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.