Fela Sowande, classical music composer
Olufela Obafunmilayo Sowande
(b. Abeokuta, Nigeria, May 1905; d. Ohio, United States, 1987) was a Nigerian musician and composer. Considered the father of modern Nigerian art music, Sowande is perhaps the most internationally known African composer of works in the European "classical" idiom.
Sowande was born in Abeokuta, near Lagos, the son of Emmanuel Sowande, a priest and pioneer of Nigerian church music. 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, he 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 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 recently demolished) London and as pianist in the 1936 production of Blackbirds. He also played organ in some recordings by Dame Vera Lynn. Later, he studied organ privately under Edmund Rubbra, George Oldroyd, and George Cunningham and became a fellow of the Royal College of Organists (with credit) in 1943.
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, he 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 Africa 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. The final movement of African Suite became known to Canadian audiences as the theme of the popular CBC music program Gilmour's Albums, and is now a Canadian orchestral standard. 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. He went back to Africa to scholarly work with the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation and later the University of Ibadan. 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 is buried in Randolph Township, Ohio.
Sowande also held the title "Chief Bariyo of Lagos."
There is currently a move to set up a centre to research and promote his works, as many remain unpublished or are out of print.
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