Nigerian Art Music Composers

Traditional music remains the pedestal of Nigerian cultural identification. The music has being in existence from the emergence of the nation and is still upheld by its practitioners as well as its patrons as the chief custodian and conduit of Nigerian cultural heritage.

In a nutshell, traditional music encapsulates the world-view, philosophy, aspiration, religion, history, lineage, social, economic and political systems of the nation. However, music in Nigeria has never been static, but has consistently been undergoing a process of metamorphosis through a continued exposure to diverse musical styles from foreign cultures.

This process of assimilation and integration has left a long trail of musical synthesis between Nigeria and musical idioms from countries such as America, Brazil, Cuba, Europe and other African nations.

The roots of the new idiomatic expressions could be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of American and European missionaries and the centenary reign of the colonial administration. These two imperial forces were responsible for the introduction of Western classical music to Nigerian indigenes.

Through the churches, mission and colonial schools established during this era, Nigerians were exposed to Western musical instruments such as the piano, harmonium and organ. They were also taught how to read and notate music. In addition, indigenous budding composer-performers received private lessons in music theory, piano and organ at the homes of European musicians and from the organists and choirmasters at their local churches.

All these efforts eventually led to the emergence of ‘neo-African school of music’ that ultimately produced some of the finest modern Nigerian composers. Prominent Nigerian composers of international repute include Thomas Ekundayo Phillips, Fela Sowande, Ayo Bankole, Akin Euba and Joshua Uzoigwe.

Thomas Ekundayo Phillips

Thomas Ekundayo Phillips (1884-1969) is the ‘father of Nigerian church music.’ His contribution to the development of art music in Nigeria is numerable and worthy of mention when writing about this style of music. He was a total-musician, as an organist, choral conductor, composer, scholar, educator and musicologist.

He studied organ, piano and violin at the Trinity College of Music, London, from 1911 to 1914. On returning to Nigeria after his training in London, he was appointed as the Organist and Master of Music at the well-renowned Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, in 1914; a position he held for forty-eight years (Euba 1993: 17).

One of his salient accomplishments was the training of the next generation of Nigerian composers who were to take the baton from him. His most famous students include Fela Sowande, Ayo Bankole, Lazarus Ekwueme, Christopher Oyesiku (an outstanding bass singer and brilliant choral conductor), and Charles Oluwole Obayomi Phillips, his son and successor at the Cathedral Church of Christ.

Phillips composed primarily sacred music for worship in the church. His works include hymns, antiphonal chants (versicles and responses), several choral anthems in Yoruba language and two works for organ solo, Passacaglia on an African Folk Song and Variations on an African Folk Song.

Some of his popular choral works are Emi Yoo Gbe Oju Mi S’Oke for SATB and Organ, Magnificat in C for SATB and Organ, and Samuel, a cantata for soloists, chorus and organ. Phillips wrote the first musicological treatise on African music by a trained indigenous musician, titled, Yoruba Music (Johannesburg: African Music Society, 1953). The book is a thorough documentation of his field research on Yoruba traditional music, showing how modern composers can utilize indigenous creative ideas to create contemporary works.

Fela Sowande

Fela Sowande (1905-1987) represents the second generation of Nigerian composers. He grew up in a musical environment because his father, Emmanuel Sowande, was both an Anglican priest and church musician. Sowande received his early musical training from his father, Emmanuel Sowande and Thomas Ekundayo Phillips.

He traveled to England in the 1930s to study organ and composition as an external candidate (private tutoring) at the University of London. In 1943, he received the prestigious Fellow of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO), the highest British diploma awarded for organ playing. He was the first African to earn this diploma. Sowande briefly returned to Nigeria in the 1950s to work at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (now Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria), the University of Ibadan, and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

He finally emigrated to the United States in the 1960s where he spent the last twenty years of his life as an African musicologist teaching at various institutions such as Howard University, the University of Pittsburgh and Kent State University (Sadoh 2003: 19-20).

