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Famed in jazz circles, Fela Sowande is recognised as the first African composer to mix African and Western styles.

Stephen Bourne reviews his career

Fela Sowande was a musician who combined the classical and the popular with astonishing versatility. In Britain in the thirties he was on the same jazz circuit as bandleader Ken Snakehips Johnson and singer Adelaide Hall, initially to support his studies. He then became the first African composer to successfully mix African and Western styles.
Otufela 'Fela' Sowande was born in Oyo, Nigeria in 1905, the son of an Anglican minister. His family moved to Lagos when he was seven years old and at home he exhibited musical ability. His earliest musical experiences were as an organist at the Lagos Cathedral Church of Christ and he studied music with fellow Nigerian TK Phillips, a graduate of Trinity College in London.
As Sowande grew up, his keen interest in dance band technique induced him to learn the trumpet, saxophone and clarinet. He did have a dance band in Lagos but when he came to London in 1934, it was to train as a civil engineer. However, once settled, he took lessons from the pianist Gerry Moore - an enthusiastic tutor who became a close friend. Sowande then became involved with the London jazz scene of the time and probably his first major professional engagement in this country was touring with the Blackbirds in 1936,
In this lavish show, he played the piano onstage in a spectacular production of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. After that he became the bandleader at the Florida Club in succession to Ken Snakehips Johnson and led a band which included a number of fine jazz players of the time such as Leslie 'Jive? Hutchinson and the Jamaican reed man Bertie King.
Thoughts of civil engineering were left behind as Sowande found himself working with such great American visitors as Paul Robeson and Fats Wailer. At the Florida Club he struck tip a partnership with Adelaide Hall and in 1993, in the last interview she gave before she died at the age of 92, the legendary singer recalled those days in a venue very different to the Lagos Cathedral Church of Christ. She said: "Before the war my husband took over the Florida Club, off Bond Street. It was one of the most outstanding nightclubs in London and I was the star attraction. Fela Sowande was always properly dressed with his white tie and evening clothes and he was the perfect accompanist, which made it so lovely."
On February 25, 1939, Sowande and Hall took part in one of the EEC'S earliest outside television broadcasts. Harlem in Mayfair, a cabaret show, was transmitted live from the Florida Club. It was so popular that the BBC returned to the Club to broadcast another cabaret show featuring the duo, Dark Sophistication, on May 26. In those early days all television programmes were transmitted live. There was no technology to record them.
Happily, in January 1940, Sowande and Hall were filmed by Pathe for one of their newsreels, thus capturing for posterity the magic of the glamorous American star, her elegant Nigerian accompanist and the interior of the Florida Club. Very little film exists of Sowande, though in 1946 he did appear onscreen with the famous violinist Stephane Grappelli in the musical The Lisbon Story.
Sowande was a pioneer in the use of the Hammond organ to accompany singers and most of the recordings he made with Hall used the instrument. Their first recording was made for Decca at the famous HMV studio in Abbey Road. Sowande accompanied Hall on I Have Eyes and I Promise You on April 27, 1939.
The music critic for Practical Wireless noted: "Playing on the first cinema organ ever to be installed in a recording studio, Fela Sowande shows complete mastery of the instrument both as a straight and swing player. But his most striking contribution to the record list is as the leader of The Sowande Trio. Here for the first time we have real swing. Accompanied by piano and drums, he provides the jazz fiends with a real kick in St Louis Blues and Hold Tight."
In 1941, when Sowande joined the RAF, his career took a new direction. Soon afterwards he was transferred to the Colonial Film Unit, where lie was appointed musical director, selecting all the music used in the soundtracks of their films.
After the war, Sowande worked as the organist at Kingsway Hall in London and resumed work for the EEC before being appointed musical director of the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. Moving to the USA in 1957, he taught at Howard University but was mainly active as a composer. In 1962 he conducted the New York Philharmonic in a concert of his compositions.
Sowande's prestige grew as he gave more time to serious compositions. As a composer he wrote Africana, a piano and orchestra suite broadcast by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He also wrote two Chorale Preludes for organ on Yoruba Sacred Folk Melodies. He was awarded the MBE, an honorary doctorate and professorships at universities in both Nigeria and America. He eventually settled in the United States in the late sixties and died in Ravenna, Ohio on March 13, 1987.
Though his early collaborations with Adelaide Hall continue to be reissued on CD compilations, such as AVID'S Adelaide Hall - A Centenary Celebration, it is a pity the recordings he made from his own compositions in the fifties and sixties are unavailable. .

Go to the Fela Sowande Directory

The Stage - Thursday 29 July 2004
Image © The Stage Media Company Limited