Monday, April 09, 2018

Under African skies

It's a big day here in rainy old London. Tonight the Queen Elizabeth Hall reopens after a two-and-a-half-year closure for refurbishment, and the lucky orchestra doing the concert is Chineke!, the UK's first BAME orchestra founded by the indomitable Chichi Nwanoku. I can't go, because Garsington Opera's Learning and Participation Department is a finalist for an International Opera Award for Silver Birch and so we are trooping off to the Coliseum for the awards evening. Wish us luck. Meanwhile, if, like me, you can't attend the Chineke! concert, you can hear it on BBC Radio 3.

And you can also hear a fabulous new CD from the pianist Rebeca Omordia, which explores the music of three composers from her father's native Nigeria. I loved it to pieces. The music is gritty, passionate, imaginative, startling and irresistible by turns - highly recommended. I asked Rebeca to do an e-interview to tell us more about it.

JD: Please tell us why you wanted to make this CD?
RO: I was always interested in exploring my Nigerian heritage (I was born in Romania to a Romanian mother and a Nigerian father) and the idea of the CD emerged in 2013 after cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, whom I was working as duo partners with, suggested I investigated if there was any music by Nigerian composers. After a long research I discovered a very interesting piano repertoire which I gradually started including in my recitals. The music was very well received and I decided to record it in order to make it known to a wider audience. 

JD: What's been your own path so far? And what does it mean to you, personally, to be performing and recording African music?
RO: My path hasn't always been smooth. I was born during Ceaușescu's regime when inter-racial marriages where not socially accepted and I had to put up with a lot of discrimination as a child, especially in school. I was fortunate to have very supportive parents who helped me overcome it and I somehow managed to integrate in a society that never really accepted me. In Nigeria, you must claim your father's country, so I am regarded as Nigerian, which always gave me a strong moral support as well as a strong feeling of claiming my African roots. Things changed after the Fall of Communism and gradually the society became more tolerant. 

I came to the UK in 2006 when I received a scholarship to study Masters at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and from that moment, my life changed. I was fortunate to win the 'Delius Prize' in 2009 which opened the collaboration with cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. We started working as duo partners in 2012, touring the UK, performing at the Wigmore Hall and on live broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and so, I was never reminded that I was 'different' but I learnt to embrace it. The African recording became very much a personal project for me where I was embracing my African roots with all its cultural beauty and diversity. The title of my CD is 'EKELE' which in Igbo language means 'Greetings' and it is my way of bringing greetings from my father-land to the western world.

JD: How did you decide on the programme? 
RO: Deciding on the programme for the CD took a long time. Apart from Fred Onovwerosuoke's 24 Studies in African Rhythms, none of the music has been published so it took months and years to gather the material, and then, I had to select what would be best for a first CD. I hope that the recording will raise enough interest and the music will eventually be published. 

Rebeca Omordia
Photo: Silas Eziehi

JD: You've chosen music by three composers - Ayo Bankole, Fred Onovwerosuoke and Christian Onyeji. Please tell us a little more about them? (I was horrified to read that the brilliant Ayo Bankole was murdered...) 
RO: The music of Ayo Bankole dominates the disc and he is one of the most prolific and probably the most famous Nigerian composers to date. After studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London as well as at Cambridge University, he returned to Nigeria in 1966 where he was appointed Senior Producer in Music at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and later became lecturer in music at the School of African and Asian Studies, University of Lagos. His early death, in 1976, at the age of 41, cut his career short  (him and his wife were murdered by his half- brother). As a composer, Ayo Bankole is renowned for his originality of blending elements of traditional Yoruba music with western classical music in his works. 
Award-winning Fred Onovwerosuoke (or FredO, as his friends call him) was born in Ghana in 1960 to Nigerian parents and was raised and studied in Ghana as well as in Nigeria. He received a scholarship and went to study composition at Principia College, MO, in the United States, where he is now residing. FredO became internationally renowned for the use of his chant 'Bolingo' in Robert De Niro's feature film 'The Good Shepherd'. The '24 Studies in African Rhythms' for piano is his most known work which has been recorded by various international artists. In 1994 he founded the St. Louis African Chorus, now renamed African Musical Arts Inc.,  to help nurture African choral music as a 'mainstream repertoire for performance and education'. 
Christian Onyeji, the youngest of the three composers (born in Nigeria in 1950), is Professor of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nssuka, and he specialises in the ethnomusicological research of African art music. 

