Fela Sowande, father of Nigerian art music
Chief Olufela Obafunmilayo “Fela” Sowande (29 May 1905 – 13 March 1987) was a Nigerian musician and European classical 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. As a child he sang in the Choir of the Cathedral Church of Christ. He studied at the C.M.S. 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.
Sowande received his Fellowship Diploma (FRCO) from the Royal College of Organists in Lagos. He also worked as a band leader and was heavily influenced by jazz and popular music as well as the church music of his father and mentor. After moving to London, UK in 1934, Sowande received his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of London and became a Fellow of Trinity College of Music.
In Britain, Sowande worked as a church organist, a theatre organist, a dance pianist, bandleader, and choirmaster. His organ music compositions were based on Nigerian melodies which had great resonance with the growing population of African and Caribbeanimmigrants to Great Britain.
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 the African continent and the Caribbean. During this time, he also became known as a dance pianist, bandleader, and Hammond organist, playing popular tunes of the day. He composed music for the British Ministry of Information during World War II. After the War he worked for the BBC Africa Service and then in 1953 moved back to Nigeria to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
Sowande’s academic record was as geographically wide-ranging as his research interests in African music. He received a United States State Department Leaders and Specialists grant which afforded him the opportunity in 1957 to present organ recitals in New York, Boston, Massachusetts, and Chicago, Illinois, and to lecture on his research. The Rockefeller Foundation later sponsored his work in New York. He was a visiting scholar at Northwestern University’s anthropology department for the academic year 1961-1962 and he later studied composition at Princeton University. Sowande received a grant from the Ford Foundation (1962-1965) to conduct research on Yoruba religion. In 1966 he was awarded a Nigerian government grant to study and write about Nigerian music. He was a research fellow at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria from 1965 to 1968.
Fela Sowande moved permanently to the United States in 1968, taking an academic position first at Howard University, Washington, D.C. until 1972, then took a position at the University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) until 1976. His last academic position was at Kent State University in Ohio, from 1976, where he remained with his wife Eleanor McKinney, until his retirement in 1982. He died in 1987 in Ravenna, Ohio from complications associated with a stroke.
In addition to his position as a professor, Sowande also held the chieftaincy title of the 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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