Akin Euba: African Art Music, Intercultural Composition and Creative Ethnomusicology

Björn Heile

The Nigerian composer Akin Euba (28 April 1935 – 14 April 2020) described his mission as the creation of an ‘African Art Music’. This, he explained, would be ‘a form of music [that is] universal to all Africa [… and that]  in order to be truly African must use the stylistic and instrumental materials of African music or, at least, a preponderance of them’. <1> As this suggests, his life and work exemplify the tensions of postcolonial Africa: between tradition and modernity, African heritage and European training, and a colonial past and an independent but uncertain future. While it is a matter of debate whether he ever fully managed to reconcile these conflicts and contradictions, his proposed solutions proved influential among a younger generation of composers.

Born in Lagos, he studied Composition at Trinity College London with Arnold Cooke and Eric Taylor (1952–7) before embarking on a Master’s in Ethnomusicology at UCLA in the 1960s. Although, Euba was surrounded by traditional music in his youth, it is one of the ironies of the postcolonial situation that he had to travel to California to formally study the music of his own country. His education and training up to that point were entirely in European classical music, and it was only during his studies in London that his consciousness of himself as an African composer began to emerge. He concluded his education with a PhD on Dundun Music of the Yoruba, under the supervision of Kwabena Nketia, the leading authority on African music and a fellow composer (PhD 1974).

            Euba had a varied career, teaching at the Universities of Lagos and Ife and working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, before moving to Bayreuth (Germany) to work at the Institute of African Studies (1985-91). He eventually succeeded his teacher Nketia as Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh (1993-2011). In addition, he set up the Centre for Intercultural Music Arts, London and the Centre for Intercultural Musicology at Churchill College, Cambridge.

            As a composer, he pursued the idea of ‘intercultural music’, by fusing Western modernist techniques, including serialism, with African (especially Yoruba) music, that reflected his own ethnic background. One may see a contradiction between his earlier African nationalism and his later interculturalism. However, there is a connection to the model of cosmopolitanism as a series of concentric circles originally proposed by the Stoics.<2> In a similar way, Euba’s Yoruba heritage formed the innermost circle, Pan-Africanism (which he regarded as separate) the next, and so forth, up to the outermost, intercultural or ‘global’ circle. His model for combining African traditions with European techniques lay in the work of Béla Bartók, who also inspired his notion of ‘creative ethnomusicology’,the employment of ethnomusicological research for composition. This is also something he shared with his teacher Nketia.

            Unfortunately, little of Euba’s oeuvre is available as a score or in recording, never mind both. The culmination of Euba’s oeuvre is arguably his opera Chaka (1970, rev. 1995-98), a setting of the play by the great writer and first President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), on the eponymous King of the Zulus. However, I want to focus instead on his contemporaneous piano cycle Scenes from Traditional Life (1970) (Verlag Neue Musik, Berlin, NM 689; recording from African Music Publishers).<3> Although he later learned the dundun drum, the piano was Euba’s first instrument; he is perhaps best known as the ‘father of African pianism’, a concept that encapsulates his approach to both African art music and intercultural composition. He explained the principles himself:

The piano, being partially a percussive instrument, possesses latent African characteristics. Techniques in the performance of xylophones, thumb pianos, plucked lutes, drum chimes, for which Africans are noted, and the polyrhythmic methods of African instrumental music in general would form a good basis for an African pianistic style.

As characteristic elements of African pianism, he lists:

Thematic repetition, direct borrowings of thematic material (rhythmic and/or tonal) from African traditional sources, the use of rhythmic and/or tonal motifs which, although not borrowed from specific traditional sources, are based on traditional idioms and percussive treatment of the piano.<4>

            Scenes from Traditional Life exemplifies these ideas. As the preface to the score indicates, the title refers to Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. This does not fully explain ‘traditional life’, and the composer has suggested that ‘the connection between title and work is nebulous’.<5> What is striking at first glance is the predominance of two-part writing: both hands are used melodically, typically independently of one another; chords are relatively rare and appear as percussive effects more than harmonic events. Indeed, along the lines of Euba’s own comments, many of the textures are more reminiscent of an ensemble of two xylophones or two mbiras (played by one or two players) than Western classical piano music. That said, if there is a precedent for the pianistic textures and playing techniques employed in Scenes in the repertoire, it is in the work of Bartók, such as the cycle Out of Doors.

