Rebeca Omordia. Image courtesy of the artist.

Rebeca Omordia: 'Nigeria Could Be the Center of Classical Music in West Africa'

We sat down with the London-based pianist to discuss her album Ekele, her current role as the Artistic Director of African Concert Series and the history of classical music across Africa.

Nigeria's rich history of classical music gets a convincing revival in Ekele: Piano Music by African Composers, the debut album by Rebeca Omordia, a London-based pianist of Nigerian and Romanian descent. An alumnus of Trinity College of Music and Royal Birmingham Conservatory, where she has taught for the past ten years, Omordia has collaborated with a range of celebrated international musicians that include Julian Lloyd Webber, double bassist Leon Bosch, pianist Mark Bebbington, cellist Raphael Wallfisch and Chineke! Orchestra, the first professional orchestra consisting of majority black and ethnic minorities in Europe.

Ekele is a result of a five year research into the works of pioneering Nigerian composers Ayo Bankole, Fred Onovwerosuoke and Christian Onyeji. Most of the works were composed pre-independence in 1960 and in the years after, at a time when the country was shaking off the shackles of British colonialism while defining its own cultural identity.

"Rebeca is a fluent pianist. She's classical trained in Eastern Europe and has a certain technical facility and a flexibility, rhythmically-wise" says DY Ngoy, the Congolese executive producer with whom Omordia created Africa Concert Series, a year-long recital by musicians of African descent at London's October Gallery. "What is fantastic about Ekele is that she played the music of African composers and made it relevant to our time." Examples of monthly themes for the African Concert Series include "String Quartets by African Composers," "African Art Music for Woodwind," "Arabesque: Piano Music from the Arab World," and "The South African Bass."

"It's a great project that Rebeca has started and I commend her" says Chi-Chi Nwanoku OBE, the British-Nigerian double bassist who founded Chineke Orchestra alongside whom Omordia often performs. "There's something else about playing music by someone that comes from the country of your fatherland. Sometimes there's a familial feeling that you aren't even aware that you've got, until you've discovered it."

OkayAfrica sat down with Omordia in London to discuss her album Ekele, her current role as the Artistic Director of African Concert Series and the history of classical music in Nigeria and Africa. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

Rebeca Omordia plays Studies in African Rhythms by Fred Onovwerosuoke

How do you find the state of classical music in Nigeria today?

They have a very vibrant scene. I think the problem in Nigeria is the funding, and the financial resources that are allocated for that. And because musicians cannot afford living just from playing in an orchestra, they have to look for other means of work, including teaching, playing gigs, doing concerts for churches and this I believe in my own opinion takes their focus from what could be one of Africa's best and biggest orchestra.

That's a huge claim to make.

Well, I think if MUSON [Music Society of Nigeria] had the resources, if they had the personnel to really look after how they are organizing the event, Nigeria would be the center of classical music in at least West Africa if not in Africa. They have everything, they have the hall, they have instruments, they have pianos, they even have the audience which they have built over the years. In South Africa, they already have the Western influence. And they have different financial resources for art there, but we are talking about West Africa, Nigeria and all the African countries that have music schools, classical music schools and orchestra.

Do you see yourself being part of this new shakeup any other way than visiting and just going there to play concerts?

I am supporting MUSON and I am very happy to go there and perform. The audience is really receptive and they really welcome me. Also the musicians, there are musicians I have been working with.

What is Nigerian Art Music?

Nigerian art music or African art music is a blend of Western classical music and traditional rhythms and melodies. It was generated from Western classical music. The father of Nigerian classical music, Fela Sowande (1905-1987) was an organ player in a church where his father was a music director. He came to London to study music and after doing that he became very known in London. He went back to Nigeria to broadcast and to lecture and he used all the cult tunes, all the traditional music in his compositions.

Rebeca Omordia. Image provided by the artist.

Today, a lot of the compositions by the pioneers of Nigerian Art Music are in manuscript form and were never recorded. What are the reasons for this?

The problem is not even just the recording, 95 percent of the music has never been published. My research took such a long time to find the compositions. Some of Ayo Bankole's music was published but not all of them. So I had to get in touch with his son, Ayo Bankole junior who's a musician in Nigeria. Fred Onovwerosuoke "24 Studies in African Music" is published under his own label, I would say, but the rest of the music is not published. So then, of course it's very difficult for anybody, including, Africans to access it and then record it.

Because some of these composer's work contains melodies or songs that existed for ages before being notated into classical compositions, are they mere translations and still regarded as original compositions?

Nobody has ever composed anything like that before. So I think they are original composition. In that sense, for the Western world and also for the African world this is something completely new. Because for the Western world, this music might sound exerting because of the rhythm and because of the cues. Each piece, or each composer they use melodies from the tribe they came from. Ayo Bankole is Yoruba, so we see so many Yoruba songs there, even Fela Sowande does that. Christian Onyeji, he's in the Igbo song.

Can you give an example using any of the compositions on Ekele?

So for instance, Ayo Bankole's piano sonata is completely original, even though he is using the idiom of some Yoruba song. It's not the actual Yoruba song. It's not a particular Yoruba song. Christian Onyeji's "Ekele Diri Chineke" is an arrangement of an already existing gospel Igbo song. So the tune itself is not his, it was from the '80s. It was sang by a gospel artist and he arranged it in a Western classical form. That's why that song is called "arrangement," his own arrangement. It's not his own composition.

