Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Black Diasporic Encounters: A Study of the Music of Fela Sowande

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Black Diasporic Encounters: A Study of the Music of Fela Sowande

Article excerpt

Fela Sowande is now generally acknowledged as the most important twentieth-century West African composer of concert music and performer of jazz. Born in Oyo, western Nigeria, in March 1905, he went to London in 1934 and enrolled as an external candidate at the University of London and the Royal College of Music. He was one of the most notable figures on the black diaspora music scene in London in the first half of the twentieth century. He returned to Nigeria in 1953 and worked there until 1968, when he immigrated to the United States and taught at a number of colleges, including Howard University and Kent State University. He remained in the United States until his death in 1987. (1) The centennial anniversary of his birth was marked in 2005 with various activities in Europe, the United States, and Nigeria, signaling a rekindling of interest in his works. (2)

Three salient features define Sowande's work as a composer and a performer. First, many of his works are based on folk songs. He identified important similarities between African folk songs and Negro spirituals, even though these two genres speak to different human experiences. He drew attention to such similarities by using the two categories of songs as thematic material in many of his compositions. Second, his work as a performer was typified by a sustained collaboration with black musicians from the United States and the Caribbean and by the promotion of African and African-American music. In the 1930s and 1940s, for example, he was a jazz pianist, Hammond organist, and director of some of the best jazz groups in London. (3) His promotion of black music continued in the United States, where he gave a series of concerts performing his own compositions. Third, his arrangements of Negro spirituals and his interaction with black musicians from the diaspora illustrate his fascination for incorporating musical materials from different cultures into his compositions. Kimberlin and Euba (1992, 3) have used the term interculturalism to describe the works of African composers like Sowande in which "elements from two or more cultures are integrated." According to them, the composer or performer "of this music usually belongs to one of the cultures from which the elements are derived." For Sowande, the world is a borderless cultural space within which there are numerous possibilities for intercultural compositional and performance activities.

Sowande's work has received attention by a number of scholars. In Nigerian Art Music (Omojola 1995), for example, I provide a detailed study of his Folk Symphony. Sadoh (2004) focuses on Sowande's organ works. In addition, a book titled African Art Music in Nigeria (Omibiyi-Obidike 2001) is devoted exclusively to the life and works of Sowande. My essay in that volume examines some of his organ works (Omojola 2001). Other scholars who have examined Sowande's organ works include Hildreth (1978), Laidman (1989), and Munday (1992). Despite the importance of these various studies, the significance of Sowande's work as an African composer and performer who worked with black diaspora musical elements and collaborated with black musicians from different parts of the world has yet to be fully explored. (4)

In this article, I discuss Sowande's composing and performing career, focusing on how he was motivated by a desire to promote encounter and dialogue and to reinforce a sense of common identity among black populations from different parts of the world. (5) The encounter that is promoted through his performances and compositions reflects what I would refer to as a pan-African philosophy that is congruent with the goals of the pan-African movement of the early part of the twentieth century. The pan-African movement, which was guided by such leaders as Kwame Nkrumah and Marcus Garvey, was motivated by the need to unite and mobilize black peoples from different parts of the world toward the attainment of freedom from racial discrimination and colonialism. …

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