Nigerian Art Music

Nigerian Art Music




ART MUSIC IN NIGERIA is the most comprehensive book on the works of modem Nigerian composers who have been influenced by European classical music. Relying on over 500 scores, archival materials and interviews with many Nigerian composers, the author traces the historical developments of this new idiom in Nigeria and provides a critical and detailed analysis of certain works. Written in a refreshing and lucid style and amply illustrated with music examples, the book represents a milestone in musicological research in Nigeria. Although written essentially for students and scholars of African music, this interesting book will also be enjoyed by the général reader.



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Nigerian Art Music

With an Introduction Study of Ghanaian Art Music

Bode Omojola
  • Publisher : Institut français de recherche en Afrique
  • Year of publication : 1995
  • Published on OpenEdition Books : 4 April 2013
  • Serie : Afriques, langues, histoire et arts
  • Electronic ISBN : 9791092312133

OpenEdition Books

Electronic reference:

OMOJOLA, Bode. Nigerian Art Music: With an Introduction Study of Ghanaian Art Music. New edition [online]. Ibadan: Institut français de recherche en Afrique, 1995 (generated 17 December 2013). Available on the Internet: <>. ISBN: 9791092312133.

Printed version:
  • ISBN : 9789782015389
  • Number of pages : x-186

© Institut français de recherche en Afrique, 1995

Terms of use:

ART MUSIC IN NIGERIA is the most comprehensive book on the works of modem Nigerian composers who have been influenced by European classical music. Relying on over 500 scores, archival materials and interviews with many Nigerian composers, the author traces the historical developments of this new idiom in Nigeria and provides a critical and detailed analysis of certain works. Written in a refreshing and lucid style and amply illustrated with music examples, the book represents a milestone in musicological research in Nigeria. Although written essentially for students and scholars of African music, this interesting book will also be enjoyed by the général reader.

Table of contents
  1. Acknowledgements

  2. Preface

  3. Foreword

    Mosunmola Omibiyi-Obidike
  4. 1. Introduction

    1. Nigerian Traditional Music
    2. Focus of Study
  5. 2. Historical Background of Modern Nigerian Art Music

  6. 3. Nigerian Composers and National Culture: A stylistic survey of Nigerian Art Music

  7. 4. African Pianism

  8. 5. Orchestral Works

    1. Sowande’s Folk Symphony
    2. Folk Symphony: First Movement
    3. Folk Symphony: Second Movement
    4. Folk Symphony: Third Movement
    5. Folk Symphony: Fourth Movement
  9. 6. Vocal Works

    1. 1. PART SONGS
    1. 2. OPERA
    2. 3. CANTATA
  1. 7. Towards an Anthology of Nigerian Art Music

  2. 8. Art Music in Ghana: An Introduction

    1. The Pioneering Works of Ephraim Amu
    2. Stylistic Classification of Amu’s Music
    3. Other Ghanaian Composers
    4. Style in Ghanaian Choral Music
    5. A Selection of Works by Ghanaian Composers
    6. Vocal Works by Other Ghanaian Composers
    7. Piano Works by Other Composers
  3. 9. Summary and Conclusion

  4. Bibliography

  5. Index


1The collection of most of the works discussed in this book was made possible through a grant provided by the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA), Ibadan, Nigeria. The grant made it possible for me to travel to different cities in Nigeria as well as to Accra, Ghana to meet and discuss with composers and music teachers as well as to consult music libraries and archives. I am very grateful to Professor Georges Hérault, the Director of IFRA, Ibadan for his support and encouragement.

2My thanks also go to Professor J.H.K. Nketia of the International Centre for African Music and Dance, University of Ghana, who gave me free access to the relevant materials located in his centre; Mr Christopher Oyesiku, Artiste-in-Residence, University of Ibadan and Mrs Femi Oyesiku, Professor Segun Sowunmi and Mr Olaolu Omideyi for releasing the photographs used in this book. In addition, the Oyesikus’ made available to me some of the music scores which I had never seen before and made many useful suggestions.

3I am very grateful to Professor (Mrs) Mosun Omibiyi-Obidike for accepting to write the foreword and for making very useful suggestions and comments. I cannot but thank two of my teachers at Leicester University, England; Mr Anthony Pither and Dr Robert Meikle, whose able guidance helped significantly in developing my knowledge of music theory and analysis as well as practical musicianship.