There are three pieces in this cycle, all in a kind of ternary form. The most notable common structural feature is cell construction. These cells consist of short, rhythmic-melodic phrases in one hand, which are repeated and varied like ostinatos, and combined with other cells in the other hand. The pieces differ in character, particularly in terms of rhythmic-metric construction. Uzoigwe has identified the rhythmic pattern underpinning the first piece (ex. 1) as a variant of the Yoruba version of the West-African timeline pattern (a rhythmic organisation in which seven impulses, normally quavers or crotchets, are distributed over a 12/8 cycle).<6> The second is a study in shifting additive metres: it starts in 17/8 (sub-divided into 4+6+4+3) with an irresistibly dancing lilt, and takes on 13/8, 14/8 and 10/8, all in changing sub-divisions (except the 17/8 which remains largely invariant); and on some occasions, different polyrhythmic sub-divisions occur simultaneously in the two hands (ex. 2). The third and final piece features syncopation on various metric levels (ex.3). According to Uzoigwe, it is based on a further syncopated version of a rhythmic pattern characteristic of Highlife—a form of popular music common in West Africa (and at the root of more recent developments such as Afrobeat)—which is itself derived from the Timeline mentioned earlier.<7> In a sense, then,  the work is about ‘African rhythm’, but whereas, as Kofi Agawu has pointed out, this term is often used generically and vaguely,<8> Euba explores three distinct rhythmic-metric techniques that all have very specific origins.

Ex. 1: Akin Euba, Scenes from Traditional Life, No. 1, bars 1-9.

Ex. 2: Akin Euba, Scenes from Traditional Life, No. 2, bars 1-6.

Ex. 3: Akin Euba, Scenes from Traditional Life, No. 3, bars 1-12.

Omojola and Uzoigwe briefly point out Euba’s use of twelve-tone technique in the work, both claiming that the series rarely appears ‘intact’.<9> In fact, Euba’s use of the technique is not as free as they make it seem. The key is that he freely repeats all pitch classes from the series that have already been sounded, which is not uncommon among serial composers. Another specific technique is that he splits the series into tetrachords, and that within each tetrachord, the order of pitch classes may vary. Once one is aware of these peculiarities, it becomes easier to identify the serial structures underpinning the work, although it is fair to say that dodecaphony is used primarily for melodic invention; not for overall structural coherence. The music examples show a complete unfolding of each piece’s basic series – given the free repetition of already sounded notes, this can take a little while!

It might be tempting to sum up Euba’s work in the formula ‘African rhythm with European pitch structure’, but it is more subtle than that. For instance, by composing for piano and employing staff notation, Euba already departs from traditional practice, and his rhythmic-metric manipulations go well beyond the original material, even if that remains recognisable. Conversely, Uzoigwe has argued that Euba’s twelve-note rows show a preponderance of the intervals used in the dundun drum music of the Yoruba, namely minor and major thirds and perfect fourths and fifths, whereas minor seconds and tritones, which are rare in dundun music, are generally avoided.<10> In this way, the dodecaphonic structure is suffused with a West-African sensitivity.

In works like Scenes from Traditional Life, we can see Euba’s vision of African art music taking shape. Euba goes beyond the notion of a ‘fusion’ between African and European elements, since both intersect in complex ways that can no longer be disentangled. The result is music that is as distinctively African as it is modernist.

<1> Quoted from Joshua Uzoigwe, Akin Euba: An Introduction to the Life and Music of a Nigerian Composer, Bayreuth African Studies Series 25 (Bayreuth, Germany: E. Breitinger, Bayreuth University, 1992), 71.

<2> For the Stoic notion of concentric circles, see Martha C. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997); cf. also Marilyn Fischer, ‘A Pragmatist Cosmopolitan Moment: Reconfiguring Nussbaum’s Cosmopolitan Concentric Circles’, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 21, no. 3 (2007): 151–65.

<3> I would like to thank Jennifer Lynne LaRue for the information about the recording. There is also an excellent lecture recital on the work of Nketia and Euba by Eric Moe, on YouTube.

<4> Quoted from Bode Omojola, ‘African Pianism as an Intercultural Compositional Framework: A Study of the Piano Works of Akin Euba’, Research in African Literatures 32, no. 2 (2001): 157.

<5> Uzoigwe, Akin Euba, 64.

<6> Uzoigwe, Akin Euba, 68–69.

<7> Uzoigwe, 69.

<8> Kofi Agawu, ‘The Invention of “African Rhythm”’, Journal of the American Musicological Society 48, no. 3 (1995): 380–95, https://doi.org/10.2307/3519832.

<9> Uzoigwe, Akin Euba, 65; Omojola, ‘4. African Pianism’, para. 5.

<10> Uzoigwe, Akin Euba, 65.

Björn Heile is Professor of Music (post-1900) at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of The Music of Mauricio Kagel (2006), the editor of The Modernist Legacy: Essays on New Music (2009), (2009), co-editor (with Peter Elsdon and Jenny Doctor) of Watching Jazz: Encountering Jazz Performance on Screen (2016), co-editor (with Eva Moreda Rodríguez and Jane Stanley) of Higher Education in Music in the Twenty-first Century and co-editor (with Charles Wilson) of The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music. He specializes in new music, experimental music theatre and jazz, with particular interests in embodied cognition, global modernism and cosmopolitanism.

He is Principle Investigator of the research network ‘Towards a Somatic Music: Experimental Music Theatre and Theories of Embodied Cognition’ and is currently writing a book with the working title A Global History of Musical Modernism for Cambridge University Press. This blog originates from research carried out for that book.