Growing up in Romania with a Romanian mother and a Nigerian father, I was always familiar with Romanian music, but knew very little about African classical music.
Encouraged by my musical partner at the time, Julian Lloyd Webber, who was convinced that I could find a rich heritage there, I undertook research. And what riches I have discovered.
The best pieces of African classical music
Christian Onyeji: Ufie, Igbo dance
My paternal grandfather was a master Oja player (Oja is an Igbo flute) and was often invited to perform at traditional ceremonies. Most African composers draw inspiration from the sounds of traditional African instruments when writing new works. Nigerian Igbo composer Christian Onyeji wrote Ufie, Igbo dance for piano, drawing inspiration from the Ufie drumming ensembles in the Anambra part of the Igbo land of eastern Nigeria.
Ufie is also the name of the percussion instrument, the wooden slit Ufie drum, played only by men who have achieved respectable status in society. Onyeji’s piece is full of Igbo rhythms and melodies that encourage both performer and audience to dance.
JH Kwabena Nketia: Volta Fantasy
African pianist refers to a piano style that expresses certain characteristics of traditional African music. It is a style that has been adopted by many African composers including Professor JH Kwabena Nketia, a composer from Ghana. Kwabena Nketia was one of the most important musicians to compose and write about African musical aesthetics, noting that “Africa’s music, like its language, is ethnically related. Each society practices its own variant.
Volta Fantasyof his African Pianism: Twelve Pedagogical Pieces, is a beautiful piano piece inspired by the Volta, Ghana’s largest river and the source of the country’s hydroelectric power. Nketia uses materials characteristic of the music of the communities that live in the region.
Ayo Bankole: African Suite
Ayo Bankole was one of Africa’s most prolific composers. Despite his tragic murder at only 41 years old, Bankole was able to leave a remarkable musical corpus. This included two piano sonatas, of which Passion is particularly impressive, clearly showing its Christian inspiration.
In stark contrast in terms of scale and inspiration, two much lighter suites by Bankole, the best known of which is the African Suiteoriginally dating from 1957 and the Nigerian suite.
Vtunes for Little Ayo was written for the composer’s son, Ayo Jr, now an established composer in his own right. Variations of Egun is inspired by an Egun theme from the Yoruba country, Tona Nowe.
David Earl: Rainbow Princess
rainbow princess from Scenes from a South African childhood by the South African composer David Earl represents a musical evocation of the composer’s early years. He recalls a current bedtime story invented by his father, which involved the adventures of a trout that lived in the Eerste River in Stellenbosch. Each of the nine pieces in the cycle opens with the same melodic quotation. Born in Stellenbosch, South Africa, David Earl moved to England aged 19. He composed several major works, including five operas, eight ballets and three piano concertos, as well as seven other concertos.
Nabil Benabdeljalil: Nocturne No. 6
First North African composer Nabil Benabdeljalil originally from Morocco was trained at the Tchaikovsky Academy of Music in Kiev, while studying the traditional repertoire, including Arabic singing. His six Nocturnes for piano represent a marvelous synthesis of his various stylistic approaches, but Nocturne n°6 is particularly special. Written in 2020 at the end of the first confinement, it is inspired by the composer’s trip to the cathedral of Imsfrane in the Atlas mountains in Morocco. As he describes it himself, “I tried to express in this piece the freedom that is found in nature, but it is also a spiritual quest, since God is found in the most magnificent and legitimate of its temples: Nature!”.
Fred Onovwerosuoke: 24 Studies in African Rhythms
Student of Kwabena Nketia, Fred Onovwerosuoke was known to friends simply as FredO. He is now internationally known for his vocals ‘Bolingo’, which was used in the 2006 film the good shepherdwith Robert de Niro.
Born in Ghana to Nigerian parents before moving to the United States, Onovwerosuoke has spent time in over 30 African countries researching and analyzing the rich traditions of Africa. His 24 studies on African rhythms is undoubtedly the most important work of a black african composer for solo piano appeared in recent decades.
Africa Concert Series by Rebeca Omordia takes place at the Africa Center throughout the year.