A tribute to Ayo Bankole (1935–1976) on his 80th birthday

May 5, 2015
Ayo Bankole

Godwin Sadoh is a Nigerian organist-composer, pianist, choral conductor, African ethnomusicologist, and scholar. He is presently professor of music and LEADS Scholar at the National Universities Commission, Abuja, Nigeria.


The arrival of the Christian faith in Nigeria in the mid-nineteenth century dramatically changed the musical landscape in the West African nation through the exploits of the missionaries from Europe and southern United States, as well as the imperial colonial administration from England. The church teachings, curriculum of the mission schools, and the colonial policies exposed the new Nigerian converts to Western classical music repertoire and musical instruments such as the harmonium, piano, and organ. In this thriving musical culture and environment, Nigerian composers began writing compositions of their own from around 1910. Many of their compositions at this time were fashioned after the European baroque and classical styles. However, from the 1960s, Nigerian composers began experimenting with new techniques in their works, such as atonality and twelve-tone rows. The then young composers, fired up by the new twentieth-century compositional devices they had acquired at schools of music in London and the United States, partially abandoned the tonal system of the preceding era. This essay is specially written to commemorate the eightieth birthday of one of Nigeria’s most prolific organist-composers, Ayo Bankole. 


A short biography

Ayo Bankole was born on May 17, 1935, at Jos, in Plateau State of Nigeria. Bankole spent the first five years of his life with his father, the late Theophilus Abiodun Bankole, who was the organist and choirmaster at St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Jos, at the time. His mother was also an active musician. She was a music instructor for several years at Queen’s School, Ede, Osun State, a Federal Government high school. Bankole’s father noticed the gift of music in his son at an early age; hence, in 1941 he moved the young Bankole to live with his grandfather, Akinje George, in Lagos; George was then organist and choirmaster at the First Baptist Church, Lagos. Bankole received his first lessons in piano and harmonium from his grandfather, who introduced him to various types of musical styles, and, from the time the boy was seven, would often ask Bankole to play for his friends, thereby showing off the innate genius of his grandson.

While in Lagos, Bankole’s father encouraged his son to join the renowned Cathedral Church of Christ Choir, Lagos, as a boy soprano and private organ pupil of Thomas Ekundayo Phillips (1884–1969), who was then organist and master of the music at the cathedral. At this time, Ayo Bankole’s father had moved from Jos to Lagos, and was now organist and choirmaster at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Faji, Lagos, a walking distance from the cathedral church. It is not surprising that his father enrolled the young Bankole at the Cathedral Choir and not at the church where he worked. The Cathedral Church of Christ Choir was a model for all churches in Nigeria, and it was the most prestigious church choir at the time. The Cathedral Choir boys were highly talented children who came from musical, upper-middle-class homes and affluent families that were the cream of the Nigerian high-class society. Ekundayo Phillips was the most advanced and the only professionally trained organist and church musician at the time in Nigeria. The Cathedral Choir was the best environment for a talent such as Ayo Bankole to have the right exposure to nurture and develop his musical gifts.

At the age of ten in 1945, Bankole enrolled at the Baptist Academy, Lagos, which was one of the leading high schools in the state. He became more active as a musician at his high school by becoming the pianist and organist of the school. It was at this school that Bankole began to show interest in choral conducting by organizing small groups to perform at special events. Within the span of five years at the Baptist Academy, Bankole participated in several music competitions and concerts organized by the Nigerian Festival of the Arts. This festival was unique because it was one of the few avenues for budding talents in music to earn national recognition. Most of the professionally trained Nigerian musicians participated in this festival at some point during their formative years.

After graduating from the Baptist Academy, Bankole was appointed as a clerical officer at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in 1954. During this period, he came in contact with notable musicians such as Christopher Oyesiku, who became a colleague and close friend to whom Bankole dedicated several solo songs; Thomas Ekundayo Phillips; Tom Chalmers, the first Director General of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation; Arthur Langford; Leslie Perron, Controller of Music at N. B. C.; and Fela Sowande. Bankole had great admiration for Sowande and was able to receive advanced lessons in organ playing from him. Between 1954 and 1957, Bankole was already very active as organist in Lagos churches. For instance, he was assistant organist at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, under the leadership of Ekundayo Phillips. It was about 1957 that Bankole began composing his first major works, Ya Orule and Nigerian Suite, both for piano solo.

