Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, Chairman of the occasion, Curator of Yam Festival, visitors, lecturers, students all protocol observed. It is my pleasure to be part of the 3rd edition of The Yoruba Music and Arts Festival (YAM) a cultural festival reinforcing interest in our inheritance.
I will be taking a critical look at Art Music in our society. During the course of my research on art music one definition that I find very interesting is defining Art Music as a “Serious Music “and this has left me pondering on the music that is not serious especially in our public space. Can we say Highlife, Juju, Sakara, Apala, Waka, Fuji, etc are not serious music having their root as far back as a 100 years and having survived the tide of extinction.
Under the theme Art Music in the Public Space” I shall focus my research on 100 years of Classical Music in Nigeria with four major Icons of Classical Music in Nigeria as case study.
It all started this way……..100 years of classical Music in Nigeria
Coming as a shock encounter with cultural imperialism, the British colonies in West Africa – including Nigeria – had no choice but to drink it in and fall in line.
Some of the tactics employed by these colonial masters to achieve their aim included church teachings, establishment of mission schools, designing the curriculum of the mission schools in line with their objective – and various other colonial policies and devices which exposed Nigerian converts to Western classical music repertoire and classical music instruments such as the harmonium, organ and piano. This new musical culture was associated with the Christian religion, converted returnees from Europe and the mission schools but strangely enough, it became a social symbol, a mark of identification with Western civilization.
The period between 1830 and 1890 witnessed a proliferation of various musical activities in churches, schools and concert halls. Infact 1860 marked the first performance of western music in Lagos, the audience consisting of merchant’s churchmen, civil servants, students and artisans, while the performers were mostly black immigrants. A cream of composers, performers and entertainers were nurtured to dominate the musical scene of Lagos and Abeokuta.
By the beginning of 1880s, Nigerian musicians had emerged and started to contribute in various ways to the development of music in Nigeria.
One of them was Professsor Robert Coker who has been described as the Mozart of West Africa. He was a pianist, organist, composer and producer of music programmes who exerted a great influence on the musical life of Lagos. Robert Coker was the first Nigerian to study music to a professional level. Robert Coker was trained initially at the CMS institute at Abeokuta before proceeding to England in 1880. When he returned from England Robert Coker became a music master of the C.M.S female institution in Lagos and a large number of women received training from him. He was the organist and choirmaster of the Christ Church Cathedral and under his direction the cathedral initiated the practice of Easter Festivities in various Lagos Churches. As a conductor he was well known for the production of Handel Festival and the annual Coker Concerts. He was also the first to organize the first ever held concert in Glover Hall in 1893.
Like Lagos Abeokuta was also the scene of many concerts and entertainment programmes . Josiah Jesse Ransome Kuti Fela Kuti’s grandfather was the first Nigerian musician to compose a recorded album and also very popular for the egba National Anthem. He distinguished himself from the early pack of Christians with his gift of music. As an organist he was a great composer. Great was his musical dexterity that so many local traditional religious worshippers turned to Christ. Many of the hymns he composed are being used in churches all over toady. He was a good palmist who used his music to attract pagans to the Christian faith. Some of his other popular songs are Ise Agbe, Eje ko omode wa, etc.
Another of such pioneers was T.K.E Phillips a teacher, composer, organist and described as the father of Nigerian church music. Dr Thomas K Ekundayo was born in Lagos in 1884 and attended Cms grammar school after which he studied pharmacy. He had his first keyboard from his uncle Arch Deacon N Johnson and later Trinity College London. He was a choir master of the cathedral church Lagos he composed chant settings and psalms, Yoruba choruses and native airs. Apart from his use of native tongue in his compositions he sought to develop vocal music from its simplistic folk form to an extended advanced form. In most of his compositions he made use of traditional music which he collected from all over the country.
Also amongst the musical cards in Nigeria classical music was a man known as Harcourt Whyte who hails from the Niger Delta part of Nigeria. he was diagnosed with leprosy at an early age of 14. However he sought a deeper meaning of his life that his fate and conviction that his life had agreater purpose that his affliction and the attended stigma. Whilst at the leprosy hospital he immersed himself in biblical text and in particular developed a strong interest in the religious hymns sung in the hospital chapel. He was encouraged to join the choir and later became a conductor. He was encouraged by the missionaries to compose choral pieces in igbo which though not his native language was the language of expression at uzuakoli of which he mastered.
Harcourt whyte wrote over 200 choral pieces in his career an incredible feat for a man with virtually no formal education. During the Nigeria civil war his music became a sort of comfort for igbos especially the track Atulegwu( never fear). Harcourt Whyte will continue to remain celebrated the world over.
It is impossible to tell the whole story of classical music in Nigeria, highlighting the activities of all who contributed to the development of the music – in an essay such as this, but suffice it to say that the credibility of this account will be deficient if major players such as Fela Sowande , Ayo Bankole , Akin Euba, Christopher Oyesiku, Laz Ekuweme, etc are not given special mention.
Classical music has continued to develop in Nigeria through the various universities with music departments organizing and nurturing choirs drawn from their immediate environments and communities.
Hopefully with a festival like YAM we continue to safeguard one of our musical monuments Classical Music