University of Pittsburgh
February 12, 2002

World Premiere of Akin Euba's Orunmila's Voices: Songs from the Beginning of Time Takes Place Feb. 23 in Metairie, La., during the Festival of African and African-American Music

Contact:  412-624-4147

February 13, 2002

Inspired by Mahler, University of Pittsburgh music professor writes work that integrates traditional African and Western languages and musical cultures

PITTSBURGH––When the eminent Nigerian composer and musicologist Akin Euba––Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh since 1995—was growing up in Lagos, southwestern Nigeria, in the late 1930s and 1940s, he spoke both Yoruba, the language and heritage of his family, and English, which he learned from the age of five and was required to speak in the missionary school he attended.

At the same time, Euba studied Western classical piano with his father, a corporate accounting officer who sang in his church choir and played clarinet in a jazz band.

"My father was quite a musician," according to Euba, who says, "I also became a little familiar" with Yoruba music as a child, hearing drumming in the streets of Lagos.

Today, he says, "When I'm speaking with friends and family, I move from Yoruba to English and back all the time," and in composition "I juxtapose Western vocal style and African vocal style." To him, this is totally natural. Because he "grew up with both languages and musics," he is able to create a "merger of the African and the European seamlessly."

This integration of cultures and languages is at play in Euba's newest work, Orunmila's Voices: Songs from the Beginning of Time, which will receive its world premiere performance at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23, during the second annual Festival of African and African-American Music, hosted in the greater New Orleans area by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society in collaboration with Dillard University. Dennis Assaf will conduct the Jefferson Performing Arts Society Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, soloists, and the Dillard University Concert Choir in the Jefferson Performing Arts Center Theatre, 400 Phlox St., just off Clearview Parkway, in Metairie, La. Euba will be present at the performance and give Festival talks on Feb. 21 and 24. For more information on the Festival and a schedule, visit its Web site, www.africanchorus.org/ICMAD/FSM2002.htm. For information on concert tickets, call 504/885-2000.

Euba describes Orunmila's Voices as "a celebration of deep Yoruba culture." A semistaged music drama, it is scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano, baritone, chanters, chorus, dancers, and symphony orchestra and was inspired by Gustav Mahler's 1908 masterpiece Das Lied von der Erde [The Song of the Earth], which was scored for vocal soloists and orchestra and based upon a cycle of six Chinese poems that deal with the themes of death, resignation, leavetaking, and eternity.

Euba's work is based upon the Yoruba's ancient body of poems, known as the Ifa literary corpus. The principal character in Euba's music drama, Orunmila, is the Yoruba god of divination, who is endowed with the knowledge of the past, the present, and the future. Orunmila is linked closely with Esu, the "trickster god of fate." Orunmila is gifted with the knowledge of destiny, while Esu controls destiny.

Orunmila's Voices contains three of the Ifa poems, which relate how Orunmila, with the indispensable assistance of Esu, confronts and vanquishes death. In the first poem, Death's ally—the strongman who makes coffins—attempts to induce the death of Orunmila by placing a coffin at his doorstep. In the second poem, Orunmila provokes Death by seducing his wife. And, in the third poem, Orunmila shoots an arrow and kills Death.

"A reading of the three poems suggests that Orunmila and Esu are highly intelligent divinities, while Death, who wields a club, relies mainly on sheer physical strength and is otherwise very dense," comments Euba. "I have tried to portray these aspects in my settings of the poems."

Euba states that his new work is "an attempt to demonstrate how the Yoruba (and by implication the African) traditional ritual and religious arts can be secularized and given a valid place in modern society."

Although Orunmila's Voices has the vocalists sing at various times in both Yoruba and English, the Ifa poems used in the composition are always sung in the original Yoruba. And instead of combining traditional African instruments with Western instruments, as he has done in his previous works, this time Euba has "excluded African instruments altogether, my aim being to achieve an African identity by 'Africanizing' the standard symphony orchestra." Indeed, the work calls for a Western classical orchestra with an expanded percussion section: five percussionists playing bongos, tom-toms, four kettledrums, bass drum, cymbals, and xylophone.

Euba says that his intent in Orunmila's Voices is "to bridge the gap that typically exists between so-called avant-garde music and average lovers of music." He believes that "modern African composers should avoid alienating their primary audiences (the peoples of Africa and the diaspora) by writing music that does not communicate with them."