Sowande composed for almost the entire spectrum of musical genres–vocal solo, choral, piano, organ and orchestra. His famous works include African Suite for String Orchestra, Folk Symphony for Orchestra, Roll De Ol’ Chariot for SATBB, Wheel, Oh Wheel for SATB. Sowande is most famous for his beautifully well-written organ compositions–Jesu Olugbala, Go Down Moses, Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho, Oyigiyigi, Gloria, Kyrie, Obangiji, Prayer, Yoruba Lament, K’a Mura and the Sacred Idioms of the Negro (Sadoh 2005: 22).

It was Sowande’s era that introduced concert music to the Nigerian musical culture. His chamber, orchestra, piano and vocal songs are mostly secular intended for performances at concert halls and auditoriums in Nigerian colleges and universities. Prior to his era, music composition was sacred and the performance was restricted to the church.

Akin Euba

Akin Euba (1935-) belongs to the third generation of Nigerian composers. He studied piano and composition at the Trinity College of Music, London, in the 1950s. He also studied ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Ghana, where he received his Ph.D. in 1974. Euba, like his predecessors, is quite versatile covering several areas of interests in music–composition, performance, musicology, teaching and broadcasting (Uzoigwe 1992: 13-35).

He is the most prolific literary scholar of his generation with publications ranging from traditional, popular to art music. His research interests extend beyond the shores of Nigeria into other African countries as well as inter-continental.

Euba has composed for virtually all the music media: opera, piano, choral, vocal solo, and orchestra. Some of his works include Olurombi for Symphony Orchestra; Legend for violin, horn, piano and percussion; Ice Cubes for Strings; Chaka: An Opera in Two Chants for Soloists, Chorus, Yoruba Chanter, and a Mixed Ensemble of African and Western Instruments; Dirges for Speakers, Singers, Dancers, Yoruba Drums and Tapes; and Bethlehem: An African Opera for Soloists, Chorus, Dancers, Rock Ensemble and African Instruments.

Unlike Sowande, Euba is well-known for his piano compositions such as Impressions from an Akwete Cloth, Saturday Night at Caban Bamboo, Tortoise and the Speaking Cloth, Four Pieces from Oyo Calabashes, and Scenes from Traditional Life. Akin Euba is currently the head of the African Music program and the Andrew Mellon Professor of Music, at the Department of Music, University of Pittsburgh, U.S.A.

Ayo Bankole

Ayo Bankole (1935-1976) is from the same generation as Akin Euba and he is also from the Yoruba region of southwest Nigeria. He was born into a musical family like his two predecessors. His father and grand father were both church musicians and he received his early musical training from them and from Thomas Ekundayo Phillips, while he was a chorister at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos. Bankole later went on to study organ and composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, and the University of Cambridge, in the 1950s and 1960s.

While in England, he earned the prestigious FRCO (Fellow of the Royal College of Organists) diploma, making him the second and last Nigerian to receive the highest British diploma in organ playing. On his return to Nigeria in the mid-1960s, he worked briefly at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria and was later appointed a music lecturer at the University of Lagos; a position he occupied until his tragic death in 1976 (Alaja-Browne 1981: 15-28).

Within his short life span, Bankole was able to establish himself as a professional organist, composer, choral conductor, music educator and musicologist. Bankole’s upbringing in the Christian faith had a remarkable impact on his compositional outputs.

He composed mostly sacred music for worship in the church, but his music is still quite diverse because he wrote some of the most beautiful secular music as well. Among his notable works are Toccata and Fugue for Organ, Three Toccatas for Organ, Organ Symphonia for Drums, Trumpets, and Trombone, English Winter Birds for Piano, Sonata No. 2: The Passion for Piano, Nigerian Suite for Piano and the Fugal Dance for piano. When Bankole returned to Nigeria after studying in England, he focused on training young singers in high schools and churches. This led him to compose a lot of choral music for his choirs to sing.

Thus, Bankole was very famous in Lagos among choral groups for his beautiful and tuneful choruses. Some of his famous choral works include Christmas Cantata, Cantata No. 1 in Yoruba, Baba Se Wa l’Omo Rere (Father, Make Us Good Children), Fun Mi N’Ibeji Part I and II (Give Me Twins), Little Jesus, Gentle Jesus, Canon for Christmas, Four Yoruba Songs and the FESTAC Cantata No. 4.

