Olufela Obafunmilayo Sowande was a Nigerian composer, a highlife musician, a jazz pianist, the first musician to introduce the Hammond organ into jazz music in London in the 1930s, and one of the pioneering ethnomusicologists in Nigeria.
Born in Oyo, Nigeria, on May 29, 1905, his father was Emmanuel Sowande, an Anglican priest of Egba descent, who helped establish Nigerian church music in the early 20th century. The elder Sowande taught at St. Andrew’s College, Oyo (now Ajayi Crowther University), a missionary institute in Nigeria which trained young people to become teachers. Emmanuel Sowande was subsequently transferred to Lagos, and young Fela accompanied him there.
Olufela’s education began at the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Grammar School and continued at Kings College. Fela’s father arranged for him to be a choir boy at Christ Church Cathedral. Apart from parental influence, Sowande had a more important influence from the church through Dr. Ekundayo Phillips. As a choir boy at Christ Church Cathedral in Lagos, under Phillips, Sowande was introduced to the mainstream European church music repertoire as well as the Yoruba experimental compositions popular at that time in Lagos churches. Throughout that period, he studied organ with Phillips and faithfully attended his teacher’s organ recitals which included the organ works of Bach, Handel, and Rheinberger, as well as Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s wedding feast. It was Phillips who gave him his first introduction to European music.
By the time he graduated from Kings College, he had become an accomplished pianist and was engaged as deputy organist under Phillips at the Cathedral. Simultaneously, he taught in a mission school and worked as a civil servant for three years.
Throughout his lifetime, Sowande continued to cherish his interaction with Phillips, and was always eager to reminisce on the link between his own successful career and the training he received from Phillips.
Short-wave radio broadcasts of the music of Duke Ellington introduced Sowande to jazz in 1932. Radio programmes from the United States, France and Britain allowed him to hear recordings of other jazz artists as well. This led to his organisation of the Triumph Dance Club Orchestra, in which he played piano. He was also a member of the jazz band, The Chocolate Dandies, that had been organised about 1927 in Lagos.
In 1934, Fela Sowande decided to further his education to study Civil Engineering and not Music perhaps because he was already an accomplished jazz musician in Lagos and did not need formal training to become a professional in this field. Indeed, his musicianship and the experience he had accumulated in Nigeria were enough to put him on the path to citizenship in the world of jazz. Sowande went to London to study Civil Engineering, but he was soon supporting himself as a jazz musician. He founded a jazz septet, comprised principally of musicians from the Caribbean, and decided to study Music. Sowande attended the University of London and the Trinity College of Music as an external candidate, and also studied individually with George D. Cuningham, George Oldroyd and Edmond Rubbra.
However, he was influenced by these contacts, it was in 1935 that he began coping with nationalistic impulses, which were articulated in his articles from 1965, the development of a national tradition of music and language in African music.
Sowande took lessons in jazz piano, and began performing on both the piano and the Hammond organ. A number of African Americans who visited London became his friends. They included Paul Robeson and Fats Waller. Sowande performed George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as part of the show, Black Birds of 1936. This brought him into contact with J. Rosamond Johnson, who served as choral conductor for the production and who introduced him to the works of Robert Nathaniel Dett.
He joined Adelaide Hall as her cabaret pianist and recorded with her in the last years of the 1930s. Adelaide Louise Hall was an American-born UK-based jazz singer and entertainer, whose career spanned more than 70 years from 1921 until her death and she was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He made a number of broadcasts on the BBC theatre organ as a solo performer, and is still heard as accompanist, on Hammond organ, to Adelaide Hall.
In 1941, four years before Sowande started playing for the church, he was appointed musical adviser to the colonial film unit of the British Ministry of Information in London. His main job was to provide background music for a series of education films designed for Africa. He also gave many lecture programmes with musical illustrations for the BBC Africa Service. The lectures were given under the general title, West African Music and the Possibilities of its Development. For the film music and the lectures, he collected African melodies. These were later to be developed into original compositions, in particular, Six Sketches for Full Orchestra and the African Suite, both of which were issued by Decca Records in London in 1953.
At this time, he composed his personal “signature tune”, based on a sacred melody (Obangiji) composed by Rev. Joshua Jesse Ransome-Kuti that served its needs and those of the BBC’s African programmes from 1943 to the 1960s.
In 1943, nine years after settling down in London and registering on and off as an external student, he passed the fellowship diploma of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO) with distinction (the highest English qualification for organ playing) and was awarded three prizes: The Limas Prize for theoretical work, the Harding Prize for test at the organ and the Read Prize for the highest aggregate marks in the whole examination. He also received the fellowship diploma of the Trinity College of Music, London (FCTL) and a Bachelor of Music of London University.
He was appointed organist and choir director of Kingsway Hall, the home of the West London Mission of the Methodist Church in 1945, one of London ‘s major churches, which stimulated the creation of new works for organ. The Kingsway Hall, Holborn, London (unfortunately recently demolished), built in 1912, was one of the most important recording venues for classical music and film music. His Sunday recitals became very popular.
Sowande collected African melodies for use in his activities for the BBC Africa Service.
The African Suite, written in 1944, combined well-known West African music with European forces and methods. For the opening movement, Joyful Day, Sowande used a melody written by Ghanaian composer, Ephraim Amu, as he did in the fourth movement, Onipe. In nostalgia, Sowande composed a traditional slow movement to express his nostalgia for the homeland (in itself a rather European idea). At the centre of the work was a restive lullaby, based on a folk original.
