Classical Music Personality Of The Day: Samuel Akpabot

Samuel Akpabot was born on 3rd October, 1932, in Uyo, in Akwa Ibom State. At the age of eleven he came to Lagos for his education at King’s College, a school often referred to as the ‘Eton of Nigeria’ and where European music was taught. It was, however, in the Church that Samuel Akpabot received the most significant introduction to European music. He was a chorister at Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos, under Phillips. According to Akpabot ‘it was in Christ Church that I was introduced to a great deal of European masterpieces; I sang all of them before going to England and that turned out to be a very great advantage’.12 Those masterpieces included Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Today, Mendelssohn remains Akpabot’s favourite composer, although his influence seldom appears in his own works. As well as being a chorister he also found time to play in bands, the most popular of which was the Chocolate Dandies, formed and led by Soji Lijadu. In 1949 when Akpabot left the choir, his voice having broken, he formed his own band, The Akpabot Players; T.A.P as it was popularly called.

In addition to leading a band, Akpabot was also organist at St. Saviour’s Church in Lagos. Referring to the dual nature of his musical activities he said:

I would come back very late in the night from night clubs and steal into the Bishop’s court where I lived (with Bishop Vining, then, of Lagos) and the following morning go to play for both the Holy Communion Service and the Sunday Mattins !
In 1954 he went to London, to the Royal College of Music, to study organ and trumpet. His teachers included John Addison, Osborn Pisgow and Herbert Howells and he also met Thurston Dart and Gordon Jacob. He later left the Royal College for Trinity College. He returned to Nigeria in 1959 with an ARCM and LTCL and took a post as broadcaster with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
It was also in 1959 that Akpabot’s compositional career began. Despite his wide exposure in England to European styles ranging from the pre- baroque to the twentieth century and despite his initial training at Christ Church — the citadel of the emerging tradition of Nigerian Church music — it was the Highlife idiom which dominated his first attempts at composition. His first work, Nigeriana, for orchestra (1959) was originally written as an exercise for his composition teacher, John Addison. After minor revisions it was later renamed Overture for a Nigerian Ballet. Conceived along the tradition of the nineteenth century European concert overture, the work is characterised by literal and allusive quotations of Highlife tunes strung together in a rhapsodic manner.

In 1962 Akpabot left the N.B.C. for the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to become one of the pioneering members of the academic staff of the music department. Nsukka proved a stimulating atmosphere in which to compose. The university, itself, established in the same year as Nigeria’s independence, was generally regarded as a symbol of modern independent Nigeria. It was seen as one of the most important foundations for fashioning an artistic tradition that would reflect the national aspirations of the country. Between 1962 and 1967, Akpabot wrote four works which clearly reflected the prevailing nationalist euphoria of that time. The works are Scenes from Nigeria, for orchestra (1962); Three Nigerian Dances, for string orchestra and percussion (1962); Ofala, a tone poem for wind orchestra and five African instruments (1963); and Cynthia’s Lament, tone poem for soloist, wind orchestra and six African instruments (1965). Both Ofala and Cynthia’s Lament were commissioned by the then director of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, Robert Austin Boudreau, who had been invited to Nigeria in 1962 by the Nigerian Arts Council. Ofala and Cynthia’s Lament were premiered in Pittsburgh in 1963 and 1965 respectively.

While Scenes from Nigeria and Three Nigerian Dances belong essentially to the same category as Overture for a Nigerian Ballet; Ofala and Cynthia’s Lament reveal a greater emphasis on African (Ibibio) elements not only in the use of instruments but in the use of melodic and formal procedures. These two works show a prevalence of Ibibio derived melodic patterns and formal procedures dictated largely by extra-musical considerations. Ofala, in 1972, won first prize in a competition for African composers organised by the African Centre of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); forty-one African countries were represented. The prize winning work was a tone poem based on the annual ‘yam eating festival’ of the Onitsha people of Anambra State. Its formal outline is suggested by the format of the festival which it evokes. Although Cynthia’s Lament has a form that is not tied to an extra-musical element, it is also a tone poem. Its conception is described fully by the composer:

