From the Cape to Cairo by keyboard

Olatunji Akin Euba (1935 – 2020), founder of African pianism

I still remember when I first heard the unusual rhythms and bell-like tones of the Ethiopian pianist and composer Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou.  The smell of burnt toast brought me out of a musical reverie.  I could hear the patterns of African percussion in her playing even though I had no clue as to whom I was listening to.  Emahoy was a reclusive nun who rarely gave performances.  She died last year, prompting a reissuing of her sparse recordings.

She remained my main introduction to piano composition in Africa until the arrival of a new CD – African Pianism by Rebeca Omordia – where the work of seven contemporary African composers are featured, as well Chicago-born Florence Price who was the first black female composer to have a symphony premiered in that city in 1933.

There is much to enjoy, from the Arabic timbres of Algerian composer Salim Dada and Morocco’s Nabil Benabdeljalil to the polyrhythms of Soweto-born Mokale Koapeng, who explains that in his Prelude in D he “infuses the dance elements I grew up listening to and witnessing in various townships.” 

South Africa’s Grant McLachlan composed his Sonatina for Double Bass and Piano in 2016 and the third movement, Senzeni Na? (‘What have we done?’) remains hugely popular across the country. He says, “It is a recreation for piano of an anti-apartheid protest song often sung at funerals and demonstrations…inextricably linked to the struggle for freedom and democracy.”  The piece is slow and gentle, but with a quiet rage; it is easy to imagine it being played at sombre funerals.

In contrast, Fela Sowande’s Two Preludes on Yoruba Sacred Folk Melodies is a joyful, original and, as the excellent accompanying sleeve notes by Robert Matthew-Walker reveal, “a profoundly African print with a descending quasi-scalic theme in which seconds and thirds unfurl as leaves of a flowering plant.”

Akin Euba, who died in 2020 was regarded as the most distinguished Nigerian composer, musicologist and pianist of his generation.  He was the originator of “African Pianism” which he described as a style of composition aiming to join the inherent musical syntax of Nigerian Yoruba music to the European keyboard with connotations of fundamental harmony.   Euba was a siren voice for interculturalism in composition, pointing out the similarities between the piano as a Western instrument and several Nigerian traditional instruments. Wakar Duru is Euba’s arrangement of three of Nigeria’s most popular Yoruba songs. One can imagine the piece being played in a concert hall or in a rural village church with feet tapping or bodies swaying depending on location.

This recording is volume 2 of Rebeca Omordia’s exploration of the rich diversity of African piano compositions on the innovative Somm Recordings label.  It is a constantly surprising feast of sounds, moods and emotions. Born in Romania to a Romanian mother and Nigerian father, she is hailed as an African classical music pioneer and is the artistic director of the world’s first ever African Concert Series at the Wigmore Hall in London. This is a perfect starting point for intercultural musical exploration, east, west and all points north and south. 

African Pianism Vol. 2 by Rebeca Omordia.  Somm Recordings.  SOMMCD 0688