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Fela Sowande and the African Suite

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Olufela (Fela) Obafunmilayo Sowande (May 29, 1905 –March 13, 1987) was a Nigerian musician, composer, and a jazz pianist, who was considered the father of modern Nigerian art music, and is perhaps the most internationally known African composer of works in the European “classical” idiom.  Sowande was born on May 29, 1905, at Oyo in Abeokuta, near Lagos, the son of Emmanuel Sowande, a minister and pioneer of Nigerian church music in the early 20th century.  Of Egba descent, the elder Sowande taught at St. Andrew’s College, a missionary institute in Nigeria which trained young people to become teachers. As a child Fela sang in the Choir of the Cathedral Church of Christ while studying at the C.M.S. (Church Missionary Society) Grammar School and at King’s College, Lagos.  The influence of his father and Dr T. K. Ekundayo Phillips (composer, organist and choirmaster) was an important factor in his early years. At that time, Sowande was a chorister and was introduced to new Yoruba works being introduced into the churches. During that period, he studied organ under Phillips (including works by Bach and European classical masters), and earned the Fellowship Diploma (FRCO) from the Royal College of Organists. At that time, he was also a bandleader, playing jazz and popular highlife music. All of these had considerable influence on his work.

In 1934 Sowande went to London to study civil engineering, but he was soon supporting himself as a jazz musician and was introduced to European classical and popular music. In 1936, he was solo pianist in a performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. He also played as duo-pianist with Fats Waller, and was theatre organist for the BBC as organist and Choirmaster at Kingsway Hall (unfortunately now demolished) London and as pianist in the 1936 production of Blackbirds. In 1939, he played organ in some recordings by Adelaide Hall and Dame Vera Lynn. He joined the R.A.F. In 1941, recording several entertainment discs of organ music for Forces overseas. Later, he studied organ privately under Edmund Rubbra, George Oldroyd, and George Cunningham and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1943, winning the Limpus, Harding and Read Prizes.  He also won several prizes and obtained a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of London and became a Fellow of Trinity College of Music. He also worked as musical advisor for the Colonial Film Unit of the Ministry of Information during the Second World War, providing background music for educational films

From 1945, Sowande was a renowned organist and choirmaster at the West London Mission of the Methodist Church until 1952, and a considerable amount of organ music dates from this period. These are based on Nigerian melodies that gave a special appeal to the Black members of his congregation in the early years of migration from the African continent and the Caribbean. Also during this time, he became known as a dance pianist, bandleader, and Hammond organist, playing popular tunes of the day.  Western and African ideas prevail in his music which included organ works such as Yorùbá Lament, Obangiji, Kyrie, Gloria, Jesu Olugbala, and Oba Aba Ke Pe. Most of these show a strong influence of Anglican Church music combined with Yoruba pentatonic melodies.  His orchestral works include Six Sketches for Full Orchestra, A Folk Symphony, and African Suite for string orchestra, and show African rhythmic and harmonic characteristics. He also wrote a significant amount of secular and sacred choral music, mainly a cappella. Some of these works were composed during his period with the BBC Africa Service.

In 1953, Sowande went back to Nigeria to scholarly work with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and later the University of Ibadan.  In this post he produced weekly radio programs based on field research of Yoruba folklore, mythology, and oral history, presented by tribal priests.  Also he held the title “Chief Bariyo of Lagos.”  Between 1955 and 1958, Sowande composed four songs based on African American gospel music.   A grant from the United States Government enabled Sowande to travel to the U.S. in 1957 and give organ recitals in Boston, Chicago and New York.  While in the country he also lectured on the findings of his research. The composer’s Nigerian Folk Symphony  of 1960 was his last major work.  In 1968 he moved to Howard University in Washington, D.C., then the University of Pittsburgh.  In the last years of his life Sowande taught in the Department of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University, and lived in nearby Ravenna, Ohio with his wife, Eleanor McKinney, who was one of the founders of Pacifica Radio. He died in Ravenna and is buried in Randolph Township, Ohio. There is currently a move to set up a center to research and promote his works, as many remain unpublished or are out of print.

My collection includes the following work by Fela Sowande:

African Suite (1930): Selections

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