Appreciating African Music – Shaping Narratives

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Building awareness of a cultural sensibility in lands far away from the original source can be a little like a relay race. When the starting signal is sounded, the first set of athletes, or raisers of consciousness are usually the ones who set the pace and dynamics for what follows. Nowadays, it is taken for granted by many that there are spaces for diverse forms of African expression to be seen, heard and savoured in British cities (especially London). Who remembers those pioneering spirits who dared to introduce aspects of African cultures to UK audiences, back in the day?

I have been fortunate enough in recent years to have been involved in a project that looked at the contribution of Fela Sowande – the Nigerian composer, instrumentalist, broadcaster and ethnomusicologist, in this regard. In the 1940s, Sowande made some programmes for the BBC (in what must have been a forerunner of the World Service) from London, about African music. In those programmes, he ruminated about possibilities for new frontiers in the creation of African music, which could draw inspiration from the folk idioms and also incorporate useful creative devices from Western Art Music.

Thanks to one of his student-protégés – Guy Pernetti, I gained access to some of those recordings in a digitised form. It is interesting to note that Sowande aimed to present folk music from diverse parts of Sub Saharan Africa on his programmes, so there were broadcasts of music from the nation now known as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, as well as from far flung parts of Nigeria – the nation of his birth.

Somewhere along the line, the baton seems to have been passed on to people from other heritages and backgrounds, to inform the world about African musical creativity. Is this a good or bad thing? I am inclined towards thinking there are interesting pros and cons surrounding this development.

In any case, it is important that people of African heritage should maintain the presence of mind and commitment to shape the narratives around the ways that our culture should be heard and seen in the first instance. Who will take the baton in the relay race at this point in history?