This marvellous disc contains multitudes. The variety of sounds and styles packed into its generous 77 minutes showcases not only the infinite intrigue of a music too little-heard until now, but the lightly-worn virtuosity of Omordia herself.
(Important note: for the facts/background underpinning this post, I’m indebted to Robert Matthew-Walker’s invaluable booklet notes which, in turn, present comments on the works from the composers themselves – as well as the helpful and informative on-stage commentary given by Omordia and her fellow musicians in performance.)
The ‘African Pianism’ CD (on SOMM Recordings) is a sequel of sorts, to Omordia’s first recording of African solo piano music, ‘Ekele’ (2018). On that recording, she focused on three key composers – Ayo Bankole and Christian Onyeji from Nigeria, and Fred Onovwerosuoke, born in Ghana to Nigerian parents. The new album has the feel of a widescreen expansion, featuring further work by the ‘Ekele trio’ alongside J H Kwabena Nketia (Ghana), David Earl (South Africa), Nabil Benabdeljalil (Morocco) and Akin Euba (Nigeria).
The versatile Omordia, with exquisite variety of touch and audible enthusiasm, is our tour guide through a soundworld that – to many Western ears, I’m sure – feels both ‘exotic’ and familiar at the same time. The results, however, are accessible and evocative throughout – so much so, that the album overall, brilliantly sequenced, very soon becomes a captivating, addictive listen.
This blending of sounds is a recurrent feature of ‘African art music’: a category that broadly covers work by African musicians and composers who have had the access and opportunity to study and absorb influences from Europe and the Americas. As such, it’s a relatively young genre, or movement – a ‘new’ classical music (as contradictory as that sounds), a 20th-century-plus phenomenon, utterly contemporary.
The opening track on the album, Bankole’s ‘Egun Variations’, could almost be a manifesto for this music. The stand-alone piece takes a Nigerian folk song through a wide range of versions, exploring increasingly intricate classical styles right up to a dissonant, avant-garde climax – before a closing return to the gentle refrain. Omordia makes Bankole’s artistry clear in the shifting characters of each section while keeping the strong melody and recurring hook always within reach.
‘African pianism’ itself is also a specific term (pioneered by Euba) which identifies characteristics in the sound of a modern piano that can emulate African traditional instruments, particularly percussion. As such, when you start listening to many pieces on this album – particularly those from the Nigerian composers – in that opening instant, your brain gears you up for a classical piano sonata or similar… until the rhythms kick in, and you realise something else entirely is going on.
The next two composers in the recital, Kwabena Nketia and Onyeji, both develop this concept explicitly, seeking to evoke drum patterns in the fabric of the composition. But their approaches are excitingly different. The selections from Kwabena Nketia’s ‘African Pianism’ suite are primarily short and sharp, the keyboard stabs rendering what the composer calls ‘percussive attacks’ to punctuate the tune. Hurtling by, for the most part, in little over a minute each, they reward repeated plays to get the full measure of the effect. By contrast, Onyeji’s three-movement ‘Ufie’ stretches out more, allowing the listener to experience in longer form an ongoing rhythmic pulse, somehow emerging from within the music. Omordia exhibits extraordinary control here, never letting the agitated ‘thrum’ disrupt the flow of the melody or basslines.
Given their ability to conjure up different or additional instruments in the mind’s eye and ear, perhaps it’s understandable that much of the music is very visual, with a strong sense of incident and place. Omordia herself commissioned the Onovwerosuoke suite on this disc, recorded here for the first time. As the name suggests, ‘Five Kaleidoscopes for Piano’ sets out to recreate particular scenes in music. For example, the first piece, depicting a restless hive of bees, perfectly captures the eerie harmony of a swarm, repeating notes at breakneck speed so you hear both the movement of individual insects and the underlying drone. This builds up into both hands and back again as if the cloud of bees is lurching this way and that, left/right, forward/back – one could imagine an over-keen recording engineer in the early days of stereo panning the swarm around the headphone space, but there would be no need: it’s all in the music. The fourth piece is a memorable treatment of a folk tale featuring apparently doomed lovers: roles taken by the right and left hands, it would seem. But as the right hand dances, the left is more measured, even menacing…? What is really going on? Taken together, the ‘Kaleidoscopes’ encapsulate their name beautifully, as the melodies in each section tumble against and into each other, just as the images do in the namesake toy.
At this point, the album pans back to its wider focus, with ‘Princess Rainbow’, an extract from Earl’s ‘Scenes from a South African Childhood’. As a white South African, Earl would perhaps be unlikely to draw from the same heritage, and sure enough, this piece (named after a fictional trout that featured in epic bedtime stories from the composer’s fishing-mad father) is a different beast. Earl captures the river’s shimmer, but to reach for a quick reference point like, say, the liquid sound-painting of Debussy does not quite do the trick. This is a more brittle affair, the trout darting about, splashing, the African rhythmic thrum announcing its low-key presence. Finally, with a percussive snap or two, we’re left with the impression that Earl senior may have ultimately triumphed over Princess Rainbow – in his storytelling, at least.