In August 1957, Bankole left Lagos on a Federal Government scholarship to study music at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. On his arrival at Guildhall, he was appointed to the position of organist and choirmaster at St. James-the-Less. Bankole remained in this position until his graduation in 1961. At Guildhall, he studied piano, composition, organ, harmony, and counterpoint. Some of his teachers included Alan Brown (organ), Harold Dexter (organ), and Guy Eldridge (composition). During his time at Guildhall School of Music, Bankole was exposed to a variety of musical styles from diverse European epochs. His works from this period show the influence of the various contemporary European composers he was studying at the time. He experimented with twentieth-century compositional devices as exemplified in his Three Yoruba Songs for voice and piano (1959) and the Toccata and Fugue for organ (1960). This period marked the genesis of Bankole’s creative career that was to lead to a very personal style of intercultural composition—the synthesis of Nigerian and Western idioms. The works in this period include Sonata No. 1 (Christmas) for piano; Cantata No. 1 (Baba Se Wa Lomo Rere [Father, Make Us Good Children]) (1959); several part songs for female chorus; Sonata No. 2—The Passion, for piano (1959); and Variations, op. 10, no. 1 (1959), based on a Yoruba Christian tune, Ohun a f’Owo Se (also known as Ise Oluwa).

In spite of the hectic program at Guildhall, Bankole found time to sit for external examinations and obtained a series of professional diplomas and certifications such as Associate of the Royal College of Music (piano), Licentiate of the Trinity College of Music (piano), Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music (Teacher’s Diploma), Associate of the Royal College of Organists, and Graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GGSM). After four years of study at Guildhall School of Music, Bankole proceeded to Clare College, University of Cambridge, London, where he obtained his first degree, the Bachelor of Arts in Music, in 1964. As was the practice at Cambridge, a Bachelor of Arts degree (Cantab) automatically becomes a Master of Arts (Cantab) three years after graduation. On July 15, 1964, while at Cambridge as an organ scholar, Bankole sat for the external examination and obtained the prestigious Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO), thus becoming the second and the last Nigerian to receive the British highest diploma in organ playing. Fela Sowande was the first Nigerian and indeed, the first African to earn the FRCO diploma in 1943. During Bankole’s stay in England, he wrote music that he himself could perform. A tremendous amount of music was composed for piano and organ since he was a pianist and organist himself. He also wrote some choral and orchestral works that are technically oriented towards European audiences and performers. The works from this period include Sonata No. 4 (English Winter Birds) for piano, Variations Liturgical (Theme and Nine Variations) for piano, Three Toccatas for organ, Fugal Dance for piano, Organ Symphonia No. 2 for organ, drums, trumpet, and trombone, and a number of choral works such as Art Thou Come (1964), Little Jesus (1964), Canon for Christmas (1964), and Four Yoruba Songs (1964).

After the completion of his bachelor’s degree at Cambridge in 1964, Bankole received a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to study ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. At UCLA, Bankole’s composition teacher was Roy Travis, who was then America’s foremost composer experimenting with African music resources in his creative works. Bankole developed a keen interest in the music from other cultures. His training at UCLA enabled him to evolve a personal style that was founded on African traditional music principles. He went further by composing intercultural works that use non-African resources, such as his Ethnophony. This work is a summation of Bankole’s experience in ethnomusicology and an archetype of the conjoining of creative principles with ethnomusicological procedures.

Ayo Bankole returned to Nigeria in 1966 and was appointed to the position of Senior Producer in Music at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (now Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria), Lagos. He remained in this position until 1969, when he accepted the position of lecturer in music at the Department of Music, University of Lagos, where he continued his research into Nigerian indigenous music. While at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), Bankole pioneered what would later become a common trend among Nigerian professional musicians, that is, the art of embracing all arms of music discipline. Consequently, at UNILAG, Bankole was a music educator, composer, performer, and ethnomusicologist. He was constantly involved in training and encouraged budding serious musicians by giving them private lessons in singing and piano playing. It was also during this time that Bankole intensified his interest in organizing and training independent choral groups. He wrote extensively for these groups and also exposed them to European classical music. Prominent among the choral groups he founded were the Choir of Angels, comprising students from three major high schools in Lagos (Reagan Memorial, Lagos Anglican Girls Grammar School, and the Methodist Girls High School); the Lagos University Musical Society; the Nigerian National Musico-Cultural Society; and the Chapel of the Healing Cross Choir, all situated in Lagos. 

