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Mon, 05.29.1905

Olufela Sowande, Musician, and Composer born

Olufela Sowande

*Olufela Sowande was born on this date in 1905.  He was a Black Nigerian musician and composer.  

Olufela (Fela) Obafunmilayo Sowande was born in Abeokuta, near Lagos, Nigeria; he was 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.

At that time, Sowande was a chorister and was introduced to new Yoruba works being introduced into the churches. During that period, he studied organ under Phillips (including works by Bach and European classical masters) and earned the Fellowship Diploma (FRCO) from the Royal College of Organists. At that time, he was also a bandleader, playing jazz and popular highlife music. All of these had considerable influence on his work.  In 1934 Sowande went to London to study European classical and popular music. In 1936, he was the solo pianist in a performance of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. He also played as a duo pianist with Fats Waller. He was a theater organist for the BBC as an organist and Choirmaster at Kingsway Hall London and as a pianist in the 1936 production of Blackbirds.

In 1939, he played the organ in some Adelaide Hall and Dame Vera Lynn recordings. Later, he studied organ privately under Edmund Rubbra, George Oldroyd, and George Cunningham and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1943, winning the Limpus, Harding, and Read Prizes.  He also won several awards, obtained a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of London, and became a Fellow of the Trinity College of Music. Sowande also worked as a musical advisor for the Colonial Film Unit of the Ministry of Information during the Second World War, providing background music for educational films.  From 1945, he was an 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. Also, during this time, he became known as a dance pianist, bandleader, and Hammond organist, playing popular tunes of the day. 

Western and African ideas prevail in his music, including organ works such as Yorùbá Lament, Obangiji, Kyrie, Gloria, Jesu Olugbala, and Oba Aba Ke Pe. Most of these strongly influence Anglican Church music combined with Yoruba pentatonic melodies.  His orchestral works include Six Sketches for Full Orchestra, A Folk Symphony, and African Suite for string orchestra, showing African rhythmic and harmonic characteristics. The final movement of African Suite became known to Canadian audiences as the theme of the popular CBC music program Gilmour's Albums and is now a Canadian orchestral standard.  He also wrote many secular and sacred choral music, mainly a cappella. Some of these works were composed during his period with the BBC Africa Service.

He returned to Nigeria to do scholarly work with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and later the University of Ibadan. In 1968 he worked at Howard University in Washington, D.C., then at the University of Pittsburgh.  In the last years of his life, Sowande taught in the Department of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University and lived in nearby Ravenna, Ohio, with his wife, Eleanor McKinney, who was one of the founders of Pacifica Radio. Considered the father of modern Nigerian art music, Sowande is perhaps the most internationally known African composer of works in the European "classical" expression.  He died on March 13, 1987, in Ravenna and is buried in Randolph Township, Ohio.  There is currently a move to set up a center to research and promote his works, as many remain unpublished or are out of print. 

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