Sowande’s tenure as organist and choirmaster at the West London Mission of the Methodist Church extended from 1945 to 1952. It was during this period that he began active composition; it is not surprising that many of his early works were written for the organ. The church element which formed the basic foundation of his musical career continued to be the axis of his musical life. Organ works written during this period included Oyigiyigi, Kyrie, Prayer, Obangiji, Gloria and Ka Mura. These, like virtually all Sowande’s organ works, were based on Nigerian melodies.
Sowande’s career in broadcasting continued in Lagos when he moved back to Nigeria in 1952, and he was appointed Head of Music and Music Research of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). This post afforded him the opportunity to produce weekly radio programmes based on field research into the traditional music of Nigeria, especially of the Yoruba. His interest in traditional music continued to increase while at the NBC and in 1962 he took up the post of a Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. During his stay at the university, he carried out research not only into traditional Nigerian music but also into traditional religion. In Ifa (Yoruba divination) for example, he examined the concept of divination among the Yoruba, while Oruko Amutorunwa was a list of Yoruba sacred names with their symbolic meanings.
On his return to Nigeria, Fela Sowande was commissioned by the Director General of the NBS, Mr. Tom Chalmers, to write a work for the Lagos Musical Society to perform for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. He wrote the anthem, Out of Zion, which was performed by the society, with Fela Sowande accompanying.
Even after his return to Nigeria, Sowande still played a part in British television. Clare Ethel Deniz was a Black British jazz pianist. Her obituary in Britain’s newspaper, The Guardian, on January 3, 2003, recalled that she sang in Fela Sowande’s choir for the 1954 television series Club Ebony.
Between 1955 and 1958, Sowande composed four songs based on African American gospel music: Roll de Ol’ Chariot, My Way’s Cloudy, De Ol’ Ark’s a-Moverin, and De Angels are Watchin’.
A grant from the United States Government enabled Sowande to travel to the U.S. in 1957 and gave organ recitals in Boston, Chicago and New York. While in the country, he also lectured on the findings of his research.
The experimental use of the Western orchestra by Sowande to imitate African musical procedures marked a radical departure from the sacred vocal compositions of earlier composers like Phillips and Rev. J.J. Kuti. It is an experimental procedure that opened the worldview of younger generations beyond the confines of sacred vocal music to the almost infinite possibilities that an instrumental medium offered. Younger Nigerian composers were excited by these new horizons, and they quickly invaded the instrumental idiom in an invigorated manner. For example, Sam Akpabot wrote, among others, Scenes from Nigeria (Wind Orchestra, 1962) while Euba wrote Oluroumbi (Symphony Orchestra, 1967); Ekwueme wrote Rhapsody for Strings, while Uzoigwe wrote Fanfare (wind orchestra, 1983).
In 1960 he composed, on commission, his folk symphony for symphony orchestra. The Symphony, the most important orchestral work by a West African composer, was premiered in 1960; but the dilemma that would engage Sowande for the rest of this career began to manifest with the composing of his particular work. Commissioned and written specifically for Nigeria’s independence celebrations, the work was one of the creative items especially devoted to that anniversary to showcase the talents and potentials of the country. While all these other creative works were performed and produced in Nigeria, Sowande’s symphony simply could not be performed by Nigerians because there was no symphony orchestra in the country.
Sowande composed most of his works during a time of rising nationalism, with one African country after another achieving independence from a colonial power. He consciously employed both Nigerian elements and European forms.
After 1960, Sowande worked mainly as a professor. During the 1961-62 academic session, he was a Visiting Scholar in the Anthropology Department of Northwestern University in the U.S. He also worked with Roger Sessions at Princeton University.
From 1962 to 1965, he was senior research fellow at the University of Ibadan, then becoming musicology professor at the university’s Institute of African Studies. A government grant in 1966 resulted in a series of studies on Nigerian music.
Sowande also studied Yoruba religion with the aid of a grant from the Ford Foundation. In 1968, he returned to the United States to accept a position on the faculty of Howard University in Washington. D.C. He held it until 1972. Between 1968 and 1972, Sowande made at least 48 recordings on the history, language, literature and music of Nigeria, for distribution by the Broadcasting Foundation of America.
Sowande’s final two academic positions were on the faculties of the Howard University, Washington the then University of Pittsburgh and Kent State University in Ohio. He became professor of Black Studies at the University of Pittsburgh in 1972, later joining the faculty of the School of Education. He was affectionately known there as ‘Papa Sowande’.
His last position was in the Department of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University, which he held until his retirement in 1982.
FelaSowande spent his last days in a nursing home in Ravenna, Ohio. He was 82 years old when he died of stroke on March 13, 1987 in Ravenna, Ohio in the United States and was buried in nearby Randolph. A memorial service was held at St. James Episcopal Church in New York on May 3, 1987.
Sowande’s works cover three major media – the organ, the voice and the orchestra. Some of his organ compositions include Kyrie, Oyigiyigi, Laudamuste, Prayer, Go down Moses, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Yoruba Lament, Via Dolowsa and Obangiji.
Throughout his career, Sowande accumulated an impressive array of honours in recognition of his contributions to music. In 1943 he became a Fellow of Britain’s Royal College of Organists. Queen Elizabeth II named him a Member of the British Empire in 1956, the same year he became a Member of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (MFR). The music department at the University of Nigeria-Nsukka, was in 1962, renamed the Sowande School of Music in his honour. In 1968 he was given the Traditional Chieftaincy Award, named the Bagbile of Lagos. He was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Ife in 1972.
The Fela Sowande Memorial Lecture and Concert Series was initiated in 1996 by Monsunmợla Omíbíyì at the University of Ibadan’s Institute of African Studies, with the keynote address delivered by J. H. Kwabena Nketia.