African classical music: the best works by African composers

A celebration of great piano works from the African nations, chosen by Rebeca Omordia, pianist and founder of London's African Concert Series

Published: February 2, 2022 at 3:22 pm

Having grown up in Romania to a Romanian mother and Nigerian father, I was always familiar with the music of Romania, but knew very little about African classical music.

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Encouraged by my then musical partner Julian Lloyd Webber, who was convinced that I might find a rich heritage there, I set about researching. And what riches I discovered.

The best pieces of African classical music

Christian Onyeji: Ufie, Igbo Dance

My paternal grandfather was an Oja master player (Oja is an Igbo flute) and was often invited to perform at traditional ceremonies. Most African composers are inspired by the sounds of traditional African instruments when writing new works. Nigerian Igbo composer Christian Onyeji wrote Ufie, Igbo dance for piano, drawing inspiration from the Ufie percussion ensembles in the Anambra part of Igbo land of Eastern Nigeria.

Ufie is also the name of the percussion instrument, the wooden slit Ufie drum, performed only by the men who have achieved respectable status in society. Onyeji's piece is full of Igbo rhythms and melodies which encourage both the performer and the audience to dance.

JH Kwabena Nketia: Volta Fantasy

African Pianism refers to a piano style that expresses certain features of African traditional music. It's a style that has been adopted by many African composers including Professor J.H. Kwabena Nketia, a composer from Ghana. Kwabena Nketia was one of the most significant musicians to compose and write on African musical aesthetics, emphasising that 'the music of Africa, like its language, is ethnic-bound. Each society practices its own variant.'

Volta Fantasy, from his African Pianism: Twelve Pedagogical Pieces, is a beautiful piano piece inspired by the Volta river, the largest river in Ghana and the source of the country's hydroelectric power. Nketia uses materials characteristic of the music of the communities that live in the area.

Ayo Bankole: African Suite

Ayo Bankole was one of Africa's most prolific composers. Despite his tragic murder at just 41, Bankole was able to leave a notable body of music. This included two piano sonatas, of which The Passion is particularly impressive, clearly showing his Christian inspiration.

In great contrast in terms of scale and inspiration, are two much lighter suites by Bankole, of which the better known is the African Suite, dating originally from 1957 and the Nigerian Suite.

Variations for Little Ayo was written for the composer’s son, Ayo Jr, now an established composer in his own right. Egun Variations is inspired by an Egun theme from the Yoruba land, Tona Nowe.

David Earl: Princess Rainbow

Princess Rainbow from Scenes from a South African Childhood by South African composer David Earl represents a musical evocation of the composer's younger years. It recalls an ongoing bedtime story invented by his father, which involved the adventures of a trout which lived in the Eerste River in Stellenbosch. Each of the nine pieces in the cycle opens with the same melodic quotation. Born in Stellenbosch, South Africa, David Earl moved to England at 19. He has composed a number of major works, including five operas, eight ballets and three piano concertos, as well as seven other concertos.

Nabil Benabdeljalil: Nocturne No. 6

Leading North African composer Nabil Benabdeljalil from Morocco was trained at the Tchaikovsky Academy of Music in Kiev, while also studying traditional repertoire, including Arabic singing. His six Nocturnes for piano represent a wonderful synthesis of his various stylistic approaches, but Nocturne No. 6 is particularly special. Written in 2020 at the end of the first lockdown, it is inspired by the composer's trip to Imsfrane Cathedral in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. As he describes it himself, 'In this piece I have tried to express the freedom found within nature, but it is also a spiritual quest, since God is to be found in the most magnificent and legitimate of his temples: Nature!'.

Fred Onovwerosuoke: 24 Studies in African Rhythms

A student of Kwabena Nketia, Fred Onovwerosuoke was known to friends simply as FredO. He is now known internationally from his chant ‘Bolingo', which was used in the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, featuring Robert de Niro.

Born in Ghana to Nigerian parents before settling in the USA, Onovwerosuoke has spent time in over 30 African countries researching and analysing Africa's rich traditions. His 24 Studies in African Rhythms is arguably the most important work by a black African composer for solo piano to have appeared in recent decades.

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Rebeca Omordia's Africa Concert Series is taking place at the Africa Centre throughout the year.

Authors

Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.

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