African Suite

Fela Sowande

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Date of Composition: 1944, Duration: 25 minutes

The music of Fela Sowande (1905–1987) is an excellent example of biculturality—music that blends elements of different socio-political artistic traditions. Born in Oyo, Nigeria, Sowande grew up in an upper-middle class family. This was almost forty-five years after Great Britain had declared Nigeria a crown colony, but only a few since the final Nigerian territorial state ceded to British rule after continued resistance. As the son of a black Anglican priest who taught at St. Andrew’s College (known as the “Church Missionary Training Institution” until 1920) and boy chorister at Lagos’s Cathedral Church of Christ, Sowande learned to sing and to play the organ in an institution steeped firmly in Western artistic ideals. Traditional music of  the Yoruba peoples, from which Sowande’s family descended, was viewed with distrust as a “pagan” entity.

In 1934, the young man moved to London, hoping to earn a degree in civil engineering. Lacking funds to cover his tuition, Sowande played the piano in London jazz clubs, where he became quite well known. He collaborated with a number of famous performers, including American entertainers such as Fats Waller, Paul Robeson, and Adelaide Hall. Sowande also formed his own seven-piece ensemble, incorporating the Hammond organ into his act while fusing jazz, European classical music, and African melodies into his own unique style. When he returned to the University of London, his focus switched to music.

After graduation, Sowande worked in a wide variety of musical settings in the early 1940s. He served as theatre organist for the BBC and musical advisor to the Colonial Film Unit of the British Ministry of Information, composing background music for African educational films. For both these roles, he gathered traditional Nigerian folk melodies as source material. Sowande’s African Suite for string orchestra was composed at this time and broadcast on BBC radio in 1944. The work’s five contrasting movements aptly demonstrate the appeal and accessibility of Sowande’s blended style. According to the composer’s notes, movements one and three, titled “Joyful Day” and “Onipe,” borrow themes from Ghanian composer E. Amu and movements four and five (“Lullaby” and “Akinla”) feature traditional Nigerian melodies. The second movement, however, stands as the heart of the work. Titled “Nostalgia,” the piece is fully Sowande’s own creation, a remembrance by “an African in England.” In the 1950s, Sowande returned to his homeland, sent by BBC administrators to head up the music division of a new Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. In this role, he founded the first NBC choir and orchestra. His new location encouraged more in-depth exploration of the music of his Yoruba heritage, and Sowande gained a reputation as an African-born pioneer in the discipline of ethnomusicology. Sowande travelled to the United States several times in the late 1950s and 1960s, performing and lecturing, and finally moved to the US permanently in 1968, when he joined the faculty at Howard University. Among Sowande’s many awards, Queen Elizabeth II named him a Member of the British Empire in 1955 for “distinguished services in the cause of music,” and in 1962, the University of Nigeria-Nsukka renamed its school of music after him. Perhaps held most dear, in 1968 he was granted a traditional chieftancy title, rounding out his bi-cultural accolades.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2023

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Chief Olufela “Fela” Obafunmilayo Sowande lived a remarkable life in music, both as a performer and composer. While he was known as the father of Nigerian classical music, he was equally at home in jazz. He received a thorough music education in both his native country and later, in London, England.  The son of a priest and college teacher, his early life in Nigeria was immersed in the great Anglican Church music tradition: singing in traditional cathedral choirs and studying the organ. As a chorister, his musical experiences included not only the traditional English repertoire, but also the introduction of native Yoruba music into Nigerian ecclesiastic music. His prowess as an organist led to the mastery of the great European organ works, sufficient for a diploma from the Royal College of Organists. Moreover, simultaneously he became a successful jazz bandleader!

To further his education and establish a secure financial future, Sowande immigrated to England in 1934 to study civil engineering. That didn’t last long for soon he was performing widely in the jazz world. His prowess as a pianist led to association with such luminaries as Fats Waller and Paul Robeson. He achieved single recognition as a soloist in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Blackbirds of 1936. Along the way he was active as organist (including the pop Hammond organ) and choirmaster, rising to prominence in the highest echelons of the English musical world. 

In addition to mastery of the singular styles of Anglican Church music and traditional jazz styles, he was particularly devoted to composing works that blended traditional Nigerian music with Western classical styles—both sacred and popular. As dance bandleader, choir director, jazz pianist, organist, and composer, he moved deftly and successfully between all those musical worlds —not to speak of African and European ones, as well.

He was appointed MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1955. He moved to the United States in 1968, where he taught at several universities until his death in 1987 while a member of the faculty at Kent State University.

In addition to his choral and organ compositions, he composed several works for orchestra, including Africa Suite for strings and harp. Written in 1944, its five movements are a study of Nigerian musical melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that blend with traditional European orchestra techniques and textures.          

The first movement, Joyful Day, uses a melody composed by the Ghanaian composer, Ephraim Kɔku Amu (1899-1995). Amu was a beloved teacher, cleric, musicologist, performer, composer, and collector of popular songs. Joyful Day is an effervescent study in taking a simple repetitive tune and extending it into a substantial movement through a variety of textures, voicing, figurations, and harmonies.     

Nostalgia is a lush evocation of Sowande’s homeland, away from which he spent much of his life. While undoubtedly informed by Nigerian folk tunes, it is difficult to escape from a distinct impression that he was equally influenced by the rich string harmonies and folk-like melodies of the “pastoralist” composers of his new home in England: Vaughan Williams, Delius, Ireland, Butterworth, and others of that ilk.

Sowande once again draws upon a melody written by his fellow African, Amu, in the third movement, Onipe, named after a small village in the Oyo State of Nigeria. 

The gentle mood of the Lullaby is based on a folk tune, and features a solo violin. It contrasts with the surprising, turgid tremolos and active figures that soon become the accompaniment to the tune.

The suite finale, Akinla, features a spritely dance-like tune that is an example of an important musical style in West Africa called “Highlife.”  A combination of Colonial European, Caribbean and African elements, it’s a vigorous and popular, jazzy style that has spread throughout much of the world today.  It has many variants—“Palm Wine,” brass band, guitar band, and gospel—even a German version called “Burger Highlife.” Sowande’s take, though spirited, is a bit more sedate, but styles have evolved over the last seventy-five years or so.  Interestingly, Akinla is well known to Canadians, owing to its use as a theme on a popular radio show.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2023