Joshua Uzoigwe

Joshua Uzoigwe (1946-2005) belongs to the Igbo group in the eastern region of Nigeria. He had his early musical training at the King’s College, Lagos, and the International School, Ibadan. He received advanced training at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (1970-1973), Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London (1973-1977), and the Queen’s University, Belfast, where he earned his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in 1981.

He immediately returned to Nigeria after his musical training in England and Ireland. While in Nigeria, he taught at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and the University of Uyo, where he was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Music for several years (Sadoh 1998: 28-40). Uzoigwe’s compositional outputs are not as extensive as Ayo Bankole and Akin Euba, but they are some of the most finest music ever written in twentieth century Nigeria. He composed for chamber and orchestra, but he is more famous for his tuneful solo songs and brilliant virtuosic piano pieces.

Uzoigwe’s research into the traditional music of the Igbo, in particular, Ukom music, can be clearly observed in his piano works. In these piano pieces, he uses diverse twentieth century pitch collections such as octatonic scale, atonality and the twelve-tone row method to evoke nuances of Igbo music and creative procedures. Playing Uzoigwe’s piano pieces is reminiscent of performance on Igbo traditional drums, xylophones or flutes. Uzoigwe undoubtedly captured the soul and essence of Igbo traditional music in his piano works. Some of his famous songs and piano pieces are Four Igbo Songs for Mezzo Soprano and Piano, Nigerian Dances for Piano and the Talking Drum for Piano.

The contributions of Akin Euba, Ayo Bankole and Joshua Uzoigwe are very unique. This was the generation of the music-scholars or what I call composer-ethnomusicologists. All these composers studied Western classical music in Nigerian and British schools of music and ethnomusicology in American universities.

Their compositions are greatly influenced by their research into Nigerian traditional music. From the 1960s, these group of trained musicians embarked on an intense investigation of traditional music of their society to expand their understanding of the component materials of the structure, stylistic principles, tonality, function and meaning in the society, theoretical framework and the interrelations of music and dance. The focal point has been cultural renaissance and the search for national identity.

It is from this period that we witness the notation of Nigerian traditional musical instruments in the music scores. Prior to this era, music notation was confined mainly to Western musical instruments. African instruments were not included in the scores of early composers but rather used for supportive purposes and to create spontaneous improvised rhythmic background for vocal songs.

Such rhythmic patterns were never notated until the era of the composer – ethnomusicologists. In terms of tonality, this group of composers introduced early twentieth century European tonal devices such as atonality, dodecaphony, twelve-tone row method and the octatonic scale system, into the Nigerian musical language. It is interesting to observe that Nigerian modern composers employ the twentieth century tonal schemes to evoke the nuances of traditional musical instruments on Western instruments. For instance, Euba uses atonality to evoke the percussive sound of the Yoruba dundun drums in his piano works, thereby, making the piano behave like African traditional instruments.

Uzoigwe uses the twelve-tone system to evoke the sonorous sound of ukom music of the Igbo people in his piano compositions. Apparently, the third generation of modern Nigerian composers are more focused on the Africanization of their compositions so as to draw their works to the African cultural roots.

Their intention was to create a patriotic African audience that would deeply appreciate and patronize their music. Art music in Nigeria has been undergoing a process of ‘evolving’ from its inception as a sacred idiom for worship to the modern eclectic concert forms. Nigerian composers continue to assimilate idiomatic expressions from foreign cultures and juxtaposing them with indigenous source materials, whereby creating some of the most beautiful intercultural music of the twenty-first century. Interestingly, the performances of these type of compositions have been restricted to a limited group of people in Nigeria.

Performances of Nigerian art music are commonly found in selected circles among the well-educated, upper-middle-class, and the affluent. The patrons have always being from the cream of the Nigerian society and the elite, while its performance venues have been confined to churches, concert halls and auditoriums on college and university campuses. In spite of these limitations, the performances and publications of the composers’ works all around the world have transformed them into international icons.

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LETTERING (Practical)





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