Fela Sowande

Nige­ria has pro­duced some of the great­est musi­cians of the world. Prob­a­bly best known are juju mas­ter King Sunny Adé and the great jazzman Fela Aniku­lapo Kuti. But in an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion, Fela Sowande loomed quite as large. Sowande was suc­cess­ful in pop­u­lar music, as a band­leader in the early High­life scene, as well an accom­plished jazz per­former. He was also a fine clas­si­cal organ­ist and choral con­duc­ter. His largest body of work is church choral and organ music. Migrat­ing to Britain, he achieved instant fame as a con­cert pianist with a per­for­mance of Gershwin’s Rhap­sody in Blue, and sub­se­quently per­formed in duets with Fats Waller. He even­tu­ally returned to Nige­ria as a teacher, and then lived his last years in Ohio, where he is buried.

But it’s as an orches­tral com­poser that he made his most last­ing impact. His work, which infused the Eng­lish orches­tral style with African melodies, rhythms and har­monies, fell out of fash­ion after the 1950’s, and he was neglected. But here in Canada, Sowande remained a famil­iar name because of a sin­gle radio show. Gilmour’s Albums ran on CBC radio for an amaz­ing 40 years.… 52 weeks a year, with no repeats. The show was an eclec­tic mix­ture of jazz, opera, cham­ber music, broad­way tunes, and folk mate­r­ial (and the oblig­a­tory Old Cana­dian taste for wail­ing bag­pipes), drawn from the per­sonal record col­lec­tion of jour­nal­ist Clyde Gilmour. The show ended on Gilmour’s retire­ment in 1997. Dur­ing much of that forty-year run, Gilmour used the final Akinla move­ment of Sowande’s African Suite for Strings as a sig­na­ture tune. Con­se­quently, that piece has remained within the stan­dard orches­tral reper­toire in Canada.

I have two record­ings of the African Suite. One is a 1975 vinyl by the New Sym­phony Strings, directed by Trevor Har­vey, and the other is a recent CD directed by Mario Bernardi with the CBC Van­cou­ver Sym­phony Orches­tra. The work is highly enter­tain­ing, with sev­eral strik­ing moments. There is not only the famil­iar Akinla pas­sage, but a won­der­ful lul­laby, which Sowande said he over­heard sung by an neigh­bour “in the still­ness of an African evening”. That alone tells you the age of its incep­tion, because the last thing you would attribute to his native Lagos in recent decades is “still­ness”!. African cities are quiet in day­time, but rise to a din­ful frenzy in the evenings. But Sowande was born in 1904, and left for Eng­land in 1934.

Sowande is deserv­ing of a seri­ous revival.

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