4I would also like to thank the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Chapell Music Publishing Company for releasing the scores of Fela Sowande’s Folk Symphony and African Suite, respectively.

5I am grateful to those composers with whom I was able to meet and have interesting discussions. Without their works and cooperation this book would not have been written. My gratitude also goes to Mr Christopher Ayodele for copying out some of the music examples.

6Finally, I thank the Almighty God for making this book a reality.


1My interest in Nigerian Art Music dates back to the late 70s when, as a composer-in-training at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, I was interested in how a Nigerian composer of classical music can make himself relevant to his native audience without necessarily compromising artistic qualities expected in a work conceived within the idiom of Art Music. Such an interest ultimately becomes imperative for any African composer who aspires to work within an art idiom like classical music, which is essentially a cosmopolitan, elite tradition and which has derived much of its universal appeal and esteem from the compositional activities of such great masters of European classical music as J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Bartok.

2In my search for an authentic and personal compositional style and tradition, I realised the need to study the Works of Nigerian composers who in their formative years have also pondered similar questions. Needless to say that this involved many years of active research in the area of Nigerian Art Music, an enterprise which involved a close study of musical scores, interviews with composers and experts, and performances of Works in the idiom. Nigerian composers have done so much work, both in terms of quantity and quality. Their compositional experiments are strikingly varied and eclectic, especially with regards to musical conception and style. This book is a summary of the results of my research into Nigerian Art Music ; it focuses on the extra-musical factors that have led to the emergence of the tradition as well as the stylistic features that define the genre. Since my research work on Nigerian Art Music began in the 1980s when I was studying for my Ph.D. in England, I have included in this book some ideas and materials already presented in my thesis. The publication of this book is the first stage of a two-pronged research schedule. The second stage will focus on publishing the scores of works by Nigerian composers with a view to making them available to performers and scholars in and outside the West African sub-region.

3Ilorin, Nigeria


Mosunmola Omibiyi-Obidike

1Articles on Nigerian Art Music exist in various specialist journals and magazines, but many of these accounts are often not much more than anecdotes by enthusiasts and non specialists. European musicologists have, by and large, concentrated their studies on traditional African music. Nigerian Art Music, by Bode Omojola, therefore, is a most welcome book written by an insider and an active participant in the Nigerian Art Music scene. He brings together in one volume a history of Art Music in Nigeria, as well as a scholarly analysis of some of the works of the most renowned Nigerian composers. Omojola demonstrates that Art Music has always been the prerogative of the Nigerian elite; even in the colonial era, the price of admission to most concerts was well beyond the reach of the masses. Nigerian Art Music, with its antecedents in European classical and church music has been limited to a select few in its orientation and practice, consequently, it has never been well understood or appreciated by the generality of the people. Perhaps, through the publication of this book, which should facilitate the teaching of music appreciation in our universities and polytechnics, a greater understanding of Art Music will emerge in the new generation of graduates.

2The composers of Nigerian Art Music belong to a small circle of brilliant and talented people, and although they may not have made much of an impact in their own lifetimes, they struggled to forge an African identity to their music, a beginning which the younger generation of Nigerian composers can build on. Obscurity or relative anonymity is not peculiar to African composers : European composers of generations past, who now have become household names, similarly struggled, often in isolation and were unappreciated in their own lifetimes.

3The baton is now being passed to the younger generation, who have greater opportunities for education within their own cultural environment. It is therefore, gratifying that a book such as this one has appeared. It should be a challenge to other scholars of Nigerian music.

1. Introduction

1Although a considerable amount of research has been carried out on traditional African music, contemporary musical idioms in Africa have received limited attention by scholars. It is only in recent times that scholars1 began to accept the fact that, while the preservation and documentation of traditional forms are laudable research projects, new, modern musical practices are also worthy of attention.

2The emergence of new musical idioms in Nigeria should not be seen as a novel phenomenon as change has either through internal processes or the influence of a foreign culture always affected Nigerian music. Music is an important aspect of a people’s culture and since culture is dynamic, it can be assumed that Nigerian traditional music as we know it today is different from what it was several hundred years ago.

