Intercultural Elements in the Organ Works of Fela Sowande

March 7, 2017

Godwin Sadoh is a Nigerian organist, composer, pianist, choral conductor, ethnomusicologist, and author of 12 books.  His compositions have been performed around the world. Sadoh has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He is presently professor of music and LEADS Scholar at the National Universities Commission in Abuja, Nigeria.

Experts in the field of intercultural musicology have propounded various definitions of interculturalism. Akin Euba describes music in which elements from two or more cultures interact as intercultural music,1 as when materials from diverse cultures are combined into a single contemporary composition. J. H. Kwabena Nketia defines interculturalism as the “process of identifying with or sharing in the heritage of other cultures with a view to broadening one’s cultural horizon or one’s capacity to understand and appreciate differences in modes of expression.”2 Nketia’s explanation examines the possibilities and challenges associated with modern African compositions. Afolabi Alaja-Browne expounds on the concept from a Nigerian point of view. He stresses that “art” and “intercultural” are synonymous. Modern Nigerian composers look to written and orally transmitted music for creative ideas, sources of sounds, and themes, as well as procedures to expand their modes of artistic expression. Alaja-Browne upholds the view that assimilation of foreign idioms constitutes a good source of inspiration.3 Joy Nwosu Lo-Bamijoko, a Nigerian operatic singer and ethnomusicologist, approaches the intercultural phenomenon in terms of social change in the Igbo community, one of the six geo-political groups in Nigeria. She addresses the dilemma of Nigerian societies torn between new cultural expressions of cosmopolitan cities and traditional values of the villages.4 This writer defines intercultural music as the interplay of diverse cultural idioms in a creative work.

Fela Sowande, as a composer and a performer, is rooted in three major continents: Africa (Nigeria), Europe (London), and North America (African-American). Sowande lived, studied, and worked in this tripartite cultural milieu. He was raised in a bicultural topography in Nigeria where the Yoruba traditional culture and English cultural values co-existed. This was a true reflection of post-colonial Nigeria—the fusion of two diverse worlds. The British colonization and Christian missions introduced Western cultural systems, including the English language, to Nigeria from the mid-nineteenth century. Consequently, Nigerians are raised bicultural from childhood to adulthood. Today, multiculturalism permeates every aspect of Nigerian society: dress, food, education, language, architecture, religion, art, music, sports, broadcasting, business, politics, and socio-cultural life. 

Through several years of musical studies and concert performances in Great Britain, Sowande was thoroughly grounded in European classical music. He arrived in the United States in the 1960s, at the peak of civil rights activities, black consciousness, Afro-centric idealism, and black renaissance. Sowande’s contribution to the prevailing ideologies at the time was two-fold: (1) he borrowed several African-American spirituals and incorporated them into his music compositions, as a sign of alignment with the black race in America; (2) he was very instrumental in pioneering the establishment of African Studies programs at various institutions in the United States. Sowande wrote and presented several scholarly papers on the Africanization of Black Studies in the United States. Such papers were read at Howard University, Oberlin College, and Kent State University. Therefore, Sowande could not refrain from the influence of these three major cultures in his organ compositions. This essay is specifically written to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Fela Sowande, March 13, 1987, at a nursing home in Ravenna, Ohio.


Short biography

Fela Sowande was born in Abeokuta, Ogun State, in southwest Nigeria, on May 29, 1905. He represents the second generation of Nigerian composers. He grew up in a musical home; his father, Emmanuel Sowande, was both an Anglican priest and church musician. Sowande received his early musical training from his father and Thomas Ekundayo Phillips (1884–1969). He served as a choirboy and assistant organist under Ekundayo Phillips for several years at the renowned Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos. At age 27, Sowande decided to become a civil engineer and travelled to England in 1935 to pursue his dream. Six months into the program, he changed his mind and decided to study music because he could not afford to pay the tuition for civil engineering.5 At this point, his only means of livelihood was playing jazz at London nightclubs. Sowande later enrolled as an external candidate at the University of London and received private lessons in organ playing from George Oldroyd and George Cunningham. On January 3, 1943, he received the prestigious Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO), the highest British diploma awarded for organ playing. This feat distinguished him as the first African to earn the coveted lofty diploma.6 Sowande briefly returned to Nigeria in the 1950s to work at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (now Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria), the University of Ibadan, and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.7 Sowande was appointed professor of musicology at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, serving from 1965 to 1968.8