Although Bankole contributed immensely to the development of modern music in Nigeria, he was not able to live long enough to witness and reap the fruit of his labor. In the early hours of November 6, 1976, at the tender age of forty-one, Ayo Bankole and his wife, Toro Bankole, were both brutally murdered by his half brother while sleeping in their own home. Although Bankole is no longer alive, he is still greatly admired by Nigerian musicians for his outstanding contributions to the study of modern Nigerian music as a composer, music educator, ethnomusicologist, organist, pianist, and choral conductor. Bankole was an extremely gifted man who was not able to develop his gifts to full potential.

Wherever modern Nigerian art music is mentioned, verbally or in writing, the name of Ayo Bankole always stands out prominently. Scholarly articles, theses, and books have been written and published about him. His compositions are neatly catalogued in several archival centers around the world, including Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany; Center for Intercultural Music Arts (CIMA), London; and the Center for Black Music Research, Chicago, Illinois. To immortalize his name at home in Nigeria, his son, Ayo Bankole, Jr., built a world-class arena in his honor, the Ayo Bankole Music Center for Arts and Cultural Expression (ABC), in Lagos. The center was established primarily as an arts center with the aim of promoting music in particular and the arts in general and to be a vehicle for influencing youths and society positively. The ABC accordingly aims to promote the various aspects of musical endeavor that the late Ayo Bankole excelled in during his lifetime. It is a multi-purpose hall with the necessary infrastructure to make it suitable for a range of performances, workshops, and exhibitions. The ABC runs a mid-week jazz event on Wednesdays. Every Friday the ABC stages a cabaret gig that involves singing different genres of music. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are karaoke days. The last Sunday of each month, the ABC hosts a concert termed “Jazz and Old School with Ayo Bankole and Friends,” where several bands and solo acts (singers, comedians, etc.) are featured. The ABC intends in the near future to introduce a highlife night and also a monthly dramatic production.


Three Toccatas

We cannot close an essay about this organist-composer without discussing one of his most mature works for the King of all Western instruments. The Three Toccatas for organ were composed between 1962 and 1964 while Bankole was at the University of Cambridge—a period that marked the second phase of his experimental stage, with works influenced by early twentieth-century compositional procedures as exemplified in these toccatas. These three pieces are infused with various twentieth-century devices that the composer was exposed to while studying in England. It is quite apparent that he was writing these pieces particularly for European virtuoso organists and audiences, but definitely not for African performers. In the 1960s, the only Nigerian organist who would have been able to tackle Bankole’s toccatas was Fela Sowande. Incidentally, Sowande had already immigrated to the United States by the late 1960s, and he was more focused on research, teaching, and musicology at this stage of his career. To date, the author is aware of only two American organists—the late Eugene Wilson Hancock (1929–1994) and Mickey Thomas Terry—who have played through or performed Toccata III in the United States. In fact, Hancock recorded Toccata III on a special audio cassette, captioned A Sampling of Organ Music by Black Composers, produced by the Committee on Educational Resources of the American Guild of Organists in 1992. 

Toccata I is a tonal work in G major and is in three-part form. The first section (measures 1–26) is characterized by fast-moving eighth notes in the right hand, while the left hand and pedal supply the harmonic framework. (See Example 1.) The piece is based on a theme by Bankole’s father and it is in the right hand of the first section (measures 15–18). The homophonic middle section (measures 27–39) comprises a continuous tremolo highlighting open thirds and fourths in the right hand with chordal accompaniment in the left hand. The final section (measures 39–72) is a restatement of the first section with rapid eighth notes, the theme harmonized in the right hand, and pedal ostinato. The piece is generally characterized by chromatic passages, ostinato on the manual and pedal, repetition, and bitonality. 

