Singing Cultures Journey

Fela Sowande Archives

Key source material for Phase 1 was drawn from selective Fela Sowande archives which were generously shared by his former student Guy Pernetti. These included copies of original photographs; compositions; piano and organ performances; documentary films; and BBC lectures.

Guy Pernetti also shared personal insights and stories about Sowande. Like when Sowande enlisted in the RAF as a bug private during World War II. Word got around about Sowande’s musical talents and the fame and notoriety he had attained as a performer in London. One day Sowande got a phone call from the general or commander asking if he would perform at an event but the tone must have been uncomfortably authoritative as Sowande replied, ‘Look here how do you expect me to perform for the troops when you talk to me like that’ and hung up. The general phoned back and invited Sowande to a meeting at which Sowande was presented with a swagger stick as a kind of apology.
The general was Lord Mountbatten.

Guy also recalled a number of Sowande quotes and sayings that capture his philosophical thoughts and writings. Here are a few:

“The more diverse the elements the stronger the metaphor.”

“If you don’t know what your roots are how can you know what your flowers are?”

“We are not prepared to submit to the doctrine of apartheid in art by which a musician is expected to work only within the limits of his traditional forms of music.”

“We are all naked in this world except for the friends that clothe us.”

Listen to more of Guy Pernetti’s recolllections of Sowande in this podcast with excerpts from a skype call between Guy Pernetti, Bilkis Malek and Juwon Ogungbe (July 2016).

Facts about Fela Sowande

1. Fela Sowande was born on 29th May 1905, in Abeokuta, Nigeria.

2. He was a choir boy at Christ Church Cathedral Lagos where he also studied organ under the choir’s director Thomas Ekundayo Phillips.

3. He moved to London in early 1930s to study Civil Engineering but soon gained regular employment as a jazz musician.

4. He was a regular performer and piano accompanist to Adelaide Hall at her Florida Club.

5. A number of African Americans visiting London became his friends including Paul Robeson and Fats Waller.

6. During World War II Sowande enlisted in the RAF but was relieved of his duties so he could take up post with the BBC as the Director of the Colonial Film Unit.

7. During his short time in the RAF he had a call from Lord Mountbatten who had been made aware of Sowande’s music talents and wanted him to play at an event. The initial call and tone from Mountbatten was authoritative resulting in Sowande putting the phone down. Mountbatten called him back with a more conciliatory tone inviting him to a personal meeting at which Mountbatten gave Sowande his swagger stick as a kind of apology!

8. Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an MBE in 1956.

9. In 1968 he was given Nigeria’s Traditional Chieftancy Award.

10. He wrote the ‘Folk Symphony’ for Nigeria’s Independence Celebrations which was premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as there was no symphony orchestra in Nigeria.

11. He is recognised by many as the father of modern Nigerian Art Music.

12. He was a heavy smoker.

13. He was a huge influence on John Coltrane who is reported to have identified Sowande as ‘changing his life and outlook’.

14. He was a freemason.

15. Sowande’s music consciously combined Nigerian elements with European forms.

16. Sowande’s life and music was devoted to a process of cultural reciprocity and working towards a ‘common humanity’.

17. He died on 13th March 1987 in Ravenna, Ohio at the age of 82.

18. A memorial service was held at St. James Episcopal Church in New York on 3rd May 1987. Eugene Hancock performed Sowande’s Bury Me Eas’ or Wes’ something that Sowande himself had requested.