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

A charm of Ffinches

Alexander Ffinch, by Harriet Lloyd-Smith (2011)


Alexander Ffinch, the organ of Cheltenham College Chapel, Divine Art Recordings. DDX 21112

RICHARD DOVE is transported by a new album of organ music

My father adored church organ music. At the weekend, I would often wake to the grand noise of Nôtre Dame, Rouen, or the three manual, 44 stop organ at Freiburg Cathedral (a particular favourite). I was constantly reminded of him as I listened to Parallels, a new CD by Alexander Ffinch.

Ffinch is the organist at Cheltenham College and oversaw a complete rebuild of the organ in 2017. There is an intimacy between player and instrument which is both rare and wonderful. There is also a refreshing boldness in the selection of compositions. Where else could one find Gustav Holst alongside Coldplay’s Chris Martin? As Ffinch explains in the sleevenotes:

Today, one of my daily duties is to play to 700 students at the start of their working day. I am facing a generation with the power to instantly access the music they want at any time and trust me, it’s not likely to be original organ music. So to capture their attention, I have enjoyed turning to classical some pop/rock arrangements to present music they hear elsewhere.

The Coldplay song ‘Paradise’ soars around the college chapel, stirring even the most indolent student.

There are other surprises on the recording – a Suite by Florence Price, an African-American composer who combines her classical training with Southern black American culture. Her ‘Symphony No 1 in E Minor’ was premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. The concert was the first performance of a composition by a black woman by a major orchestra in the US. The ‘Suite’ is jaunty, mellifluous and immediately engaging, with jazz phrasing and gospel singing inspiration.

There is a wonderfully atmospheric, gently-paced interpretation of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod,’ benefiting from the resonance of the chapel’s ancient stones.

Dan Locklair’s ‘Rubrics’ is another surprise, and requires Ffinch’s masterful dexterity. After a tumultuous first movement, we move to a gentle second movement using silence as a sort of leitmotif. As the composer explains in the excellent accompanying booklet: “To be sure, it is impossible to have true silence when music is sounded. But the illusion of silence can be suggested.”

The recording closes with Leon Boellman’s ‘Suite Gothique.’ It was early morning when I listened to the Suite and its third movement ‘Prière a Nôtre-Dame.’ My father was almost with me in the room as the melody floated and swirled. Nôtre Dame was his first port of call on any visit to Paris. From this embracing reverie we launch into the thunderous final movement, the Toccata. It awakened the household as Dad was prone to do. Time to put the kettle on.