Sowande immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, where he spent the last two decades of his life as an African musicologist teaching at such institutions as Northwestern University, Howard University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Kent State University, Ohio, his last place of work as tenured professor. Sowande composed for almost the entire spectrum of musical genres—vocal solo, choral, piano, organ, and orchestra. His most well-known works include African Suite for String Orchestra, Folk Symphony for Orchestra, Roll De Ol’ Chariot for SATBB choir, and Wheel, Oh Wheel for SATB choir. Sowande is best known for his well-written organ compositions—Jesu Olugbala, Go Down Moses, Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho, Oyigiyigi, Gloria, Kyrie, Obangiji, Prayer, Yoruba Lament, K’a Mura, and Sacred Idioms of the Negro. It was during Sowande’s era that concert music was introduced to the Nigerian classical music circle. His chamber, orchestra, piano, and vocal songs are mostly secular, intended for performance at concert halls and auditoriums in Nigerian colleges and universities. Prior to his time, his music compositions were sacred, and their performance was restricted to the church. 


Multicultural themes

The organ works of Fela Sowande are based on thematic materials from the Yoruba ethnic group of Nigeria and the African-American musical repertory, particularly spirituals. Most of his compositions for organ use indigenous Yoruba church hymn tunes and Yoruba folk songs. This creative procedure enhances the Nigerian flavor in the music and compartmentalizes the pieces within the framework of modern Nigerian art music. 

In three organ pieces, Sowande employed African-American spirituals as principal themes. Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho is based on a spiritual. The work is a lively piece characterized by syncopated rhythms as found in many African-American spirituals. The melody bounces between the right and left hands and the pedal. Go Down Moses is another piece built on an African-American spiritual. The sustained moderate tempo of this piece lends it to the depiction of the commanding voice of God to Moses in Egypt. The piece fluctuates among diverse tempo markings showcasing the various stages of Moses’ mission before Pharaoh the king and the children of Israel. The brilliant fortissimo closure of the piece and the final introduction of the Picardy third in the last five measures signify the victorious exodus of the Israelites from Egypt into the Promised Land.

Bury Me Eas’ or Wes’ (from Sacred Idioms of the Negro) is the third and last organ work derived from a black spiritual. It is a short piece characterized by homophonic texture and chromatic passages. It opens very quietly and gradually adds stops and more notes to build intensity. It finally climaxes to fff in the last three measures. The title of the entire collection, Sacred Idioms of the Negro, even has an affinity with the African-American culture and the acceptable lingual parlance of the era. The title reflects the spirituality of the Black race in America where the church became a place of worship, refuge, solace, hope, and socialization for people of color. Bury Me Eas’ or Wes’ can be regarded as an “organ requiem.” The character, mood, tempo, and overall framework of the piece make it suitable for a funeral ambiance. This author strongly believes that Sowande specifically wrote the piece for his own burial, since he particularly requested for it to be played at his funeral service. The title connotes a global dogma that rightly sums up Sowande as a multicultural, multilingual, and multimusical man. He was making a universal statement with this music. In other words, whether you bury him in the East (Africa) or in the West (Europe and America), he is comfortably at home, having spent most of his treacherous life on the three continents. Therefore, Bury Me Eas’ or Wes’ symbolizes musical and cultural unanimity.



Some of the titles of Sowande’s organ compositions are bilingual. The titles are in English and Yoruba language. Prayer (Oba A Ba Ke), Oyigiyigi: Introduction, Theme, and Variations on a Yoruba Folk Theme, and Yoruba Lament are representative of works in this category. Sowande often provides the translation of the Yoruba titles on the cover page of the music or in the composer’s notes. In the case of Prayer, the subtitle in parentheses is actually the title of the Yoruba melody used in the composition. Oyigi-yigi is also the title of the Yoruba Christian hymn tune employed in the work. The title of Yoruba Lament is symbolic in two ways: (1) the first part consists of Yoruba, the Nigerian language, while the second half, the Lament, is in English; (2) the texture, tempo, mood, as well as nuances of the piece are influenced and dictated by the title “lament.” 