3One of the most important external influences on Nigerian traditional music came as a result of the contact between Islamic and Nigerian culture. As Nketia observed:

the impact of Islamic and Arabic cultures had a far reaching influence on the Savannah belt of West Africa. (This has led to) the rise of an Islamic ruling caste and the formation of Islamic states... Such states were formed (as in Northern Nigeria) by leaders... who had embraced Islam and who felt committed to wage holy wars in order to subjugate the indigenous populations under the political rule of Islam. The potentates of such states adopted (among other things) some Arabic musical instruments, particularly aerophones and drums, and features of vocal technique, identified with Islamic cantillation, such as ornamentation.2

4More recent musical changes which have taken place in Africa, through European contact should, therefore, not be dismissed as unauthentic. Rather, they should be seen as part of the evidence of the age-long propensity for African musicians to adapt their musicianship to conform to socio-cultural changes within the society. In this regard, the introduction of Christian missionary activities and the British colonial administration to Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century have led to some of the most significant musical changes in the continent.

5Perhaps the most far reaching of such changes is the introduction of European classical music which is characterised by musical performances by a group of professional musicians playing from written scores, to a listening, non-participating audience. Performances of such works often take place in the church, university and polytechnic campuses, school and college halls and public halls in towns and big cities such as Enugu, Calabar, Legon, Kumasi, Accra, Ibadan, Akure and Lagos. Audiences for such works are drawn mainly from Christians, the university and college communities, middle and upper class people such as civil servants, businessmen and politicians.

Nigerian Traditional Music

6Among the Yoruba — one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria (the other two being the Igbo and the Hausa) — traditional music can be categorised into two distinct forms, religious and secular. In religious worship, music is usually performed to appease and to invoke the spirits of such deities as Sango (the god of thunder) and Ogun (the god of iron).3 Apart from the ritualistic use of music, musical performances in Yorubaland are often part of religious festivals. Such festivals usually follow sacred rites which take place at the shrine of the deity being worshipped. Religious festivals provide opportunity for communal music-making during which everybody in the community shares a satisfying musical experience. Communal music-making also takes place during purely social events, such as naming ceremonies, funerals and the coronation of a new oba (king).

7Yoruba traditional music consists of both instrumental and vocal music. Instrumental music types are varied and are usually named after the instruments employed in them. For example, we have ere kiriboto (kiriboto music), an ensemble of five drums of the membranophone family made of a calabash resonator (kiriboto), covered with the skin of an animal; and ere dundun (dundun music), an ensemble of double-headed hourglass tension drums (dundun).4

8Although musical performances are predominantly communally based, specialisation exists in Yoruba music. Musicians who grow up to become specialists are usually born into a family which has a long history of specialist musicians. Such families are called the Ayan families. Although musicians are often rewarded for their performances, they generally make their living through other occupations such as farming and hunting.

9As among the Yoruba, the musical performances of the Hausa are closely tied to political, religious and social events. As a result of the introduction of Arabic and Islamic culture as far back as the thirteenth century, the area is predominantly Islamic. Musical practices therefore reflect the political and social features of an Islamic state. For example, musical performances are frequently held in the palace to entertain the paramount chief (the Emir) and his visitors. Likewise, ceremonial music, rok on fada, is performed regularly in front of the Emir’s palace. During such performances, the Emir reasserts his political authority, while his subjects re-affirm their confidence in, and the acceptance of, his leadership. The advent of Islam has, however, not completely eroded traditional, pre-Islamic religious practices. One musical type, strongly associated with such religious practices and which still survives today, is the Bori possession music. This music is believed to have enormous spiritual power which can help worshippers to reach a state of ecstasy through which they can communicate directly with their ancestral spirits.

10As in Yorubaland, some form of professionalism exists among Hausa musicians. As King has observed:

Hausa professional musicians belong to a distinct social class which has the character of an enclave within the society because of its low social status, hereditary membership and dependence on patronage. Such patronage is usually provided by the Emir, palace officials and chiefs who till today constitute the aristocrats — feudal lords in traditional Hausa society.5

11Prominent Hausa musical instruments are the alghaita (a wooden, oboe-like instrument which has a bamboo reed), kakaki (trumpet), goje (a 2-string fiddle) and gangan, an hourglass shaped, double headed drum similar to the Yoruba dundun.

