he constructs fifty-two melo-rhythmic cells to be played by as many instruments as possible in a quasi-canonic style. The eventual number and type of instruments is left to the choice of the performers. The different melo-rhythmic figures in the piece are of different densities and the result of their combination is a multi-layered melo-rhythmic texture. As in traditional music, Uzoigwe provides the okele rhythm (gong rhythm) to act as reference pattern for the participating instruments. The use of this reference pattern in this and other works, such as Watermaid (soprano and orchestra) is based on Uzoigwe’s belief that it constitutes one of the most important features of traditional drumming technique. According to him:

  • 36 A view also expressed in the interview at Nsukka in March 1994.

... the presence of an instrument in the role of a metronome in traditional music emphasises the tendency for man to associate time with space. The monotony that could result from a consistent repetition of a phrase refrain is often subdued by the situational musical activity and other social elements such as audience participation...36

97However, in the absence of a participating audience for modern art works, the constant reiteration of the ‘metronome phrase’ could be monotonous. One way in which this could be avoided would be to increase the range of musical elements. This is something Uzoigwe tries to achieve in Ritual Procession. He tries to capture the socio-musical event of the traditional yearly Masquerade Festival of his native Igboland during which different ensembles perform different types of music. This accounts for the use of an unlimited type and number of instruments. According to him, the very wide range of musical elements distracts from the monotonous rhythmic reiteration of the pulse maker.

98Uzoigwe has, however, not completely abandoned the use of European instruments in his compositions. His works, Oja (a wind quintet, 1982) and Watermaid (for soprano and orchestra, 1983), are scored for European instruments. Here, European instruments imitate the melo-rhythmic quality of traditional instruments. In Watermaid for example, both the flute and the clarinet are given melodic lines which are idiomatic of the traditional Igbo flute — Oja. In addition, the atonal style used in the early piano work Sketches, for example, is abandoned for a harmonic context in which tonality is affirmed not by conventional progressions but through referential and periodic appearances of a key centre.

99Uzoigwe can be seen in the same context as Euba with his re-adoption of the piano to evoke African rhythmic procedures in Scenes from Traditional Life. Since there are few musicians who can read staff notation to perform works written for traditional instruments, the use of European instruments to represent elements of traditional music is an option that Nigerian composers will continue to take. One of the immediate plans of Uzoigwe, who now teaches music at the Akwa Ibom State University, Uyo, is to help reinforce the efforts being made in Nigerian music departments at colleges and universities to emphasise the teaching of traditional instruments in the curriculum. Unless, and until, this is done successfully, works such as the Ritual Procession will remain archival material.

100Other Nigerian composers who have synthesised elements of European and African elements in their works (original works and arrangements) include Sam Ojukwu, Felix Nwuba, Kanu Achinivu, Adolf Ahanotu, Moloye Bateye, Yemi Olaniyan, Tunji Vidal and Ademola Adegbite. More recent ones include Adesanya Adeyeye, Wole Adetiran, Dan Agwu, Debo Akinwumi, Sam Amusan, Femi Faseun, Arugha Ogisi, Godwin Sadoh and Bode Omojola.

101Certain important points have emerged in this chapter. These include the evidence of nationalism as a strong motivation for composition, the combination of creative engagements and research activities into traditional music by the composers, and the existence of a variety of approaches for realising nationalist objectives in compositions ranging over organ works, piano works, orchestral works (including those in which traditional instruments are employed), solo songs, part songs, orally conceived works and large choral works. In order to elucidate these and other points high-lighted in the above discussion, later chapters are devoted to the analysis of selected works. In the chapters, emphasis is placed on illustrating, through analysis the major compositional issues raised with regard to the works of some of the composers. As we shall see later, although the main stylistic features of African music are almost quantifiable, the ways in which they have been reflected in modern Nigerian Art Music differ from one another.


1 E. Southern, interview with Fela Sowande — the Chief Priest of Music. Black Perspective in Music vol. 19, pp. 40-41.

2 ibid.

3 For a list of Sowande’s compositions see chapter 7.

4 For a list of Sowande’s research work see the bibliography at the end of this book.

5 F. Sowande, Ifa (Yoruba divination). Unpublished manuscript. n.d.

6 F. Sowande, Oruko Amutorunwa. Unpublished manuscript. n.d.

7 F. Sowande, Nigerian music and musicians, then and now. Unpublished manuscript, p. 89.

8 F. Sowande, 1965. The development of a national tradition of music. A paper presented at a seminar organised by the Department of Music, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. pp. 60-61.

9 These are compositions written by Yoruba organists for use in Anglican churches in Nigeria.

10 op. cit., p. 67.

11 Preface to Prayer, 1958, Ricordi and Co., New York, p. 1.

12 Expressed in a personal conversation with the author, Ibadan, January 1985.

13 For a list of Akpabot’s works see chapter 7.

14 Personal interview, January 1985.

15 For a discussion of this and other features of Ibibio traditional music see: Akpabot, S. 1975. Functional Music of the Ibibio People of Nigeria. Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State University.

16 Expressed in a conversation held with the author in January 1985.

17 Ibid

18 See Chapter 7 for a list of Bankole’s works.

19 Preface, Toccata and Fugue, University of Ife Press, 1978.

20 For an introductory study on the life and works of Akin Euba, see J. Uzoigwe, Akin Euba: An introduction to the life and work of a Nigerian composer. M.A. thesis, Queen’s University, Belfast, 1978.

21 A. Euba, Preface to a study of Nigerian music. Ibadan 21, 1965, p. 53.

22 Uzoigwe, ibid., p. 18.

23 J. Uzoigwe, op. cit., p. 23.

24 A. Euba, 1970, Traditional elements as the basis of new African art music. African Urban Notes, Vol. X, Pt. IV, pp. 52-53.

25 ibid., p. 53.

26 ibid., p. 54.

27 Translated in the editorial: Alatangana African Arts, 1972, p. 46.

28 L. Glen, 1972, Music to think about Africa. Musical America, August, p. 29.

29 A. Euba, Traditional elements as the basis of new African Art Music, op. cit., p. 55.

30 See chapter 7 for a list of works by these composers.

31 Meki Nzewi, 1992, Ese music: Notation and modern concept presentation. Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, p. 3.

32 See Chapter 7 for a list of Uzoigwe’s works.

33 J. Uzoigwe, op. cit.

34 Expressed in an interview with the author at Nsukka in March 1994.

35 ibid.

36 A view also expressed in the interview at Nsukka in March 1994.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fela Sowande
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k
Fichier image/jpeg, 317k
Légende Samuel Akpabot
Fichier image/jpeg, 113k
Titre NIGERIA IN CONFLICT Samuel Akpabot
Fichier image/jpeg, 329k
Légende Ayo Bankole
Fichier image/jpeg, 78k
Fichier image/jpeg, 225k
Légende Akin Euba
Fichier image/jpeg, 115k
Titre IGI NLA SO gudugudu, kanango, lya-the, kerikeri, piano.Akin Euba
Fichier image/jpeg, 229k
Légende Lazarus Ekwueme
Fichier image/jpeg, 107k
Fichier image/jpeg, 299k
Titre AFUFU UWA Moderately quickly and expressively O’NDUBUISI
Fichier image/jpeg, 287k
Légende Adam Fiberesima
Fichier image/jpeg, 138k

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