The second toccata is not as exciting as the first. It is more pianistic and may work better on piano than on organ. (See Example 2.) The most prominent pianistic features in the piece are the excessive use of Alberti bass and arpeggios that pervade the entire piece on the manuals. The second toccata is also based on an original theme by Bankole’s father. It is a sectional work in which the first two phrases of the principal theme are in the pedal (measures 2–17). The concluding two phrases of the theme are placed in the left hand on the manual (measures 32–35). Following this is a brief section in which the composer plays with the third phrase of the theme in both the right hand and the left hand (measures 40–53). A fairly long homophonic section (measures 54–86) on the manuals precedes the final section (measures 87–105), where the pedal returns triumphantly playing a tuneful, mostly pentatonic melody. The piece closes with this melody in the pedal and polytonal chords on the manuals. 

Toccata III is slightly longer than the second. It is interesting to note the increase in length among these three pieces: Toccata I is 72 measures long, Toccata II is 105 measures, and Toccata III is 135 measures. Bankole elongates each toccata by about thirty measures as he writes them. Toccata III is the only one conceived in pure atonality even though it closes with a B chord in the last two measures. Structurally, it is in three-part form with a short fanfare and Adagio as introduction (measures 1–18). The first A section is atonal but closes with a fairly long chromatic chord passage (measures 19–48). The middle B section (measures 49–112) is characterized by frequent meter changes that eventually culminate in rapidly moving arpeggios and scale passages (measures 99–110). The piece finally finds repose with the return of the opening A section from measures 116 to 135. It closes with a bravura section of massive chromatic chords in the manuals (see Example 3). Other interesting features in Toccata I–III are the pedal points and the ostinato patterns.



Ayo Bankole’s musical odyssey exemplifies typical experiences of modern Nigerian-trained musicians defined by three cultural phenomena: Nigerian/African, European, and American. His musical language and style are vividly influenced by the incorporation of resources from the triune cultures, a co-existence of the old and the new in one pot. Bankole’s religious background and convictions in the Christian faith significantly influenced his creative output. Many of his instrumental and vocal compositions are sacred. 

As a prolific composer, Ayo Bankole contributed extensively to modern art music in Nigeria through his vocal and instrumental works. He represents the forerunners of avant-garde composition in the country through the use of diverse twentieth-century tonal schemes and creative techniques. Bankole is also well respected among Nigerian musicologists as a scholar for his research and documentation of Nigerian music. Even though he departed this world almost four decades ago, his music lives on after his death as a doyen of modern Nigerian art music.


Ayo Bankole’s compositions

Most of Bankole’s works are unpublished, since in his day, there was not a single publishing firm in Nigeria to put his works into print, and black composers had serious problems at that time publishing their compositions in Europe and the United States. (Most of the works of other composers of Bankole’s generation—such as Akin Euba, Samuel Akpabot, Lazarus Ekwueme, Meki Nzewi, and Joshua Uzoigwe—are also unpublished.)

All works listed here are unpublished except as noted.


Organ Works

Organ Symphonia Nos. 1 and 2, for organ, drums, trumpet, and trombone (1961–64)

Fantasia for organ (1961–64) 

Three Toccatas for organ (1962–64) 

Fugue for organ (1967) 

Toccata and Fugue for Organ (Ile-Ife: University of Ife Press, 1978)


Solo Art Songs

The Lord is My Shepherd, for female voice and organ (1959) 

Ten Yoruba Songs, for voice and piano (1959–66) 

Adura fun Alafia (Prayer for Peace), for voice and piano (1969) 

Three Songs for Diana, for voice and piano (1971–72) 

Three Yoruba Songs for Baritone and Piano (Ile-Ife: University of Ife Press, 1977).


Christmas Works

Kristi, Ma Wole (Christ, We Greet You), for voice and piano (1958) 

Christmas Comes But Once a Year (1959)

Ni Owuro Ojo Keresimesi (Christmas Day) for voice and piano (1959) 

Keresimesi Odun De (Christmas is Here), for voice and piano (1960)

And Art Thou Come, for voice and piano (1964) 

Little Jesus, Gentle Jesus, for voice and piano (1964) 

Canon for Christmas, Eyo, Eyo, Odun De O (Rejoice, Rejoice, Christmas is Here), for chorus and piano (1964) 

Salzburg Carol, for eight-part chorus and piano (1964) 