Yoruba Lament was composed in the 1950s at the very peak of the nationalist movement in Nigeria; this movement advocated for the country’s emancipation from colonial hegemony. The struggle for the nation’s autonomy as well as its cultural renaissance began in the mid 1940s and lasted until the independence of Nigeria in 1960. It was the period in which Nigerian elite united to revive the traditional values and culture of the nation from the European imperialism that was prevalent at the time. Nigerian playwrights, poets, sculptors, fine artists, dramatists, theater artists, and musicians all embarked on a massive campaign for the revival and incorporation of materials from their indigenous culture into their works. It was during this period that Hubert Ogunde, popularly known as “the father of Nigerian contemporary Yoruba theater,” wrote several folk operas and plays based on Nigerian legends, myths, politics, socio-cultural life, traditional dances, rituals, festivals, and traditional musical styles. Ogunde captioned one of his Yoruba operas at this crucial time, Yoruba Ronu (Yoruba, Think). In this play, he urged the Nigerian populace to think about their sorry state of external domination by the British and urged them to fight for the revival of their cultural heritage.9

One of Sowande’s contributions to the independence of Nigeria in the 1950s was his organ composition Yoruba Lament. It is indeed imperative to note how Ogunde uses his theatrical talent to speak to Nigerians and how Sowande uses his musical compositions to address the same issue. Furthermore, it is of interest to observe titles given to Sowande’s organ works created on Nigerian themes in Yoruba and English languages, while titles given to works derived from African-American melodies are simply in English. The combination of Yoruba and English in the Nigerian-themed pieces reflects the bilingual nature of Nigerian society, while the use of only English in the works based on African-American spirituals could be thought of as an extension of the monolithic language prevalent in America. Therefore, the idea of bilingualism in Sowande’s organ works is a vivid reflection of post-colonial Nigeria.


European traits

Other forms of interculturalism in the music of Fela Sowande are the use of Western harmonic systems and the pipe organ, a European instrument. The organ works of Sowande are strictly based on Western functional harmony, tonal centers with specific keys, and nineteenth-century chromatic harmony. There is evidence of tonal shifting from one key to another in most of his pieces. Modulation is not found in Nigerian traditional music, so it is a Western imprint on his music. However, Sowande did not employ any of the early twentieth-century pitch collections, such as twelve-tone method, octatonic scale, and atonality in his organ compositions. Such contemporary techniques are to be found in the organ works of Ayo Bankole (1935–1976), a generation after Sowande’s era. Although Sowande uses mainly a European style of tonality in his works, he borrowed specific Yoruba rhythms and incorporated them into his music.

At this point, we may then ask, why did Sowande write solo pieces for organ? He was brought up in a Christian home and sang in the best Protestant church choir in Nigeria, which of course had the best pipe organ in the entire country. Sowande received organ lessons from a very tender age at the Cathedral Church of Christ in Lagos. In addition, Sowande observed Thomas Ekundayo Phillips accompanying the cathedral choir and congregation, and saw him playing organ recitals at various churches in Lagos. Apparently, all these exposures to the organ enthralled Sowande and served as a source of inspiration and creative imagination for him. The organ became his most beloved instrument and the best medium for him to express himself as a creative artist.


Performances in many nations

Fela Sowande was the most celebrated composer from the continent of Africa in the 20th century. Most of his compositions—ranging from vocal solos, duets, choral songs, arrangements of spirituals, piano pieces, organ pieces, chamber music, and symphonic works—have been performed and recorded all over the world. Recordings of his music are neatly stacked on the shelves of university libraries and archival centers globally. The organ, being his first musical instrument, compelled him to compose a substantial number of works for that instrument. Those masterworks have attracted the attention of organists around the world, who play them during services and at concerts. Hence, we can affirm that his organ compositions are the most popular of all his creative output.

Ronald Mackay played Sowande’s Pastourelle a number of times in the United States in the 1960s. The New Zealand and Australian Broadcasting Corporation used to play Sowande’s Pastourelle for morning devotion on a daily basis. John Craven, a British citizen currently residing in Nice, France, is an organist at the Reformed Church Cathedral, Saint Pierre d’Arène. He played Obangiji, Go Down Moses, and Yoruba Lament from 1964 onwards. He played all three pieces again in June 2010 and Go Down Moses in November 2010, as well as in April 2015. He also played Obangiji and Kyrie in June 2015. Craven has been playing Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho in the past five years. Ronald George Baltimore has been playing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho since the 1970s from his student days in a recital, at Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey. Marvin Hills, a native of Philadelphia, played Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho, first in 1976, at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, Philadelphia. He has also played Obangiji and Yoruba Lament at various places from the 1990s to present time. H. L. Smith, from New York, with roots in Manchester, United Kingdom, has often played Obangiji. He teaches organ and piano at Community College of Philadelphia. 

