Friday, January 28, 2011

J. H. Kwabena Nketia: 'Foreword' to '12 African Songs for Solo Voice and Piano' by Fred Onovwerosuoke

[Libera: Works by Bonds, Hayes, Mendelssohn, Onovwerosuoke and Puccini; Marlissa Hudson, soprano; Peter Henderson, pianist; AMP Records AGCD 2106 (47:45)]

Professor Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University Conservatory, whose website is, has written a review of the new CD Libera, AMP Records AGCD 2106, in which he mentions “...the foreword to the song cycle, contributed by the patriarch of modern musicology, Dr. J. H. Kwabena Nketia.” Here is the Foreword for 12 African Songs for Solo Voice and Piano by Fred Onovwerosuoke:

by Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia
It is with great pleasure that I welcome this delightful compilation of 12 African Songs for Solo Voice and Piano by Fred Onovwerosuoke, Director of the St Louis African Chorus and author of Songs of Africa and other works. I am particularly excited by the fact that he chose the bulk of the songs in this collection from the traditional repertoire performed in community contexts in Africa, for it is not generally realised that such African materials have much to offer to the outside world. What Stuart Wilson, then President of the International Music Council, UNESCO, said some years ago about folk music generally is true of similar songs performed in community contexts in Africa such as those represented in the present collection. In his view

"Folk music is not an embryonic art. It exemplifies the principles of great art and a basis of taste is, therefore, cultivated by its practice (The role of Folk Music in Education. Music in Education, Paris, UNESCO 1956: 49)"

Bela Bartok made a similar comment later in his work on Hungarian folksongs, which in my experience applies also to traditional African songs. He notes that

"In their small way, they are as perfect as the grandest masterpieces of musical art. They are indeed classical models of the way in which a musical idea can be expressed in all its freshness and shapeliness — in short, the very best possible way, in the briefest possible form with the simplest of means. (The Hungarian Folk Song. Albany, State University of New York Press 1981:3)"

Instead of presenting his songs in the usual manner one finds in songbooks and scholarly monographs, Fred Onovwerosuoke presents them as art songs, an approach favored by contemporary African composers. Preserving their original format, he explores the creative challenges the songs raise for the imaginative composer who wants to extend their duration and other features, bearing in mind that in their traditional contexts such songs are accompanied by movement, hand clapping, drums and other instruments that regulate, energize and sustain performances. In conformity with this practice, he chooses to accompany his songs with the piano, an instrument of adoption in contemporary Africa.

Accordingly, as I looked at the scores of the melodies and the style of the piano accompaniment of each song, I was struck by the effective manner in which the compiler of this volume uses recurring percussive and ostinato patterns or simulate the style of African mbira (hand piano) and other plucked instruments in the accompanying piano part in order to high-light the expressive African features of the music, while at the same time paying meticulous attention in the scores to changes in dynamics, mood and other nuances of performance practice in art music so that singers unfamiliar with African languages might find them exciting alternatives to art songs in French, Italian or German, and sing them “artfully!”

With this collection, once again Fred Onovwerosuoke is reaching out to the public desirous of sharing in the musical experience that Africa has to offer. I commend the publication not only to singers but also to music educators. I wish him all the best and look forward to other compilations from his St Louis African Music Archive.

J. H. Kwabena Nketia
Emeritus Professor
University of Ghana.
Legon, Accra, Ghana

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