12Igbo traditional music, like that of the Yoruba and Hausa, is strongly tied to extra-musical events which provide a means of expressing group solidarity and transmitting traditional norms and beliefs from one generation to another. According to Nzewi:

The Igbo systems and ideological formulations were established on and buttressed by communally binding and viable mythological concepts and covenants. These were periodically validated or regenerated or commemorated in order to ensure a continuing binding compact. Such periodic communions required highly stylised media that would give super-ordinary atmosphere, impact and candour to the event... These media (which constituted traditional theatre in ail its scope and ramifications) incorporate the performing arts areas of music, dance, drama and mime.6

13Examples of social and religious uses of music in Igbo land include those that accompany initiation rites into the masquerade cult (egwu mgba). Prominent musical instruments in Igbo land include ngedegwu, (a xylophone made of wooden planks laid on a banana tree resonator), ekwe (a wooden, slit drum), ogene (a metal gong) and oja (a wooden five-hole flute). One of the most popular forms of instrumental music which makes use of all these instruments is the egwu mgba. Although there are specialist musicians, especially instrumentalists, Igbo traditional musicians, like most of the Yoruba musicians, make their living from other occupations such as farming.

Focus of Study

14In Africa today there are a significant number of composers, trained in universities and conservatories, both at home and abroad, writing works which are conceived along the lines of European music but which often employ a considerable degree of African musical elements.7 As will be seen later, the most important objective of these composers is to help create a tradition of Nigerian Art Music through a fusion of European and African elements.

15Prior to the arrival of European missionaries in the middle of the nineteenth century, Nigerian music was predominantly a religious or a social event. The concept of music as a purely contemplative tradition was not general. Although there were examples of traditional musical performances which took place outside specific social or religious contexts,8 music was regarded as an integral part of social or ritual events. In addition, a musical performance was often conceived as part of a multi-media experience. As Euba observed:

Much of the pre-colonial traditional music is practised in the context of one or more of the other performing arts. There are, for example, the use of music as an integral part of dance, of poetry and of dramatic expression ail fused together in the same performance context. In addition, music and all these other performing arts are often presented in combination with the visual arts such as sculpture, design, painting and costuming... Music is viewed in terms of its relationship to the total art complex and not as an isolated phenomenon .9

16An example, of this is the Igbo Ofala (yam eating festival) music which can only be understood by relating the music to the extra-musical context of the Ofala festival. It is against this background that the emergence of a purely contemplative, European derived, Art Music in Nigeria represents a significant musical innovation. The predominant emphasis of this new tradition is aesthetic, and as Euba, one of Nigeria’s modern composers whose works are examined in this volume, has noted:

the composers (often) intend their works for performance by experts before an audience which is not encouraged to participate in the performance. This in a way constitutes a radical change in the African approach to music...10

17Since musical practices in traditional Nigerian Society are strongly tied to religious, social and political activities, the introduction of Christianity and European culture to Nigeria was bound to have a significant impact on Nigerian musical culture. As a result of European intervention, the pre- colonial, independent ethnic groups were transformed into a single political entity — Nigeria. With a population of about 100 million and about 250 different ethnic groups, it is the most populous sub-Saharan African country. This major political change was accompanied by the emergence of cosmopolitan towns, the introduction of modern means of communication — the cinema, radio and television and the emergence of European-trained Nigerians. These factors provided the socio-economic and cultural basis for the growth of modern musical idioms in Nigeria.

18The most important source for the growth of European-derived modern musical idioms in Nigeria, as in many African countries, is, the Christian church. The church through its mission schools, also provided opportunities for the training of students in the theory and practice of European music — a feature which still exists.

19The discussion in this book focuses on written compositions by Nigerian and Ghanaian composers who have been influenced by European classical music. This category of music is referred to as Art Music, which has been described as music in which ‘a great deal of attention is given to the musical, technical or artistic interest of the piece as a focus of aesthetic enjoyment’.11 Although the history of modern Nigerian Art Music is relatively recent, dating back only to the 1940s (most significantly in the writings of Sowande), it is necessary to provide both the historical and the musical processes which anticipated its emergence. Thus, Chapter 2 focuses on the events which took place in the nineteenth century which provided the basis for the growth of modern Nigerian music. Chapter 3 provides a detailed study of the lives and works of major Nigerian composers with a view to establishing the main compositional objectives which dictated their creative experiments. The material in this chapter is based on interviews conducted with the composers combined with the results of a study of their published and unpublished research work. In the case of Fela Sowande and Ayo Bankole, now deceased, I have relied mainly on their works as well as information provided by their colleagues and friends, e.g., Akin Euba, Samuel Akpabot and Moloye Bateye.