Why is Ayo Bankole's piano sonata the centerpiece of Ekele?

As a length and as a style and as a conception, it's the most solid work from a Western classical point of view. Its construction is as a sonata which has a Western classical structure and that already places Ayo Bankole as a classical composer.

Is there anything else about technique perhaps that distinguishes the compositions by African composers from that of others?

The rhythm has become a very strong element of the classical music but because African rhythms, they are already so original, this changes the way you play a classical piece because of the rhythm.

Fred Onovwerosuoke - Studies in African Rhythms: #24 Raging River, Rebeca Omordia piano

What is "African Pianism"?

Akin Euba totally invented African pianism which means he found the piano, as a Western instrument, favorable for impressing certain elements of Nigerian traditional music. That's why his pieces are very rhythm based, more than melodic based. So then this will reflect on how the technique of writing the music and also how the technique of playing the music and then the piano becomes more of an instrument of percussion. It gets closer to the African or the Nigerian traditional instrument. And can this be done with most of the other instruments that are not traditional in Nigeria and Africa.

Tell me more about Akin Euba.

He wrote things for cello and other instruments but he found the piano particular close to expressing with other Nigerian instruments. It is known that piano is quite a percussive instrument and it's usually the job of the West in particular to bring out the melodicity of the piano and to try to get over the percussive effect but Akin Euba used it to his benefit. He was closer to expressing the traditional Nigerian music that the African instrument would usually do.

Why was it important to include the shorter compositions, "Little Variations For Ayo" and "Ya Orule" by Ayo Bankole?

The audience reaction works with that. They also have an important value because his child, Ayo junior, and Femi his sister, were raised to learn to play the piano. So he wrote this for them so they will have what to play and because both pieces have their own elements of Nigerian music, it would have been easier for the children to practice that than to practice some very Western traditional song that might be boring for them. They do stand next to the biggest "miniature" work of the biggest Western composers.

What, to you, is special about Fred Onovwerosuoke's "24 Studies in African Rhythms"?

He uses the same syllable staccato percussor segment on the piano, which makes it quite difficult for a pianist and for the hand to perform it and then he is using the seven rhythms. Three plus four in a bar. To play this is quite difficult—and then he's mixing them. This will be the starting rhythm at the base for the whole study and on top of that, he is bringing other rhythms too. Okay, this could be quite an accessible rhythm to play for a jazz pianist, but for a classical pianist, where you don't really find rhythms like that so often, it can be challenging because you are used to a different composition style.

And the difficulty is what makes it exceptional?

I think, from a pianist's point of view, his work is the most original of all the African composers because he's not trying to stick to the Western style. He is already a classical composer through his education, but because he traveled Africa, he wrote down materials, music, songs from all these countries and all the tribes and used them in "24 Studies in African Rhythms." That's why he's not just a composer, he's an abnormal musicologist as well. He used a completely different rhythm in every study such as the music melodies in Ethiopia, Ghana, everywhere in Africa he traveled. So this is really, really exceptional.

Is it always clear what compositions are based on specific melodies from specific countries? How do you distinguish one from the other?

You will notice it even if you are not a musician from the rhythms and the melodies, how different they are. There's a piece, it's a lullaby from Congo, and it does seem like a lullaby, and it has all the elements of a lullaby but then the tune itself, even if you have not listened to Congolese music, you will know that this is something Africa.

Bartók is said to be a strong influence on Fred Onovwerosuoke's approach to the piano. Can you explain why?

Because they have a common element. Bartók made musical language his rhythm and he also was inspired by Africa. Because he traveled, he was inspired by Northern Africa. It was easy for him to adopt Bartók even though Bartók was inspired by African rhythms himself.

In an old interview you spoke briefly about one of your first tutors who, when she passed, bequeathed her entire collection of CDs—over 400—to you. Could you tell me more about how formative the relationship was for you?

There were many people that had really influenced my growing up as an artist. That particular lady was so special because I grew up with her. We are talking about a relationship that lasted over a decade. She was my first or second piano teacher and I worked with her for six, seven years. And after I finished working with her we stayed friends. I used to go and visit her on a weekly basis and we would discuss music. Even though I had stopped working with her as a pianist, she took over raising me as an artist and as a musician. We would listen to recordings and analyze them. Even after I graduated from university, she write me letters. We would listen to recordings or something that she discovered because she was really with everything that was new, with all the new pianists and she had the latest recordings at that age.

Why are these particular arrangements special to you? What about them is special?

It's the most difficult piece for cello and piano. For a pianist because it's almost like a piano concerto with very difficult technique and at the same time you're playing with a cellist. So, you have to have... I would say "double attention"... to what you are playing and towards what your partner is doing. I think it's a fantastic piece. It really suits my personality, my temperament and my technique.

What is special about performing to a live audience?

Every concert is special because every concert is completely different. This is also the excitement about it that there is no concert that is the same. And you never know how it's going to go.

Can you single out a memorable moment?

One of the most important solo concerts was, I think, the first time my father came to my concert [in Romania in the late 1990s]. After the concert he told me that tears came into his eyes when he was listening to a particular piece. And it reminded him of where he was from in Delta State. I think it was Beethoven's sonata.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njeri, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njeri. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko met Mwangi through the creative and activist hub he created called PAWA 254, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njeri represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njeri's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njeri, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has more than one cinematographer, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njeri and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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