'It was airbrushed out of the canon': finding Africa's classical music

While the Wigmore Hall has rightly garnered plaudits for keeping classical music alive during lockdown, another pioneering concert series has also beaten the odds with its series of online live events.

The African Concert Series is the brainchild of my former duo partner, the pianist Rebeca Omordia. She has half-Romanian, half-Nigerian heritage. But while we would often discuss world-renowned Romanian classical musicians such as composer Georges Enescu, pianist Dinu Lipatti and conductor Sergiu Celibidache, when it came to Nigerian classical composers, we drew a blank. “There aren’t any,” said Rebeca. I told her there must be, and challenged her to find them. This was back in 2013, and her subsequent research has uncovered more than 200 composers of African art music, Nigerians among them.

It has not been an easy journey for Omordia. Entirely self-funded until this year (when she secured a £15,000 grant from Arts Council England) she has battled scepticism, indifference and – most challenging of all – faced nearly insuperable difficulties tracking down the music itself, which remains mostly unpublished. Yet the 2020 African Concert Series has proved to be an outstanding success, which has sparked widespread interest in this hitherto virtually unknown genre. Launched the previous year with a mission to introduce music by African art composers to the mainstream, the series has already been promised a day of concerts in the 2021-22 season at one of London’s most enlightened concert venues, the October Gallery in Holborn.

Its online concerts have been reaching thousands of viewers and some of its musical discoveries will shortly be included in the ABRSM grading exams syllabus – establishment recognition indeed!

One of the most attractive features of African art music is its extraordinary variety. Themed programmes such as A Nigerian Odyssey, the African Art Song, and Arabesque: Piano music from the Arab world are comparatively easy to construct because there is so much music to choose from. When, in 2014, one of the series’ performers, the Moroccan pianist Marouan Benabdallah, began his research into classical music by north African composers he discovered works by more than 90 composers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Libya and beyond. Africa being a vast continent, there are many different varieties of its art music; some composers from Ethiopia and South Africa, for example, wrote music in a western classical style while incorporating traditional melodies and rhythms with results that are unique and uplifting in equal measure.

Above all, Omordia is determined that her series should reflect the vibrant nature of Africa and the diversity of its people: “I set out to reflect the diversity of the African continent where each country has a multitude of ethnic groups, each having its own language, culture and music. The work that we do has highlighted a neglected group of composers – and performing artists – that genuinely represent the diversity of our community but who seem to have been airbrushed out of the canon of classical music.”

Certainly Omordia’s discovery of these untapped musical riches has already invigorated the classical repertoire and the impetus behind the African Concert Series has unleashed a wave of creative thinking among Africa’s classical musicians. For his latest recording the South African double bassist Leon Bosch has commissioned music from at least five South African composers and Omordia’s own recording, Ekele, of Nigerian piano music by Ayo Bankole, Fred Onovwerosuoke and Christian Onyeji, has shone light on three fascinating and distinctive composers.

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