Living, breathing art music from Africans

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Those who are familiar with the history of contemporary art music as created by Africans should be aware of the legacy of Fela Sowande (1905 – 1987). A composer, organist and scholar, Sowande did more than most to put this musical genre on the global map. Due to my involvement in projects that drew inspiration from Sowande’s work, I was able to gain access to some recordings of BBC broadcasts made by the great man in 1940, for the forerunner of the World Service.

Sowande used those programmes to express his vision for pathways into creating a whole new canon of African art music. Using a lecture/demonstration format, he gave examples of Yoruba folk songs and Church music and his approach to using them as stimuli for creating new music.

The music he created was also inspired by his knowledge of highlife – the popular urban dance music of his youthful days in Nigeria, so he created pieces that gave that music a timeless and epic quality. Several generations of artists have been inspired by Sowande’s example, so there is currently a body of work that can be shared with the world.

Not everyone can be a pioneer. Other composers who came after Sowande have created music that is mainly influenced by the prevailing orthodoxies of Western art music. The music can aspire to tick all the boxes of scholarly rigorousness, thereby securing cosy jobs in academia for the creators. Does this music really have a life outside of academic symposia and conferences?

The music I composed for The Pied Piper of Chibok is built to breathe and circulate beyond those hallowed portals. A fine ensemble of singers and dancers will perform this work at The Arcola Theatre next week for Utopia Theatre (under the auspices of Mosaic). The shows are on the 16th and 17th of August in Studio 2 at The Arcola. I look forward to seeing you there.