The four works by Benabdeljalil also appear on disc here for the first time. They occupy a substantial part of the album – justifiably so, as they possess a wholly different kind of beauty to what has gone before, a smoother flow replacing sharper rhythmic stabs. To my occidental ears, there is a more yearning, romantic feel, particularly to the composer’s Nocturnes, a long-term project where Benabdeljalil seems to use the form to capture a particular artistic statement he wants to make. Influences in the selections here range from Kurdish music to Chopin, but overall the pieces retain their own distinctive character. Omordia is as finely tuned into this keening, expansive repertoire as she is to the more propulsive fireworks of the other material.
As the album draws to a close, it becomes clear how cleverly sequenced it is. For the final Benbdeljalil track, we hear a percussion accompaniment (from Abdelkader Saadoun) for the first time. This leads into a final group of pieces that bring our tour of Africa full circle: three arrangements of Nigerian folk songs by Euba, the percussion continuing into the first, before two further piano solos provide a gentle conclusion. These have a calm, stately lilt that put me in mind of swaying blues or spirituals: art music finding a way to ‘bring it all back home’.
The entire disc is a treasure trove: exuberantly performed and exhilarating to hear. I hope there are further volumes in the works.
In the meantime, Omordia – herself Nigerian-Romanian – has made it a mission to bring African art music to wider attention. In the years between ‘Ekele’ and ‘African Pianism’, she has curated the African Concert Series, which has gone from strength to strength since launching with a season of recitals in 2019.
Even the pandemic couldn’t slow the Series’ progress, as in 2020, Omordia programmed a week-long festival of shorter online recitals – you can now watch the whole thing edited into a 2-hour extravaganza – before returning to live stages in 2021.
This year, the enterprise has blossomed further, developing into an ongoing series of concerts (monthly, or thereabouts), currently booking into July. The season got off to a spectacular start. After Omordia gave the opening performance in late January at the October Gallery, London – giving those of us fortunate enough to attend a preview of many of the pieces on ‘African Pianism’ – only a couple of weeks later, the Series took over London’s Wigmore Hall for an entire day as one of its Family of Partners.
With three concerts’ worth of programming at her disposal, Omordia brought together as diverse a line-up as possible. The solo kora playing of Tunde Jegede mixed centuries of tradition with a complex, contemporary groove: cascades of notes dancing around shifting rhythms. Listening to the kora – especially in Jegede’s skilful hands – can make time seem to stand still, never more so than in the caress of Wigmore’s impeccable acoustic.
African chamber music was included. Early on in the day, we heard pieces for woodwind, among them more vividly visual writing from Onovwerosuoke, using oboe with piano to create sound pictures of storms, fog and – unforgettably – a dancing rooster captured in a jerky, jazzy strut.
During the evening concert, South African double bass virtuoso Leon Bosch performed a Sonatina by Grant McLachlan, by turns sinister and slinky, alongside Allan Stephenson’s tone-poem of sorts for solo double bass, about African beer. Sure enough, Bosch’s humour-filled performance brought to life the drunken melody’s skittish steps and slow-motion pratfalls.
Over the course of the day, I was reminded how just how much joy and laughter this music generates. Not only does much of the music encourage amusement – as outlined above – the musicians are unashamedly, and infectiously, having a fantastic time. (I was fascinated by the set performed by Braimah and Jeneba Kanneh-Mason who – despite their famously unconventional background – seemed to start off in an ultra-correct ‘serious classical’ frame of mind. But the atmosphere in the Hall had long since loosened up, and you could see them gradually, visibly relax into the ambience.)
Song is understandably crucial to African art music, and the recital by baritone Njabulo Madlala and pianist William Vann was a triumph. Madlala’s voice seemed implausibly rich, finding strength in gentleness, helping us all believe in the power of lullabies, ultimately delivered in hypnotic a cappella. He also performed a fascinating sequence of arias from Mzilikazi Khumalo’s ‘Princess Magogo’, the first opera with a Zulu libretto.
As the day reached a euphoric climax of Nigerian song followed by the return of Jegede with a Western classical ensemble, I was struck by the potential of this music to erase barriers and bridge cultures, helping us re-think what ‘classical’ music has been, and might be in future; and how the startling number of additional composers and performers could keep me busy in research for months… How grateful I am that the concert series will bring more of this music to my doorstep.
Rebeca Omordia on disc: recommended retailer Presto Music stocks both ‘African Pianism’ and ‘Ekele’ – and the recent record she has made with Leon Bosch, ‘The South African Double Bass’: https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/search?search_query=rebeca+omordia
The African Concert Series: full details of upcoming concerts are on the Series website. At the time of posting, there are still tickets left for the 12 March event, ‘African Women Day’: https://theafricanconcertseries.co.uk/whats-on/