Homage – Chamber Music from the African Continent & Diaspora
Works by Coleridge-Taylor, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Undine Smith Moore, Frederick C Tillis and Zenobia Powell Perry
Samantha Ege (piano); Castle of Our Skins
Lorelt LNT147 61:30 mins
Samantha Ege’s project to rediscover semi-forgotten women composers is proceeding apace with this excellently performed release. This time the net is cast wide and rather quirkily, with one composer from Africa, one from Britain and three from America. To put it another way, the Americans are all dead, the African is very much alive and the Briton achieved fame during the reign of Queen Victoria. The connecting link, apart from skin colour, is a shared hinterland in African music.
Though in the case of Bongani Ndodana-Breen, born in 1975 and a leading South African composer, that link seems tenuous with the melodious piano quintet – Safika: Three Tales of African Migration – which represents him here. It contains musical references to mbira (thumb-piano) patterns and Nigerian dance steps, but it’s essentially a European piece.
Undine Smith Moore’s grandparents were slaves, and she grew up in the Jim Crow South, becoming an influential political activist and composer. Written as a furious riposte to South African apartheid, her piano trio Soweto alternates a hyperactive urgency with ruminatively lyrical charm; there are also echoes of Debussy. Zenobia Powell Perry, born in Oklahoma, studied with composers including Milhaud, and her graceful salon piece Homage (to her tutor William Dawson, member of the Harlem Renaissance group) reflects her elite training.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Moorish Dance is a typically light, bright piece by a composer whose big influence was Mendelssohn. But the fifth composer represented here – a Texan named Frederick C Tillis (1939-2020) – was in a class of his own, as a symphonist, jazz composer and visionary educator. His gorgeous Spiritual Fantasy, with its woven-in spirituals, is in itself enough to mark him out as a great composer. His tastes were cosmopolitan – from Bach to the Second Viennese School – and so was the reach of his music.