Choral Works

Cantata No. 1 in Yoruba, Baba Se Wa l’Omo Rere (Father Make Us Good Children), for female chorus and chamber orchestra (1958) 

Requiem, for chorus and organ (1961) 

The Children of the Sun (1961) 

Choral Fugue (1962) 

Cantata No. 3 in Yoruba, Jona, for soprano solo, speaker in English, drum, piano, tambura, and orchestra

Eru O B’Omo Aje (A Child of a Witch is Fearless) 1964 

Be Prepared, for female chorus (Girl Guide’s Jubilee Song), 1966 

Ore-Ofe Jesu Kristi (The Grace of Jesus Christ), for unaccompanied chorus (1967)

Salve Christe (1968)

Opera: Night of Miracles, for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, including Nigerian traditional instruments (1969)

Cantata: Ona Ara, for full chorus, soloists, organ, and Yoruba musical instruments (1970) 

Fun Mi N’Ibeji Part I and II, for unaccompanied chorus (1970) 

Death Be No More: A Dramatic Cantata on a Poem by Cosmo Pieterse, for soprano soloist, chorus, and ethnophonic instruments (1972) 

Love Everlasting (1972) 

Mighty Africa Games (1973) 

Cantata No. 4: FESTAC, for soloists, chorus and orchestra of Western and traditional Nigerian instruments (1974) 

Lullaby (1966)

God Rest You Merry (1966) 

Angels from the Realms (1966) 

Keresimesi Tun Ma De O (Christmas Is Here Again), for chorus and piano (1968) 

Christus Natus, for chorus and piano (1968) 

Grand Little One (Words by Meki Nzewi) 

Three-Part Songs for Female Choir (Ile-Ife: University of Ife Press, 1975)

Gbogbo Aiye, Eyo, E Ho (Let All the World, Rejoice and Shout) 



Alaja-Browne, Afolabi. “Ayo Bankole: His Life and Work.” M.A. thesis, University of Pittsburgh, 1981, pp. 15–28.

__________. “A History of Intercultural Music in Nigeria.” In Intercultural Music vol. 1, eds. Cynthia Tse Kimberlin and Akin Euba. Bayreuth African Studies Series, No. 29, 1995.

Floyd, Jr., Samuel. International Dictionary of Black Composers. Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999.

Nketia, Kwabena. “Developing Contemporary Idioms Out of Traditional Music.” Studia Musicologica Hungaricae 24 (1982): 81–96.

Omibiyi-Obidike, Mosunmola. “The Process of Education and the Search for Identity in Contemporary African Music.” In African Musicology: Current Trends, vol. 2, eds. Jacqueline Codgell DjeDje and William Carter. Atlanta, GA: Crossroads Press, 1989.

Sadoh, Godwin. “A Profile of Nigerian Organist-Composers.” The Diapason Vol. 94, No. 8 (August 2003): 20–23.

__________. “Hybrid Composition: An Introduction to the Age of Atonality in Nigeria.” The Diapason Vol. 97, No. 11 (November 2006): 22–25.

__________. “Twentieth Century Nigerian Composers.” Choral Journal 47, No. 10 (April 2007): 33–39.

__________. Intercultural Dimensions in Ayo Bankole’s Music. New York: iUniverse, 2007.

__________. “Ayo Bankole’s FESTAC Cantata: A Paradigm for Intercultural Composition.” The Diapason, Vol. 102, No. 7 (July 2011): 25–27.

Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. London: Greenwood Press, 1982.

Uzoigwe, Joshua. “Nigerian Composers and Their Works.” Daily Times, August 25 and September 1, 1990.


Other articles of interest:


A history of organs of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, Nigeria


The centennial of the Cathedral Church of Christ Choir, Lagos, Nigeria


Ayo Bankole


Related Content

July 27, 2022
Editor’s note: Part 1 of this series appeared in the June 2021 issue of The Diapason, pages 18–19; part 2 appeared in the July 2021 issue, pages 12–…
July 27, 2022
Gloria R. Werblow Gloria R. Werblow of Cary, North Carolina, died June 5. Born July 11, 1938, in New York, she began her carillon studies with Janet…
June 24, 2022
The idea for the carillon The idea of having a carillon on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington was the inspiration of Herman B. Wells (…