Personal interview, January 1985.
Cynthia Avery was the 16 year old daughter of the white American Vice-Chairman of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra of Pittsburgh with whom I stayed during a visit in 1963 for the premiere of Ofala. After the performance, we went to the Conrad Hilton to have coffee with Mr. Boudreau. The rather silly waiters deliberately avoided serving Miss Avery and myself (we were seated together a short distance from the girl’s parents and Mr. Boudreau, who were served). This so distressed Miss Avery that she stormed out into the foyer, sobbing, ‘I don ‘t know what has become of my people !’ I decided to write a short piece for her, and on my next commission two years later, I produced Cynthia’s Lamente.14
42An important feature of the work is that Cynthia’s Lament is reinterpreted in African musico-dramatic terms. The harmonic-tonal framework of the work is, like Akpabot’s previous works, still almost entirely diatonic, and it is only in a later work, Nigeria in Conflict, for wind orchestra and eight Nigerian instruments (1973), which is a commentary on the Nigerian Civil War, that Akpabot began to use key changes and chromatic punctuations.

For a discussion of this and other features of Ibibio traditional music see: Akpabot, S. 1975. Fun (…)
Expressed in a conversation held with the author in January 1985.
17 Ibid
Akpabot is the one Nigerian composer who has written almost entirely for the orchestra. His choice of instrumentation is, however, also conditioned by the need to project the features of traditional African instruments, as exemplified in Nigeria in Conflict consisting of those which are typical of Ibibio music. They are the gong, woodblock, rattle, wooden drum and xylophone. In the same vein his favoured use of wind instruments is determined by the fact that they can be more readily used to provide melo-rhythmic fragments, similar to those played by the Uta Horn orchestra (an Ibibio orchestra) consisting of horns made from elephant tusks.15 By combining these two categories of instruments (European wind and Ibibio percussion) in, for example, Ofala and Nigeria in Conflict, Akpabot hoped to achieve an orchestral effect in which ‘African instruments are treated on an equal footing with Western instruments and not as exotic instruments which they are not.’16 In addition, by using melodic and harmonic elements inspired by traditional Nigerian and Highlife idioms and formal schemes akin to African procedures, Akpabot was courting popularity. According to him modern Nigerian composers should not engage themselves in writing works the appreciation of which will be restricted to the educated elite: ‘it is for this reason that I often ignore European standard form, in favour of formal techniques commonly employed in traditional African music.’17

At the end of the civil war in 1970 Akpabot became a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, and the two works written there continued to reflect the nationalist element of the pre-war works. These were Two Nigerian Folk Tunes for choir and piano, (1974) and Jaja of Opobo, a folk opera, sung and spoken in Efik, English and Ibo (1972). Akpabot’s nationalist zeal has, however, been curtailed in his two most recent works: Te Deum Laudamus, (Church anthem, choir and organ, 1975) and Verba Christi, (a cantata for three soloists, chorus and orchestra) commissioned by the Nigerian Broadeasting Corporation for the World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) which took place in Lagos in 1977. The two works brought back echoes of the Church, the foundation of his musical training. The Verba Christi is his largest work to date and is notable for its use of musical materials from diverse European styles ranging from Victorian choral tradition to twentieth century atonality. Despite its strong European leaning, Akpabot’s approach to the use of the tone row, motivic processes and melodic conception in Verba Christi still bears the influences of African music. The adoption of the distinctly European format in his most recent compositions does not indicate a turning point in his composition career; rather, it reflects the varied nature of his artistic temperament, itself a reflection of the diversity of musical resources at his disposal. Now a professor of music at the University of Uyo, Akpabot has continued to write works which have very strong nationalistic characteristics.

Source: Openedition

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