Singing Cultures Journey

The Inspiration

The Singing Cultures project is inspired by the sound and spirit of Nigerian Classical Music. Over two centuries the music of Nigerian composers has evolved to expose classical music as responsive to the heritage and values of distinct cultures.

To appreciate what Nigerian composers have achieved it’s useful to remember that classical music in Nigeria and many non-European countries was introduced during colonial rule through the church and missionary schools. Both classical music and Christianity were central to British colonisation and promoted as superior to indigenous Nigerian music, religious beliefs, language etc which were regarded as inferior, as taboo, the work of the devil.

This history is something that Nigerian composers consciously confronted and challenged themselves to reconcile – how could they continue to develop their classical music interests and talents and also challenge that colonial narrative of ‘superior v inferior’ cultures?

There are several ways in which Nigerian composers address this question within their music-making. For example, by interweaving Yoruba or Igbo language; or drawing on traditional folklore or religion; or including traditional instruments and melodies. Fela Sowande, a prominent figure in the evolution of Nigerian Classical Music, did a series of BBC lectures in the 1950s where he explains this process in some detail. Here is an extract from one of the BBC lectures in which Sowande describes how he draws on a Yoruba melody to structure an organ composition.

Fela Sowande BBC Lecture

describing use of Yoruba melody for an organ composition

Fela Sowande BBC Lecture

performing finished organ composition with Yoruba influence

The most inspiring legacy of Nigerian composers isn’t simply to expose classical music as a culturally inclusive medium but to change the status and meaning of classical music from the superior-inferior cultural context imposed during colonialism.

For example, Sowande’s compositions like Obangiji draw on Yoruba language and Ifa divination.

[listen to a recording of Obangiji by clicking here]  
The ethnomusicologist Bode Omojola suggests that Sowande draws on Yoruba traditional culture to convey a more spiritual connection with religion and specifically Christianity.

To illustrate this very quickly the translation of the first line of Obangiji is “Almighty God, You are worthy of our worship”. Listen again “You are worthy of our worship” – positioning God as not someone you submit to but are in dialogue with. In other organ compositions like Oyigiyigi Sowande stretches the spiritual dimensions further again drawing on Ifa to position God, man and nature as one. According each an immortal connection [reference: The Music of Fela Sowande, by Bode Omojola, pages 132-135].

Like many Nigerian composers Sowande’s response to the impact of colonialism on perceptions of traditional Yoruba culture and religion didn’t result in rejecting classical music or Christianity. He remained firmly associated with both. But he found ways of interweaving traditional Nigerian influences in his understanding and practice of Christianity and classical music.

The process of music-making engaged by Nigerian composers symbolises how classical music is neither the enemy nor the superior opposite of Yoruba, Igbo or other cultures. Christianity is not the enemy of Yoruba or other cultures. Both classical music and Christianity can respond to and accommodate other cultural influences in a way that enriches their meaning. This is the journey participants and audiences of Singing Cultures are invited to experience and reflect upon.