The work is written in what Euba calls "the new African style of music, "which means a combination of Western classical and African traditional musics." What he takes from the Western side, in addition to the classical orchestra, are modern techniques of composition, including his adaptation of the concept of pitch sets, in this case using three five-tone (pentatonic) groupings and arranging them in the type of static harmony that he first encountered in Yoruba drumming. In other words, Euba explains, there is harmonic activity but no Western harmonic progression. "It's a form of minimalism," he says. There are aspects of Western form mixed in with African call-and-response patterns and simultaneous variation. But he does employ polyrhythms in a steady meter, "and that's consistent with traditional African music," he adds.

Born in Lagos on April 28, 1935, Akin Euba used to amuse himself on his parents' piano when he was five years old and began his formal lessons with his father at age eight. Three years later, a British colonial officer took him under his wing, teaching him piano for several years and then arranging for a Nigerian government scholarship that allowed Euba to study Western classical music from 1952 to 1957 in London's Trinity College of Music; there he studied piano, composition, music theory, counterpoint, and the history of music. His composition teacher was Arnold Cooke, a disciple of the modern German master Paul Hindemith, with whom Cooke had studied in pre-Hitler Berlin.

When he returned to Africa in 1957, Euba went to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as a producer of music programs. "The most important thing about this is that I was sent to a regional station in rural Ibadan, about 80 miles from Lagos," he recalls. "One of my assignments was to go around the western region and collect traditional music for broadcast on the radio. Here it was, 1957, and this was the first time I had been engaged properly with traditional music.

"The British felt that Western music was the summit; even though they tolerated traditional African music, it wasn't seen by them as being as highly developed as Western music. For people like me, Western music seemed to be the music that one aimed for. Nevertheless, halfway through my education in London, I was beginning to wonder what kind of music was my music. I wanted to know more about my own people's traditional music. Whatever my perception of Western music may have been before, my stay in the United Kingdom opened my eyes: My people's music had to have value, and I wanted to know more about it."

Euba stayed in the western region of Nigeria for 20 months, and then, in 1960, he was transferred to Lagos to become head of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation's entire music section, just after Nigeria became independent of the U.K. Because the scope of his responsibilities was now national, he "made sure that traditional music was collected in other parts of Nigeria."

In 1962, he was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship to study ethnomusicology under the then-preeminent figure in the field, Mantle Hood, at the University of California at Los Angeles [UCLA], where he also studied composition with legendary American composer Roy Harris and Roy Travis, who was soon to win acclaim for his 1966 African Sonata and 1967 Duo concertante, both of which contained elements of traditional African music. With a B.A. degree in music from UCLA in hand, he returned to the radio station in Lagos in 1964, went back to UCLA a year later to earn an M.A. degree in music, and then joined the University of Lagos in 1966 as an assistant lecturer. A year later, the Voice of America commissioned him to produce a musical salute to Nigeria, which was played by the Portland [Maine] Symphony Orchestra with Euba present and broadcast by VOA to Nigeria.

In 1968, Euba moved to the University of Ife, also in southwestern Nigeria, to become a senior research fellow in music, a post he held for nine years. During that period, in 1974, he also earned a Ph.D. degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Ghana. "I didn't have to do any teaching at Ife, just periodic lecturing," Euba recalls, "and this gave me plenty of time to do research and compose. My thoughts on composition were tried out and developed during that period—my use of African ideas in composition, African resources, African traditional instruments, traditional African musicians who don't read music."

Euba became known internationally in 1970 for his introduction of the term "African Pianism" to denote a form that "derives its characteristics from African percussion music such as bell patterns, drumming, xylophone, and Mbira music." He went on to write four books and, from 1986 to 1991, was a research scholar at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, where he helped develop an archive of modern African music. He founded in 1988 and directed until 2001 the Centre for Intercultual Music Arts in London. At Pitt he directs a project titled A Bridge Across: Intercultural Composition, Performance, and Musicology, which offers recitals, workshops and lectures. Over the years, his compositions have been performed in Stockholm, Bayreuth, London, Moscow, New York, and in numerous cities in Africa and Asia. His opera Chaka was performed at the University of Cambridge, England, in November 2000 as a highlight of Churchill College's international Millennium Colloquium, titled The Power of the Word.

During the 2000-2001 academic year, he was an Overseas Fellow of Churchill College, where he organized at Cambridge a three-day international symposium and festival last August titled Composition in Africa and the Diaspora that also involved four other Pitt Department of Music faculty members and two Pitt alumni. Cosponsored by Churchill College, Pitt, and several international music centers and institutes in both the U.S. and U.K., the symposium and festival featured a series of scholarly presentations and concerts representing musicians and musicologists from throughout Africa, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia.

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