Nigerian organist Akin-Ajayi Oluwaseun Collins played Jesu Olugbala Mo F’Ori Fun, Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho, and Prayer at Bishop Odutola Memorial Anglican Church, Olubadan Housing Estate, Ibadan, southwest, Nigeria. On May 3, 1987, at the memorial service of Fela Sowande that took place at St. James Episcopal Church, New York, his personal friend Eugene Hancock played Bury Me Eas’ or Wes’ as Sowande had requested. Godwin Sadoh played Jubilate from the Sacred Idioms of the Negro at his second master’s organ recital at Kimball Recital Hall, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, on April 27, 2000. Monty Bennett played Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho in a special concert tagged “Around the World in 80 Minutes,” at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina, on October 17, 2010. He replayed the piece at an organ dedication concert of White Rock Baptist Church, Fayetteville, North Carolina, on October 22, 2015. To round up his recital series in 2016, Bennett played Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho again at Resurrection Parish Church, Santa Rosa, California, on October 30, 2016. 

Monty Bennett performed the Middle Eastern premiere of Fela Sowande’s Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho on February 24, 2017, during the Israel International Organ Festival at the Hecht Museum Auditorium, Haifa University, Israel.

Perhaps the most ambitious and elaborate performance project of Fela Sowande’s organ compositions took place between April 3 and September 18, 2016, programmed by Italian concert organist Luca Massaglia. He performed Sowande’s Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho in 12 European concerts. Sowande’s music sounded across Russia, from Western Russia to Eastern Siberia, passing from Tatarstan Republic. The concerts took place in three European nations, Russia, Sweden, and France, as shown in the schedule below:

1. April 3: Kursk (Russia) Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Mother of God. 

2. April 10: Moscow (Russia) Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin Mary. 

3. April 12: Saratov (Russia) Concert Hall of the “Leonid Sobinov” State Conservatory. 

4. April 13: Penza (Russia) Organ Hall of the Philharmonic Society. 

5. April 14: Dubna (Russia) Concert Hall of the Choir School. 

6. April 18: Naberezhnye Chelny (Russia) Organ Hall. 

7. April 19: Kazan (Russia) Concert Hall of the “Nazib Zhiganov” State Conservatory. 

8. April 22: Tomsk (Russia) Concert Hall of the Philharmonic Society. 

9. April 23: Krasnoyarsk (Russia) Organ Hall of the Philharmonic Society, 1st concert. 

10. April 24: Krasnoyarsk (Russia) Organ Hall of the Philharmonic Society, 2nd concert. 

11. July 4: Cathedral Lund (Sweden). 

12. September 18: Eglise Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet Paris (France). Lund Cathedral hosts the largest organ of Sweden. 



Intercultural elements in the organ compositions of Fela Sowande elucidate the impact of colonization, the Christian church and education, as well as the composer’s experiences in three major cultures where he lived, studied, worked, composed, and performed. Suffice it to say that composers tend to be influenced and informed creatively by their socio-musical milieu.10 The selected works of Sowande in this essay are derivations of indigenous source materials from Nigeria and African-American spirituals. The themes of the former are taken from Nigerian folksongs and indigenous hymn tunes composed by local organists and choirmasters. Works such as Oyigiyigi, Obangiji, K’a Mura, Jesu Olugbala, and Prayer are all infused with Nigerian melodies. Sowande’s concept of derivative materials is much broader than some of the younger generations of Nigerian composers, in that his themes reflect both African and African-American idiomatic expressions as demonstrated in his arrangements of black spirituals in Bury Me Eas’ or Wes,’ Go Down Moses, and Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho

Fela Sowande, like most modern Nigerian composers such as Thomas Ekundayo Phillips, Ayo Bankole, Samuel Akpabot, Adam Fiberesima, Antony Mereni, Meki Nzewi, Joshua Uzoigwe, Godwin Sadoh, Seun Owoaje, Alaba Ilesanmi, Kayode Morohunfola, Vincent Obi, Abel Adeleke, Tunji Dada, Taiye Adeola, Wole Aro, Christian Onyenji, Chijioke Ngobili, Jude Osy Nwankwo, Babatunde Sosan, and Ebenezer Omole, is a modern interculturalist. Sowande’s commingling of Nigerian musical elements, African-American themes, and Western classical theories justifies his organ compositions as intercultural. In this regard, intercultural phenomena could be conceptualized from two perspectives: (1) the composer, a Nigerian, writing in Western classical style, and (2) the intermixture of three cultural expressions—Nigerian, African-American, and European. ν


Fela Sowande’s compositions for organ

K’a Mura. London: Chappell, 1945.

