Monday, October 1, 2007

Samuel Ekpe Akpabot, Nigerian Composer Born Oct. 3, 1932

[Three Nigerian Dances [Audio Sample] (8:34); National Symphony Orchestra of the South African Broadcasting Corporation; Richard Cock, conductor; Marco Polo 8.223832 (1995)]

October 3 is the anniversary of the birth of the Nigerian composer Samuel Ekpe Akpabot.

In the year before Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Nigerian composer Samuel Ekpe Akpabot and Cynthia Boudreau, the 16-year-old White woman with whom he was sitting, were denied service at the restaurant of the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Pittsburgh, on the basis of his race. The young woman expressed her outrage and fled the scene in tears. The incident was not an uncommon occurrence in the U.S. at the time, and would in most cases have passed unnoticed by the rest of the world. The composer resolved on the spot, however, to memorialize it, and later did so in a tone poem which came to be called Cynthia's Lament.

Samuel Ekpe Akpabot was born in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria on October 3, 1932. One of the principal documentary sources on his life and career is Nigerian Art Music, a book written by Olabode Omojola, Ph.D. and published in 1995 by the Institute of African Studies at Ibadan University in Nigeria. The author points out that Akpabot was the only Nigerian composer of his time whose works were almost exclusively orchestral.

Dr. Omojola writes of the composer's youth:

At the age of eleven he came to Lagos for his education at King's College, a school often referred to as the "Eton of Nigeria" and where European music was taught. It was, however, in the Church that Samuel Akpabot received the most significant introduction to European music. He was a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos, under Phillips.

To illustrate the role of the church in teaching young Samuel about European religious masterpieces, Dr. Omojola quotes Akpabot from a personal conversation the two had in January 1985: “I sang all of them before going to England and that turned out to be a very great advantage.” Omojola continues:

As well as being a chorister he also found time to play in bands, the most popular of which was the Chocolate Dandies, formed and led by Soji Lijadu. In 1949 when Akpabot left the choir, his voice having broken, he formed his own band, The Akpabot Players; T.A.P. as it was popularly called.”

At the same time as he led a band, Akpabot served as organist at St. Saviour's Church in Lagos, Olabode Omojola relates:

I would come back very late in the night from night clubs and steal into the Bishop's court where I lived (with Bishop Vining, then, of Lagos) and the following morning go to play for both the Holy Communion Service and the Sunday Mattins!”

A scholarship enabled Akpabot to travel to England in 1954 and enroll in the Royal College of Music in London. There he studied organ and trumpet. His teachers included John Addison, Osborn Pisgow and Herbert Howells. Akpabot subsequently left to study music at Trinity College. In 1959 Akpabot returned to Nigeria and became a broadcaster with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. At the same time he produced his earliest compositions, which were influenced by his country's Highlife idiom. Dr. Omojola continues:

His first work, Nigeriana, for orchestra (1959) was originally written as an exercise for his composition teacher, John Addison. After minor revisions it was later renamed Overture for a Nigerian Ballet. Conceived along the tradition of the nineteenth century European concert overture, the work is characterized by literal and allusive quotations of Highlife tunes strung together in a rhapsodic manner.”

Akpabot left his position in broadcasting in 1962 to join the fledgling music faculty of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Omojola describes the environment as favorable for composing:

Between 1962 and 1967, Akpabot wrote four works which clearly reflected the prevailing nationalist euphoria of that time. The works are Scenes from Nigeria, for orchestra (1962); Three Nigerian Dances, for string orchestra and percussion (1962); Ofala, a tone poem for wind orchestra and five African instruments (1963); and Cynthia's Lament, tone poem for soloist, wind orchestra and six African instruments (1965).”

Dr. Omojola explains that Ofala and Cynthia's Lament were both commissioned by Robert Austin Boudreau, Director of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. He had visited Nigeria in 1962 at the invitation of the Nigerian Arts Council. The two works were premiered in Pittsburgh; Ofala in 1963 and Cynthia's Lament in 1965. The author discusses the African influence on each of the four works listed above:

While Scenes from Nigeria and Three Nigerian Dances belong essentially to the same category as Overture for a Nigerian Ballet; Ofala and Cynthia's Lament reveal a greater emphasis on African (Ibibio) elements not only in the use of instruments but in the use of melodic and formal procedures.

Ofala, in 1972, won first prize in a competition for African composers organized by the Africa Centre of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); forty-one African countries were represented. The prize-winning work was a tone poem based on the annual 'yam eating festival' of the Onitsha people of Anambra State.”

A later tone poem is
Nigeria in Conflict, a 1973 composition which deals with the country's horrific civil war. Dr. Omojola observes:

Akpabot is the one Nigerian composer who has written almost entirely for the orchestra. His choice of instrumentation is, however, also conditioned by the need to project the features of traditional African instruments, as exemplified in Nigeria in Conflict consisting of those which are typical of Ibibio music. They are the gong, woodblock, rattle, wooden drum and xylophone.
At the end of the civil war in 1970 Akpabot became a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, and the two works written there continued to reflect the nationalist element of the pre-war works. These were
Two Nigerian Folk Tunes for choir and piano, (1974) and Jaja of Opobo, a folk opera, sung and spoken in Efik, English and Ibo (1972).

The composer's
Three Nigerian Dances (8:34) has been recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, under the direction of Richard Cock, conductor, on Marco Polo 8.223832 (1995). Brett Pyper writes in the liner notes:

“Several of Akpabot's compositions juxtapose African and European instruments, while others, like
Three Nigerian Dances, use Western instruments only (strings and timpani in this case). The Dances do, however convey a genuine sense of West African musical characteristics with their use of 'call and response' patterns and idiomatic rhythmic motives.”

Brett Pyper explains that Akpabot interrupted his academic career in Nigeria for ethno-musicological studies in the United States:

“He then continued his ethno-musicological studies in the United States at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University, where he received a Doctor of Philosophy degree. His publications on the subject have gained him a reputation as a major scholar of West African indigenous music.”

Akpabot's studies at the University of Chicago led to his receipt of an M.A. in Musicology. His Ph.D. dissertation at Michigan State University, published in 1975 by Michigan State University Press, was
Functional Music of the Ibibio People of Nigeria. Dr. Omojola writes that Akpabot put aside his nationalist tendencies for two sacred works he composed in the 1970s:

“Akpabot's nationalist zeal has, however, been curtailed in his two most recent works:
Te Deum Laudamus, (Church anthem, choir and organ, 1975) and Verba Christi, (a cantata for three soloists, chorus and orchestra) commissioned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation for the World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) which took place in Lagos in 1977. The two works brought back echoes of the Church, the foundation of his musical training. The Verba Christi is his largest work to date and is notable for its use of musical materials from diverse European styles ranging from Victorian choral tradition to twentieth century atonality. “

Akpabot also served as a Visiting Scholar in African Music at Michigan State University. He continued to write about Nigerian and African music, and returned to teach Music at the University of Uyo in Nigeria in the 1990s. His book
Foundation of Nigerian Traditional Music was published in 1986 by Spectrum Ibadan. He also wrote a book entitled Form, Function and Style in African Music. It was published in 1998 by MacMillan Nigeria Ibadan.

In appraising the style which characterizes the works of Akpabot, Dr. Omojola draws comparisons with the compositions of two other Nigerian composers, Fela Sowande (1905-87) and Akin Euba (b. 1935). For biographical essays on Sowande and Euba see their pages at Samuel Ekpe Akpabot was a lecturer at the Institute of Cultural Studies at the University of Uyo until his death in Uyo on August 7, 2000.

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Nigerian+Composer" rel="tag">Nigerian Composer
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