Pioneer Composer of Nigerian Art Music by(Benson Idonije). Fela Sowande is undoubtedly one of the fore most composers ofart music in Nigeria. Unfortunately,he is better known overseas than at home in Nigeria. Born in 1905 in Oyo town to a teacher and Anglican priest father, young Fela had his early initiation into the world of music from his parents. This and later contacts with Thomas King Phillips, are reowned musicologist, and the then rich musical life of Lagos greatly influenced him to undertake formal study of European music in London. He once confirmed that Philips,who was the choir master and organist of Christ Church, Lagos, was a big influence on him and made his transition to European art music form quite easy. "The anthems were the same as those sung in London. But Phillips also directed a choir which had units from all of the Anglican churches in Lagos, plus people outside the choirs who could sing or were interested, and we would perform things like Coleridge Taylor's 'Hiawatha' and things by Handel and Bach. So at a very impressionable age, I got thrown into that. . . I used to listen to his playing of Bach, Rehinberger and others and I hoped that some day I could play like that. Philips gave me my first introduction to European music." While in Lagos, Felaper formed in church, school, and with many artistes. He was a member of the popular Lagos-based jazz band, 'Chocolate Dandies'. In 1934, So wande left for England not to study music but civil engineering. His reason was that there was nothing new for him to learn to become a professional. As a musician, he already felt a sense of accomplishment. And this was confirmed by Prof. Kavabena Nketia, a Ghanaian musicologist, who said: "Indeed his musicianship and the experience he had accumulated in Nigeria were enough to put him on the path to citizenship in the world of jazz and to meet several African-American musicians in London or imitate their styles with the help of a professional British jazz musician." Sowande played music to earn a living and he dis played so much musicianship that in no time, he be came the head of a seven-piece band. But he soon found out that he needed to broaden his knowledge and he had to retrace his steps to music. He registered as an external student with the Royal College of Organists and by 1943,he had obtained a fellowship of the college with distinction. Fela Sowande would probably not have emigrated to the UK and USA, had there been a greater appreciation in Nigeria of the role he played in the development of Nigerian art music. A likely victim of this same circumstance is Prof. Akin Euba who is presently working in Europe and America. It is akin to the case of the prophet who is not recognized in his own country. Professor Nketia again says of Sowande's exploits in London: "I first heard about him in London in the 1940s . . . My British friends who were always get ting me tickets to concerts and other events told me about a Nigerian who played every Sunday, at Kingsway Hall and that many people went there just to hear him. No doubt, there were others who went there as a matter of sheer curiosity. For the sight of someone from the colonies playing the organ and conducting the choir at a major place of worship was a rarity in those days... I felt very proud of his achievement because I was also in music and knew what it meant to get to that point." During the Second World War, Sowande joined the Royal Air Force but was later released at the request of the Ministry of Information to become the music director and adviser of the colonial film unit. During this period, he wrote several background music for radio and films, cultural and educational programmes using African melodies as themes. There was his signature tune for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) programme on West Africa that was introduced in 1943 and was on until the 1960s. This tune was based on the Obangiji theme, a well-known Yoruba sacred song composed by the late J.J Ransome-Kuti. Sowande returned to Nigeria in 1953 and worked briefly with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, now Radio Nigeria. While there, he initiated several cultural music programmes, introducing African repertoire to the materials that the then NBC Dance Orchestra performed. He also made sure that the band's performance met international standards by featuring Chris Ajilo, Mike Falana and E.C Arinze among others. Sowande later moved to the University of Ibadan. And in the quest to satisfy an unquenchable desire for new levels of creativity and excellence, he left the country for a position at the University of Pittsburgh. Sowande's works cover three major media, the organ, the voice and the orchestra. Some of his organ compositions include Kyrie, Oyigiyigi,Laudamus Te, Prayer, Godown Moses,Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Yoruba Lament, Via Dolorosa and Obangiji. According to Tunji Vidal, a lecturer at the Obafemi University Ile-Ife, "Sowande's organ compositions show the masterly use of contrapuntal and variational techniques, sometimes with veiled linguistic connotation.And examination of his organ works show that many of them were based on themes derived from either Yoruba sacred songs or from Negro spirituals. . . Sowande's idea of the new modern African art music composition is a fusion of Western musical techniques with African folk melodic contents." The late composer himself summed up his idea of modern African art music composition when he said that the African musician must beaware that though he alone can supply the emotional subjective side of his music, that music must have a framework on which to rest, and this framework is supplied only by the technical and theoretical side of music, the objective side. Only by combining the two, can he hope to achieve. According to Vidal,where the music impressario is not using folk songs as the main ingredient of an instrumental composition, he puts new texts in English or Yoruba to an existing folk melody and arranges an accompaniment for it. Examples can be found in Wedding song(1957), Come out and Dance and Three Yoruba songs.Continuing,Vidal says:"In Wedding song, Sowande arranged a well known Yoruba folksong, Tunmigbe, popular in the forties at Yoruba Christian wedding celebrations,for Soprano Iand and also to new English texts written by E. Fielding Kirk with keyboard accompaniment". Sowande's other compositions in the vocal medium include,Art Songs for Tenor Voices,String Orchestra, and St. Judes Responses for choir, organ, and Negro spirituals like My Way's Cloudy arranged for mixed voices and piano. This concept of music composition was also extended to the standard Western orchestra exemplified by the highly acclaimed African suit, recorded at the Ham stead studies of Decca Record company in 1951. African suite,which is in five movements, uses African folksong themes and European harmonic techniques within the framework of European technical forms. Professor Nketia, after listening to African suite, said: "my admiration of his talent greatly deepened when I heard his African suite and its reminiscences of familiar tunes from Ghana. For me, a well crafted piece of music could reflect not only a person's ecstatic sensibility,but the quality of his mind or modes of musical thought". Sowande, awarded professor emeritus of music (Pittsburgh University), consistently fought against what he called musical colonialism of the African culture by promoting the use of identifiable African musical traits and characteristics without Composing ecstatic standards.For example, in 1960,he decided to take his African Symphony, which he composed, to celebrate the Nigerian independence to the Untied States of America for performance and recording be cause of the lack of an orchestra that could play the composition. Inspite of the furore that greeted this decision, Sowande said of himself: "I don't compose unless I feel that I have to put it this way. I never say to myself that I must write something. Something says to me;'I want to be written'. This is the only time I compose". This revered African musician and composer died at the ripe get of 82 on his 22-acre American home in Rudolph,Ohio in the United States of America, in 1987.An organist, composer, researcher and writer of international repute, Sowande's unrivalled list of achievements in the field of music, art and humanities area glorious tribute to Nigeria and Africa.But the protection of his legacy is said to have been largely left to the discretion of only his family. More disturbing is the belief that some of his great works may have actually passed on with him. His numerous respected compositions and publications appear to have gone under ground,leaving only traces in libraries and archives in far away Europe and America. He was a professor emeritusto the Pitts burgh University,and he also taught at Howard University and Kent State University, to mention a few. He was infact invited to give guest lectures at twenty three universities. Sowande was the first African to conduct a symphony orchestra.Not only that, he conducted his own works, which again was the first symphony composed by an African to be performed by a symphony orchestra. A distinguished scholar and composer, his works are found in the archives of the American Smithsonian Library, Kent State Depository, the Pittsburgh archives,Howard University,Durham University, Indiana University, and the BBC- His works are still featured regularly on the BBC.
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