Pastourelle. London: Chappell, 1952.

Obangiji. London: Chappell, 1955.

Kyrie. London: Chappell, 1955.

Yoruba Lament. London: Chappell, 1955.

Jesu Olugbala. London: Novello, 1955.

Choral Preludes on Yoruba Sacred Melodies. London: Novello, n.d..

Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho. London: Chappell, 1955.

Go Down Moses. London: Chappell, 1955.

Plainsong. London: Chappell, n.d.

Fantasia in D. London: Chappell, n.d.

Festival March. London: Chappell, n.d.

Oyigiyigi: Introduction, Theme and Variations. New York: Ricordi, 1958.

Gloria. New York: Ricordi, 1958.

Prayer (Oba a Ba Ke). New York: Ricordi, 1958.

K’a Mo Rokoso (unpublished manuscript).

Sacred Idioms of the Negro (unpublished manuscript).


Discography of organ works

Jubilate, Eugene W. Hancock. American Guild of Organists 0-51, audio cassette (1992).

Prayer, James Kibbie. Organ Historical Society OHS-95 CD. Collection title: Historic Organs of Michigan (1995).

Obangiji, David Hurd. Minnesota Public Radio MPR CD-1003 (2000). Collection title: Pipedreams Premieres: A Collection of Music for the King of Instruments, vol. 2 (2000).

Fantasy in D Major, Festival March, Gloria, Go Down Moses, Nancy Cooper. Richard L. Bond Op. 27, Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, Missoula, Montana. Pro Organo CD 7139 (2000).

Yoruba Lament, Lucius Weathersby. Albany TROY440, CD. Collection title: Spiritual Fantasy (2001).

Go Down Moses, Nancy Cooper. Pro Organo CD 7139 (2001), CD. Collection title: The Road Less Traveled (2002).

Obangiji, Brent Weaver. Pipedreams Premiere, Volume 2. Minnesota Public Radio, 2003.

Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho, Lucius Weathersby. Great Torrington Parish Church, Father Willis organ; CD IX/27. International Society—African to American Music (2003). 

Oyígìyigi: Introduction, Theme and Variations on a Yorùbá Folk Theme, Pastourelle, Lucius Weathersby. Great Torrington Parish Church, Father Willis organ; CD IX/27. International Society—African to American Music (2003).

Jubilate, Laudamus Te, K’a mó Rókósó, Kyrie, Òbángíjì, Eugene Hancock. n.p. CD.

K’a Mura, Michael Stewart. New Zealand, n.p., CD.

Plainsong, Prayer: Oba a ba ke, Two Preludes on Yorùbá Sacred Melodies (1. K’a múra. 2. Jésù Olugbàlà), Sacred Idioms of the Negro (1. Bury me eas’ or wes’; 2. Laudamus te; 3. Vesper; 4. Supplication; 5. Via dolorosa; Jubilate), Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho, Kyrie, Yorùbá lament, Obángíji, Hans Uwe Hielscher. 1863–1982 Walker/Sauer/Oberlinger 4-116, Wiesbaden, Merktkirche; EL CD-016.



1. Akin Euba, Essays on Music in Africa 2: Intercultural Perspectives (Bayreuth: Bayreuth African Studies Series, 1989), 116.

2. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin and Akin Euba (eds.), Intercultural Music Volume 1 (Bayreuth: Eckhard Breitinger, 1995), 6.

3. Afolabi Alaja-Browne, quoted in Kimberlin and Euba, 6.

4. Kimberlin and Euba, 9.

5. A little over two decades after Fela Sowande changed his mind from civil engineering to study music, another fellow Nigerian, bearing similar first name, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, repeated history. Fela Kuti, born on October 15, 1938, was sent to England in 1958 by his middle-class Christian family to study medicine. Upon arrival, Fela changed his mind and went on to enroll at Trinity College of Music, London. Coincidentally, the two Felas were born in the same town, Abeokuta, Ogun State, and their fathers were both Anglican priests.

  6. Godwin Sadoh, The Organ Works of Fela Sowande: Cultural Perspectives (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse Publishing, 2007), 25–26.

  7. The Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was named after Fela Sowande for his extraordinary contributions to Nigerian music.

8. Sadoh, 47.

9. Ebun Clark, Hubert Ogunde: The Making of a Nigerian Theater (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 61-62.

10. For further reading on Fela Sowande’s life and music, see Sadoh.

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