20The analyses provided in chapters 4, 5 and 6 focus on some selected works. The objective of these chapters is to illustrate, in some detail, some of the stylistic issues discussed in chapters 2 and 3. The chapters on analysis are also intended to project a relevant analytical approach which can be employed in studying works by African composers.

21Chapter 7 presents a list of many of the works by the Nigerian composers discussed in this book, while chapter 8 is an introductory survey of Art Music in Ghana. The chapter on Ghanaian Art Music is designed to enable readers compare the Ghanaian tradition with that of Nigeria. The chapter discusses how similar socio-musical situations in the two countries have laid the foundation for the emergence of art works which have similar stylistic tendencies. In conclusion, it is necessary to note that this book is written for all those who are interested or engaged in a serious study of African music and introduces the new but growing tradition of Art Music in Africa to composers and performers who may be interested in studying or performing any of the works discussed.


1 Studies which have been carried out on modern African musical practices include those by T.K.E. Phillips, Yoruba Music (Johannesburg, 1953); J. Collins, Chanaian Highlife, African Arts 10, pt. 1, 1976 and D. Coplan, Go to my Town Cape Coast: The social history of Chanaian Highlife. In: Eight Urban Musical Cultures, University of Illinois Press, 1978.

2 K. Nketia, The Music of Africa, London, 1979, pp. 9-10.

3 These deities are lesser gods who, as messengers to Olodumare (the Almighty God), have delegated powers.

4 For a study of Yoruba instrumental ensemble, see D. Thieme, A descriptive catalogue of Yoruba musical instruments, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Catholic University of America, 1969.

5 A. King, Nigerian music. In: the New Grove Dictionary of Music. Vol. 13, 1980, p. 239.

6 M. Nzewi, Some social perspectives of Igbo traditional theatre. In: The Black Perspective in Music. 1978, p. 114.

7 For a list of some of these composers see M. Omibiyi, Nigerian musicians and composers. Nigeria Magazine, Nos. 128-129, 1978.

8 In Yorubaland, for example, palace musicians often entertain the oba (the ruler) and his ijoye (chiefs) in the evenings in the moonlight.

9 A. Euba, Criteria for the evaluation of new African Art Music. Transition 49, 1975, pp. 46-47.

10 ibid., p. 48.

11 Misonu Amu, Stylistic and textual sources of a contemporary Ghanaian Art Music composer: A case study of Dr. Ephraim Amu. M. Phil. thesis. University of Legon, 1988. p. 67.

2. Historical Background of Modern Nigerian Art Music

1European influenced musical idioms have been emerging in Nigeria since the beginning of this century. These idioms can be classified into four distinct categories: indigenous church music, urban syncretic popular forms, modern folk opera and Nigerian modern Art Music. The emergence of these forms is a result of an historical process which began in the middle of the nineteenth century. Three main factors can be identified as directly responsible for their growth.

  1. the emergence of a Western educated, African elite and the consequent creation of a viable atmosphere for the practice and consumption of European music, which was vibrantly sustained in the nineteenth century by economic and political factors largely dictated by Europe

  2. the eventual frustration of the Westernised African elite who had hoped to gain more political and economic power from their European counterparts

  3. a spirit of cultural awakening, when the educated African elite in Nigeria, who initially distanced themselves from the local populace and, therefore, traditional Nigerian culture, later realised that political and economic independence needed to be preceded by a greater awareness of their own culture

2The greatest challenge to European power took place, naturally, in the Church, since it was the most important focal point for educated Africans in nineteenth century Nigeria. Within the Church itself, African Christians agitated for missionary policies more sympathetic to African customs and beliefs. One of the significant results of this agitation was the emergence, by the beginning of this century, of Nigerian hymnody. In addition to being the bedrock of the growth of modern Nigerian music, the new indigenous church music constituted the most significant artistic symbol of the nineteenth century Nigerian challenge to European hegemony. The main features of this historical process will be highlighted in some detail.

The Multi-Cultural Setting of Lagos and its Environs