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Who was Fela Sowande?

Something of a Nigerian ‘renaissance man’, Olufela ‘Fela’ Sowande was a gifted composer, musician and scholar who made music in his native Nigeria, the UK and US

Nigerian musician and composer Fela Sowande (1905 - 1987) with his fiance, American soprano Mildred Marshall, in Regent's Park, London, 13th September 1936. Sowande is working as a the pianist and Marshall is singing in the London production of Lew Leslie's musical revue, 'Blackbirds Of 1936'. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Something of a Nigerian ‘renaissance man’, Olufela ‘Fela’ Sowande was a gifted composer, musician and scholar who made music in his native Nigeria, the UK and US. He is widely regarded as the father of Nigerian art music.

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When and where was Fela Sowande born?

Sowande was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1905. His father was a priest, who himself played a part in establishing Nigerian church music. So music was already a part of Sowande’s life, largely thanks to the church. In fact, after a family move to Lagos he became a chorister at Lagos Cathedral and studied the organ.

When did Fela Sowande move to the UK?

Sowande was encouraged to secure a professional safety net, and so he moved to London in 1936 intending to study engineering. Music filled his spare time, though, and he made money playing the organ in churches and theatres and accompanying dance on the piano. He also set up a jazz septet in London. Music was truly his calling and he decided to study music formally at the University of London and Trinity College of Music. His mentors included the composer Edmond Rubbra.

What did Sowande do during the War years?

He remained in London, studying and eventually worked as a composer for the Ministry of Information. Post-war, Sowande worked for the BBC’s Africa Service and then returned to Nigeria in 1953. Upon his return, he worked for the Nigerian state broadcaster, NBC, and taught at the University of Ibadan. He was made an OBE in 1955 for his work in Nigeria.

Didn’t he move to the US, though?

He won funding for a US organ recital tour in 1957, and moved there permanently in 1968. His focus, then, was more on teaching and he enjoyed posts in Washington DC, Pittsburgh and Kent, Ohio. He retired in 1982.

What music is Fela Sowande best known for?

Sowande composed all manner of pieces, from organ works, choral works and songs, to solo and orchestral compositions. His most recognised work is perhaps the African Suite (1944), which – like much of his work – brings together European and West African musical influences.

Are there any recordings of Fela Sowande’s music?

Yes, some of his music has been recorded… Excerpts from his African Suite appear an album by the Chicago Sinfonietta, titled African Heritage. 

His Kyrie for organ appears on a recital album by Darius Battiwalla, recorded on the organ of Rochdale Town Hall.

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Top image: Fela Sowande and his fiancée, Mildred Marshall