Sowande, Fela 1905–1987
Fela Sowande 1905–1987
Composer, scholar, and ethnomusicologist Fela Sowande “was the most significant pioneer of modern African classical music in Nigeria,” wrote prominent Nigerian music scholar Olabode Omojola in Africa. Thoroughly trained in the European tradition of classical music, Sowande composed works that nonetheless resonated with the influence of his native Africa. Born in Nigeria during the days of British colonial rule, Sowande’s talent was recognized and honored by both Britain and, following independence, by Nigeria. In his later years, Sowande turned his skills toward education and played an important role in the emergence of Black Studies programs at several universities in the United States.
Sowande was born Olufela Obafunmilayo Sowande on May 29, 1905, into a middle-class family in the Nigerian state of Oyo. Though Oyo was one of the main centers of the Yoruba people—one of several traditional groups that make up Nigerian society—the Sowande family was immersed in the culture of the ruling British class and Sowande and his brother attended British schools. They also practiced Christianity as taught by the Church of England and Sowande’s father, Emmanuel, was a composer of church music in the European tradition. “My father was a priest [who] taught at St. Andrew’s College, Oyo, the mission’s teacher training institute. Music was all around, and I suppose some of it rubbed off on me,” Africa quoted Sowande as saying. Sowande studied music under both his father and Dr. T. K. Ekundayo Phillips, a Nigerian composer and organist who also created works for the church. During the 1920s and 1930s, under Phillips’s tutelage at Christ Church Cathedral in Nigeria’s then-capital city of Lagos, Sowande became an excellent organ player skilled in European classics. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) website, Sowande’s talents caught the attention of the British elite; he became the only Nigerian allowed to enter the European-only church in Lagos and “for obliging the Europeans by playing the organ there, on several occasions he incurred criticism from fellow Nigerians.”
It would not be the only time Sowande endured criticism from his countrymen. In the years following independence, many Nigerian musicians began to shun European influence and sought to create a truly indigenous musical form. They often dismissed Sowande’s music as an homage to the European colonialists, rather than a valid African art form. Sowande countered this opposition with a cultural openness that became a hallmark of his career. As quoted in Africa he once wrote, “We are not prepared to submit to the doctrine of apartheid in art by which a musician is expected to work only within the limits of his traditional forms of music, [and] uncontrolled nationalism, in which case nationals of any one country may forget that they are all members of one human family.”
In 1934 Sowande moved to London because of his “wish to study European music properly” noted Africa. He did so under several prominent organists at the
At a Glance…
Born Olufela Obafunmilayo Sowande on May 29, 1905, in Oyo, Nigeria; died on March 13, 1987, in Ravenna, OH; son of Emmanuel Sowande (a priest and church music composer). Education: University of London, BA, music; studied organ at Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos, Nigeria. Religion: Church of England; Yoruba. Military: Royal Air Force, England, World War II .
Career: West London Mission of the Methodist Church, choirmaster, lead organist, 1945-52; Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, musical director, 1953-62; Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, research fellow, 1962-68; Howard University, Washington DC, professor of ethnomusicology, director of African research, 1968-72; University of Pittsburgh, professor, Africana Studies, 1972-87.
Awards: MBE, 1956; member, Federation of Nigeria, 1964; named Babagbile of Lagos, Nigeria, 1968; honorary doctorate, Music, University of Ife, 1972.
University of London, where he eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in music. He also became a fellow at the Trinity College of Music. Following a stint in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Sowande earned a fellowship with the Royal College of Organists in 1943, where he received several awards for scholastic achievement. Meanwhile, Sowande enjoyed a variety of musical pursuits outside of academia. He became quite well-known on the club circuit playing popular music, including jazz and highlife—a form of music that blended big-band sounds with traditional African rhythms and instruments. In 1936 he was the solo pianist in a London performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. He also performed a well-received duet with famed American pianist and composer Fats Waller.
In 1941 the British Ministry of Information appointed Sowande musical advisor in charge of creating music for a series of films about Africa. He also worked for the BBC’s African Service division, collecting African melodies to accompany BBC lectures. According to Africa this music “[was] later to be developed into [Sowande’s] original compositions, in particular Sketches for Full Orchestra and African Suite.” In 1945 Sowande was appointed choirmaster and lead organist at the West London Mission of the Methodist Church, a post he held until 1952.
The majority of Sowande’s works were composed in the 1950s and according to Africa can be divided into six groups: folk song arrangements, organ works, sacred works, solo art songs, African-American choral works, and orchestral works. Each group reflected some aspect of Sowande’s diverse background. Many of his earliest works were written for organ, the instrument he had studied for so long. These include his earliest known composition, 1945’s “Ka mura,” as well as “Kyrie,” “Prayer,” “Obangiji,” and “Gloria.”
Though composed for a decidedly European instrument, the titles reveal a distinctly Nigerian influence. In fact several of his organ works were based on traditional Nigerian melodies. By the time he began composing, Sowande had become very interested in African music. Though his formal training and his professional career to that point had been immersed in the European style, Sowande was drawn to his native melodies and traditions. This grew partly out of his work for the BBC African Service; however, it was fueled mostly by a desire to rediscover his roots. He wrote, in an essay entitled “The Learning Process” and published on the HieroGraphics Online website, that he was living in Britain “when at last I woke up to the fact that while I was an African/Nigeria/Yoruba, I knew hardly anything about my own African tradition.” In Yoruba philosophy it is imperative to know and understand one’s roots. Sowande illustrated this in his essay by recounting a Nigerian proverb: “Not to know for sure where one is heading for carries no blame. But not to know where one has come from is unpardonable.”
