Fela Sowande

Samuel-Coleridge Taylor served as inspiration for another composer who went on to “Westernize” the music of West Africa.  (Chief Olufela Obafunmilayo) Fela Sowande (1905-1987), was the son of an Anglican priest who was a main force in the development of Nigerian sacred music. Every biography mentions that he trained in the “classical European style,” attending King’s College and  the Royal College of Organists in Lagos, then going to the University of London and becoming a Fellow at Trinity College in London.  He composed music for organ, choral, solo, and orchestral works and during WWII worked for the British Ministry of Information, and then the BBC Africa Service. During his time with the BBC Africa Service, he collected many African melodies, which were later developed into original compositions, in particular,  Six Sketches for Full Orchestra and the  African Suite.  The finale of the  African Suite,  Akinla,  began as a popular Highlife tune - combining colonial Western military and popular music with West African elements and a history of its own.  Sowande then featured it as a cornerstone of his "argument" that West African music could be heard on European terms: the African Suite was originally broadcast by the BBC to the British colonies in Africa. the last movement later became the theme music for a show on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 

Sowande composed most of his works during a time of rising nationalism, with one African country after another achieving its independence from a colonial power.  He consciously employed both Nigerian elements and European forms, and one of his biographers writes: 

When Sowande conducted the New York Philharmonic in his  Nigerian Folk Symphony  in 1964, a critic lamented that it sounded more European than Nigerian.  What he missed was that, although the orchestral sonority was certainly not rooted in Africa, the rhythms, scales, and melodies were idealizations of Nigerian sources. Sowande thus joined the other nationalists, following the same process traveled by William Grant Still. 

In the late 60s he moved to the U.S. teaching at Howard University, then the University of Pittsburgh, then ended up at Kent State in Ohio.  He was married to Eleanor McKinney, who was one of the founders of Pacifica Radio. He died in Ravenna and is buried in Randolph Township, Ohio. 

In addition to his position as a professor, Sowande also held the chieftaincy title of the Bariyo of Lagos. 


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