Nigerian Classical Music Inspires

Nigerian Classical Music Inspiring New Ideas for Interethnic Relations

Why are we blogging?
To give information and stimulate creative exchange for a dynamic new music education project ‘Singing Cultures’. The project will draw on the 200+ year heritage of Nigerian Classical Music (yes Nigerian Classical Music!). More about this rich and somewhat unexplored heritage in a minute!

So how did Singing Cultures come about?
We have a long-standing interest in how people interact and negotiate relationships across ethnic and cultural boundaries. Something we have explored in our different (and sometimes cross over) occupations of musician and researcher, and in our ongoing personal aspirations for interethnic relations without violence or discrimination.

A few years ago we were reflecting (again!) how many of our work opportunities to address equality and community relations were linked to central government policies. These were often conceived in response to ‘heightened’ concerns of ethnic disadvantage, discrimination, segregation or conflict. As such the starting point and outcomes of projects were defined by conceptions of ‘them and us’; ‘victims and perpetrators’ and so on. We questioned whether this today provides a comprehensive enough context for addressing ongoing fractured relations and tensions across communities. We began to imagine different possibilities and outcomes if the basis for engaging people was cultural trends and narratives representing progressive interaction between people of different ethnic and cultural heritage. After all, on a daily basis, large numbers of us interact with people of different backgrounds in meaningful and fulfilling ways (at school, in the office, in public and private spaces). How might the dynamics behind these stories inform our visions and actions for establishing lasting relations of trust and respect across communities?

So how to turn our ‘eureka’ moment into reality – Juwon’s status as a classically trained singer and his recollections of the history of classical music in Nigeria struck a chord!

About Nigerian Classical Music (very briefly!)
Art Music
was introduced to Nigeria during colonialism through missionary schools and churches. Since then there have been four generations of Nigerian composers. Many have studied at conservatoires in London often attaining the highest academic recognition and going on to hold fellowships and professorial posts at leading music departments and institutions. Ayo Bankole, for example, achieved the double distinction of being the first Nigerian to study at Cambridge University and being the recipient of the organ scholarship of Clare College. Other composers like Akin Euba, have headed music departments in both the West and Africa including the universities of Lagos, Ibadan, California, Pittsburgh, Bayreuth and Cambridge, amongst others.

Nigerian composers’ original scores and compositions number the thousands spanning the range of music media including orchestra, opera, piano, vocal solo and organ. The composers’ music expertise and knowledge has been recognised and contracted by organisations of international repute such as the BBC; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.

Notably Nigerian composers have made successful careers and become ‘at home’ within a genre of music more commonly associated with white Western practitioners and audiences. And they have done so by challenging the juxtaposition of superior / inferior cultures under colonialism. The composers’ achievements represent an interweaving of diverse cultural influences – of Nigerian and British culture, of African and Western music. In the process forging personal relationships across ethnic and national boundaries. This is the journey participants and audiences of Singing Cultures will be invited to experience and reflect upon as a position from which to understand current challenges and aspirations for promoting relations of equality and belonging across ethnic groups.


This blog post was written by Juwon Ogungbe and Bilkis Malek.

Juwon OgungbeJuwon is a classical musician & composer of Nigerian heritage. His compositions have been commissioned by the RSC; BBC; Union Dance; and Southbank Centre. Juwon has a track record of devising and leading community music projects and conducting choirs.


Bilkis MalekBilkis is a consultant and researcher with particular interest in how people negotiate cultural identity and interethnic relations. She has led projects to promote diversity and inclusion at local and national levels. Bilkis has also published essays on race and cultural relations in Britain.