According to Africa Sowande’s style “reflects a compositional approach in which melodic and rhythmic materials derived from African music are used within a predominantly European formal context.” Nonetheless, several of his compositions remain free from African influence, including “Because of You,” “Songs of Contemplation,” and “Out of Zion.” Sowande was also interested in the African-American gospel music and composed “Roll de ‘Ol Chariot,” “My Ways are Cloudy,” and the emotionally charged “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” in this vocal-driven style. Though considered American in origin, it widely acknowledged that gospel music derives from traditional African rhythms. In addition, as Africa pointed out, “Sowande’s Afro-American choral works and his church anthems emanate from a fundamental belief which takes its root from his African background. Music in Yorubaland is often used in religious worship to invoke ancestral and deified spirits to transform man from his actual, materialistic world to a higher, spiritual plane. This function represents the most profound role of music in the traditional Yoruba world.”
Sowande’s most successful marriage of African and European styles arose in his orchestral works—multipart pieces composed with a complete orchestra in mind. Two of his most eloquent examples of this are 1944’s African Suite, written for an orchestra comprised solely of stringed-instruments, and 1960’s Folk Symphony composed for a full orchestra. According to Africa both of these works represented Sowande’s “most mature style and a highly organic reconciliation of African and European elements.” A performance of African Suite was recorded for the Decca Record Company in London in 1953 and in 2000 was included on the album African Heritage Symphonic Series, Vol. 1 on the French label Cedille. The work included five movements largely based on African melodies including both traditional compositions and the popular highlife style. Folk Symphony, one of his latter works, “represents the culmination of Sowande’s compositional style,” wrote Africa. “The symphony is the largest known orchestral work by a Nigerian composer and it constitutes a stylistic summary of features which had appeared in his previous works. The work consists of passages which range from sparse to furious, dramatic and grandiose textures.”
In 1956 Sowande was made a Member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his “distinguished services in the Cause of Music.” However, by this time he had returned to Nigeria. There he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as the musical director. This post allowed him to further delve into his roots and soon his focus shifted from composing to researching. He conducted extensive investigations into the traditional music of Nigeria and that of his tribal people, the Yoruba. In 1962 his work landed him a position as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan. He held this post until 1968. During this time he produced several important writings on African music and a short documentary film, Music of Africa. Despite the rumblings of those who said his work was too European, the Nigerian government began to bestow various honors on Sowande. Following Nigeria’s independence from British rule in 1960, Sowande was commissioned to create the nation’s new national anthem. In 1964 he was made a Member of the Federation of Nigerian. In 1968 he was bestowed with the title of Babagbile of Lagos—a chieftaincy title. Four years later he received an honorary doctorate in music by the University of Ife, later renamed the Obafemi Awolowo University. The Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was also named after him.
Worked in United States as Educator
By the late 1960s, Sowande’s fame as an African music scholar had reached the United States. He had already traveled there in 1957 on a grant from the State Department and in 1961 on a Rockefeller grant. During his second voyage he had conducted members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Folk Symphony at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. With the emergence of Black Studies programs at American universities, Sowande became a sought-after lecturer and in 1968 accepted the dual role of professor of ethnomusicology and director of African research at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He held that position until 1972 when he became one of the founding professors in the Africana studies department at the University of Pittsburgh. He also became a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University in Ohio. During his time as a professor, Sowande developed a philosophy of teaching that is still in use. Kent University’s website noted that “[Sowande helped develop] a blueprint for the academic and cultural missions of the department that continues to reflect the epistemology of traditional African cultures along with the realities of the African-American experience.” He also wrote several theoretical papers which have been willed to Kent and posthumously published on the website Hiero-Graphics Online. The crux of his philosophy grew from his experiences as a child denying his own culture. “I was much too busy learning all I could about William the Conqueror, Henry the Fifth and Agincourt, English Literature, Latin, a brief excursion into Greek, to have any time for the ‘uneducated Nigerians’ as I then saw them to be,” he wrote in Standard Rules for the Student. As a result, he explained, “I was overawed by authority. Only by degrees did I realize that the uncritical acceptance of the views of other people, and especially of ‘experts’ or ‘Africanists,’ means that one renounces one’s own common sense, one mistrusts one’s judgment.”
Sowande died on March 13, 1987, in Ravenna, Ohio. However, his music and philosophy continued on. In 1996 the first Fela Sowande Memorial Lecture and Concert was organized at the University of Ibadan and in 2001 organist Lucius Weatherby released the album Spiritual Fantasy which included Sowande’s “Yoruba Lament.” In 2003 a descendent of Sowande’s had developed a website to memorialize his life and work and was planning an anniversary celebration of his music. By returning to his own culture, Sowande was not only able to create a musical form that still inspires musicians both in Africa and worldwide—he also left a legacy for millions of students regardless of ethnicity.
Africa, Fall 1998, p. 455.
“Chief Fela Sowande,” www.nigeria-arts.net/Literature/Scholarly/Chief_Fela_Sowande/ (March 21, 2003).
“Chief Fela Sowande’s Philosophy and Opinions,” HieroGraphics Online, http://hierographics.org/felasowandephilosophyandopinions.htm (March 21, 2003).
“Department of Pan-African Studies,” Kent University, http://dept.kent.edu/PBD/Awards02.htm(March 21, 2003).
“The Learning Process: Standard Rules for the Student,” HieroGraphics Online, http://hierographics.org/FelaSowande--TheLearningProcess.html (March 21, 2003).
“Nigeria,” BBC Website, www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/8chapter7.shtml (March 21, 2003).
“Sowande, Fela,” Africlassical.com, http://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/Others.html (March 21, 2003).
Fela Sowande Official Website, www.sowande.com/Fela.htm (March 21, 2003).
"Sowande, Fela 1905–1987." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sowande-fela-1905-1987
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