Banging a drum for African Composition

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In the days when the Composition in Africa and the Diaspora Symposium attracted many African scholars and musicians to Churchill College Cambridge, there was a nagging sense that the African Art Music canon had not registered a strong enough presence on the global music scene. Several academicians who presented papers suggested that the music community could learn from the relative success of African Literature – a fine idea in several ways, but one that didn’t take into account the fact that most literature is introduced to readers through educational institutions and that these institutions were more likely to take the work of writers seriously in teaching the three Rs, than the work of composers.

The fact remains that there is a body of work that was created by composers over the last century and there are others who are currently adding more to that canon. In recent times, there have been encouraging signs that perceptions of music making amongst people of African descent is changing. One can only hope that this trend continues to blossom. There certainly seem to be more spaces for Black performers,

What is to be done to raise the profile of the work of the composers? In my opinion it is important that attention is given to work created in the past, but also to new music, so that composers of African descent can find new ways to communicate with audiences.

I have been involved in several projects that have celebrated the works of pioneering Black composers from the past. How about drawing attention to some new work?

Happily, one project that I devised and led – Ignatius Inspires (hosted by Bernie Grant Arts Centre) managed to expose and celebrate the work of the world’s first Black composer to have his music published – Ignatius Sancho, but also encouraged young musicians to create their own musical responses to his work. I performed song recitals (accompanied by Waiyin Lee on piano) in which I sang songs by Sancho, along with material from a song cycle of my own. I also composed a tribute song “Mister Sancho” which was performed by all the participants in the project. We have a short film made about the project, which is to be screened by the BFI S.O.U.L initiative at the National Film Theatre tomorrow – Friday,1st of June. Hopefully this will be an opening salvo in starting a new process of wider audience engagement with Art Music created by people of African descent.

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