Style in Modern Nigerian Art Music: The Pioneering Works of Fela Sowande

Article excerpt


The Nigerian musical landscape changed significantly following the advent of Christian missionary activity and British colonial administration in the later nineteenth century. New idioms of musical practice which have evolved as a result of this historical process include a new tradition of religious, Christian, music, urban syncretic popular styles, new operatic forms and European-derived art/ classical music. This article focuses on one of these emerging styles, Nigerian art music, as reflected in the life and works of its most notable pioneer, Fela Sowande. After a brief historical background, the article discusses the circumstances of Sowande's life and the beliefs which shaped his composing career and his compositional style. In discussing elements of style in Sowande's works, it examines the nature of the interaction between African and European elements, a stylistic feature which constantly recurs in his works. The article ends by discussing the need to consolidate the growth of this new idiom by putting in place institutional structures within which it can develop.

The introduction of Christian missionary activities and the British colonial administration of Nigeria in the middle of the nineteenth century both contributed to the emergence of new musical forms in Nigeria. These new forms include indigenous church music, urban syncretic popular idioms, modern folk opera and modern "art" or classical music. The emergence of these new forms is the result of an historical process which assumed greater momentum in the nineteenth century following the establishment of the colonial government in Lagos in 1861. We have, in separate studies, provided elements of that historical process as well as the factors which contributed to the emergence of these new idioms, especially modern Nigerian art music (see, for example, Omojola, 1987). We shall therefore only present a summary of those historical factors, as a background to the life and works of Fela Sowande (1905-87).

The introduction of Christian missionary propaganda in Badagry and Old Calabar in 1842 and 1846 respectively, as well as the establishment of the colonial regime in 1861, were to set in motion a chain of events which have significantly affected the Nigerian musical landscape. European church and classical music were introduced to Nigeria through British missionary schools, the newly introduced Christian Church and the activities of private philanthropic societies, which, in nineteenth-century Lagos often staged European concerts to raise funds for developmental projects (see Omojola, 1994). Through its mission schools the Church complemented the activities of private bodies in the organisation of European musical activities in Nigeria in the latter half of the nineteenth century as well as in the early decades of this. In addition, the Anglican Church as well as the mission schools provided musical training for Nigerian musicians who later became the pioneers of indigenous Nigerian church music.

While the Church constituted one of the avenues for the introduction of European church and European classical music, it also provided the forum for the emergence of short, experimental musical compositions by Nigerian composers who sought to replace European liturgies and hymns with a more culturally relevant tradition of church music. The early church composers included Ekundayo Phillips (organist and choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos, from 1915 to 1962), the Reverend Canon J. J. Kuti, the Reverend T. A. Olude, Akin George, Emmanuel Sowande, Nelson Okoli and Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte. The compositional activities of these Nigerian church musicians marked the beginning of creative expression in a written form, in contrast to the oral tradition, which is the distinguishing nature of Nigerian traditional music. Njoku (1997: 242), in a study of the life and works of the Nigerian composer Okechwukwu Ndubuisi, corroborates this point, stating that the emergence of modern church and art music in Nigeria has `added new dimensions to the Nigerian tradition of compositions. …


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