JD: What qualities in the music itself stand out as particularly African in character? 
RO: In Nigeria, there are three main ethnic tribes (Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa) and people are defined by the tribe they come from, therefore, the music of each composer has the peculiarities particular to the music of the tribe the composer comes from. 
Ayo Bankole was Yoruba and we can find many traditional Yoruba melodies and rhythms in his piano works. Even though his music might sound European (especially his Piano Sonata no. 2), it is easy to detect an African influence. To Nigerian ears, his Yoruba tunes are easily recognisable. 
Christian Onyeji is Igbo and he explores the musical language specific to the traditional Igbo music. As an ethnomusicologist, he developed the 'drummistic piano style', which is characteristic to his piano works.  
'FredO' travelled all over Africa where he gathered material which he transcribed and used in his 24 Studies in African Rhythms. Each Study is inspired by the dance or the song of a different African country. Study no. 1 'Okoye' refers to the first day of the Igbo calendar 'Orie' that marks the 'Market Day' which causes reason for celebration.

JD: What would you say are the main challenges facing classical composers in African countries today? 
RO: Classical music is not widespread in Africa and most people still don't have access to it, so it is very difficult for composers to make a living as musicians, not to mention becoming internationally renowned. Most of them are lecturers, working in universities, and hoping their works will one day be discovered. The Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) is doing a great work promoting classical music. They run the national conservatoire of Nigeria, giving young people the opportunity to learn music at a very high standard - MUSON School of Music has produced internationally renown artists, including pianists Glen Inanga and Sodi Braide, and tenor Jo Oparamanuike who has now returned to Nigeria and runs the Vocal Department of MUSON School of Music. MUSON Symphony Orchestra gives regular concerts at Agip Recital Hall in Lagos, concerts which have a very good attendance. Their repertoire includes orchestral works by Nigerian composers which are a constant presence in their concert programmes.

JD: As an artist of international reputation with roots in Nigeria, do you feel you have a personal mission to get this music 'out there' and help it achieve the recognition it deserves? 
RO: I have been promoting Nigerian classical music ever since I discovered it and I hope my CD 'EKELE', the first CD of its kind ever released in the UK, will be a step forward for African classical music to gain international recognition. 

JD: How do you feel about the current explosion of equality awareness in the music field? What's your view on achievements to date, how much further there is to go and how the change of awareness can lead to real change? 
RO: We are living in a time when equality and diversity are more than just box-ticking in the classical music world. The tables are turning with 'diversity' and we are seeing young musicians from diverse backgrounds making their mark in the classical music scene. Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the Chineke! Orchestra are evidence of how powerful their impact has been in bringing a radical change to the classical music industry. 

JD: Do you have plenty more African repertoire up your sleeve for us to hear and enjoy after this disc? What would be your recommendations for further listening? 
RO: Besides piano music there are many songs and chamber music. There was a plan in 2013, while I was still playing with Julian Lloyd Webber, for Julian and I to perform some of the chamber music at the Africa Utopia Festival in Southbank Centre. Sadly, his injury prevented this from happening. 
Composer Fred Onovwerosuoke has done amazing work as the founder of African Music Publishers (AMP), in St. Louis, USA, creating a platform of production and worldwide distribution of scores and recordings of music by African composers. In addition to his own works, we'll find available music by  Nigerian composer Akin Euba and Ghanaian composer Joseph H. K. Nketia. 

JD: You've recently been to Nigeria on tour - how did it go? 
RO: I have a large family in Nigeria whom I visited many times but this was the first time I performed there and I had the most amazing reception. In Nigeria, you claim your father's country and I was welcomed as 'the daughter of the land'. It was beyond my expectations and I truly felt at home. The Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) was the main organiser and I was impressed with how well everything was planned and how smoothly everything went. There are always unexpected things that can occur on a tour but this time everything was just right. The audience was super enthusiastic and they made me feel like a star.