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Timeline: Fela Sowande (1905-1987)

Fela Sowande
Nigerian organist and composer, Fela Sowande was called the "father" of Nigerian art music.

You’re hearing music of the Yoruba people; one of the largest ethnic groups in Western Africa. Over the centuries many of the Yoruba were displaced, first by the Atlantic slave trade and later in the 20th century by mass migration to the United States and the United Kingdom. The music of Nigerian composer Fela Sowande provided a voice for these African people entering a Western world. Sowande is an internationally recognized African composer and was called the father of Nigerian art music.

Fela Sowande was born in Abeokuta, near Lagos. His father was a Church of Christ priest who made important contributions to Nigerian church music, bringing the folk melodies and rhythms of the Yoruba people into the church worship services. As a child, Fela sang in the church choir and studied organ with Dr. T. L. Phillips, who introduced Sowande to the music of Bach as well as many other European composers. Fela studied organ at King’s College in Lagos and was also a bandleader, playing jazz and popular music.

In 1934, Sowande traveled to London to continue his musical studies. Many opportunities opened up for Sowande in that city. He made a splash as a virtuoso pianist playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. He served as theater organist for the BBC and as choirmaster at Kingsway Hall. Fela also earned degrees at the University of London and Trinity College of Music and was appointed a fellow of the Royal College of Organists.

Much of Fela Sowande’s organ music was written while he was serving as organist and choirmaster at the West London Mission. This music was based on Nigerian melodies and appealed to the growing population of African and Caribbean immigrants that were settling in the city at the time.

Sowande’s music is all about this marriage of Western and African musical ideas. Works like Six Sketches for Full Orchestra and the popular African Suite utilize rhythms, harmony and pentatonic melodies borrowed from the music of the Yoruba people brought into Western “classical” context and form.

Fela Sowande later returned to his homeland to work with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation earning the Queen’s honors for his work. In 1968, he came to the United States to teach at Howard University and later the University of Pittsburgh. Near the end of his life, Sowande taught at Kent State in Ohio, where he passed away and was buried.

There is currently a movement to catalogue the works of Fela Sowande. Much of his music has been left unpublished or is currently out of print. Hopefully this effort will bring more attention to this talented and important Nigerian composer and his music.

Find out more and follow the Timeline.

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James Stewart is VPR Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.