Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora

Sheet Music Review

One of the many positive developments within the piano teaching and performing community in 2020 has been a re-evaluation of the contribution of musicians of African descent to the repertoire.

A primary sourcebook for this music, Oxford University Press published Piano Music of Africa and the Afrian Diaspora in five volumes, compiled and edited by William H. Chapman Nyaho, between 2007-8. Between them, the books offer 60 pieces by 36 separate composers of African descent, organised by difficulty level as follows:

  1. Volume 1: Early Intermediate
  2. Volume 2: Intermediate
  3. Volume 3: Early Advanced
  4. Volume 4: Advanced
  5. Volume 5: Advanced

More than a decade has passed since the publication of these books, and it is odd that so little of this music has made its way onto concert platforms or found regular use in teaching studios, exams, and homes.

Quite why more haven’t picked up this music is a mystery, because anyone with a fair mind and musical imagination will discover as soon as they explore these OUP volumes that the music of these neglected composers is consistently superb.

So let’s explore the series…


Overview

It hardly needs saying of a publication from the consistently superb OUP, but all five books in this series are stunningly presented, with eye-catching covers, outstanding print quality, editing and notation. The latter is generously sized and spaced, ensuring the scores are a joy to play from. Fingering suggestions are included in the first volume but not thereafter.

The first two books begin with a series Foreword written by Dominique-René de Lerma, Chief Advisor to The Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation, who tells us that the series will,

“…serve excellently for music scholars and enthusiasts who are interested in the kind of new aesthetic horizons, harmonic practices, and rhythmic and metric challenges this literature offers. A new world of music is coming into our awareness and in many instances, it is not just new music and viewpoints, but new composers. Alongside the cherished patriarchs are individuals who consciously endow their works with African perspectives and whose music we have never seen in print.”

Across the series, those composers are:

  1. Gamal Abdel-Rahim (Egypt, 1924-1988)
  2. Leslie Adams (USA, b.1932)
  3. Eleanor Alberga (Jamaica, b.1948)
  4. Laurindo Almeida (Brazil, 1917-1995)
  5. Lettie Beckon Alston (USA, b.1953)
  6. Ed Bland (USA, 1926-2013)
  7. Margaret Bonds (USA, 1913-1972)
  8. Valerie Capers (USA, b.1935
  9. Wallace McClain Cheatham (USA, b.1945)
  10. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (UK, 1875-1912)
  11. R. Nathaniel Dett (Canada/USA, 1882-1943)
  12. Halim El-Dabh (Egypt, 1921-2017)
  13. Akin Euba (Nigeria, 1935-2020)
  14. Amadeo Roldán Y Gardes (Cuba, 1900-1939)
  15. Ulysses Kay (USA, 1917-1995)
  16. Robert Mawuena Kwami (Ghana, 1954-2004)
  17. Gyimah Labi (Ghana, b.1050)
  18. Ludovico Lamothe (Haiti, 1882-1953)
  19. J.H. Kwabena Nketia (Ghana, b.1921)
  20. Bongani Ndodana-Breen (South Africa, b.1975)
  21. Nkeiru Okoye (Nigeria, b.1972)
  22. Christian Onyeji (Nigeria, b.1967)
  23. Ali Osman (Sudan, b.1958)
  24. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (USA, 1932-2004)
  25. Alain Pierre Pradel (Guadeloupe, b.1949)
  26. Florence B. Price (USA, 1887-1953)
  27. Isak Roux (South Africa, b.1959)
  28. Oswald Russell (Jamaica, b.1933)
  29. Martin Scherzinger (USA, b.1969)
  30. Hale Smith (USA, 1925-2009)
  31. Howard Swanson (USA, 1907-1978)
  32. Joshua Uzoigwe (Nigeria, 1946-2005)
  33. Bangambula Vindu (Congo, b.1953)
  34. George Walker (USA, 1922-2018)
  35. Andrés Wheatley (Virgin Islands, b.1916)
  36. John W. Work III (USA, 1901-1967)

At the start of each volume, we are treated to composer biographies; regardless of the challenges and injustices each overcame, these biographical sketches remain uniformly positive, highlighting the career successes and contributions to music history that each composer made.

William H. Chapman Nyaho also explains in his Preface,

“This compilation brings to light music that has remained in manuscript form, music that has been out of print, and music by present day composers that is not widely circulated…
I did not include works by well-known composers simply because they are already well in circulation.”

Volumes 1-3 also include instructive Performance Notes at the start of the book, which will undoubtedly be a huge help to any who are new to this music.

Let’s take a look at each volume in turn…

Volume 1

The first volume in the series delivers 15 pieces in progressive order of difficulty, from the opening Kwela No.1 by Isak Roux through to the thrilling Ufie III by Christian Onyeji.


In terms of the UK levels, while the cover bills the collection “Early Intermediate”, the easiest pieces here are around Grade 3-4 level, while the hardest are closer to Grades 6-7.

One of the significant strengths of the collection is the wide variety of musical language within it: from blues to impressionism, and from classical to jazz to African folk influences, the volume offers a multifarious array or colour, texture and appeal.

The jazzy numbers, such as Florence Price’s rollocking cakewalk Ticklin’ Toes and Valerie Capers’ ragtime Sweet Mister Jelly Roll have an easy appeal that will draw many players into the collection. Ulysses Kay’s gentle Tender Thought is an absolute delight.

Meanwhile the more earthy ethic infusions of Nkeiru Okoye’ Dancing Barefoot in the Rain, Bangambula Vindu’s gorgeous Congolese Lullaby and J.H. Kwabena Nketia’s Builsa Work Song venture into sonic and cultural territory that many players are unlikely to previously encountered elsewhere.

Volume 1 of the series certainly sets a high bar, and all interested pianists and teachers owe it to themselves to check out this superb musical treasure trove.

Volume 2

Any concerns that the second volume might not live up to such stellar standards are immediately dispelled by the utterly ravishing Lament in Tremolo Form by the Brazilian composer Laurindo Almeida, which opens Volume 2. In a year in which I have discovered some truly wonderful music, this is without doubt one of the most fabulous highlights.


Ulysses Kay’s predominantly 5/8 Scherzo Invention No.2 follows, another triumph if quite a challenge to play at first!

As the collection progresses, it offers a similar mix of accessibility (the sentimental Honey by Dett, Gardes’ almost cartoonish Prelude Cubano, Pradel’s Pomme Cannelle and Price’s popular Silk Hat and Walking Cane), with more challenging, dissonant, angular music such as the pieces by Euba, Alberga and Cheatham.

The difficulty level cited here is “Intermediate”, which seems to me a more serious underestimation: the collection is clearly within the Grade 6-8 bracket, with most pieces towards the top end of that.

It’s worth noting that Nyaho has recorded an album featuring all the pieces from Volumes 1 and 2. This is an invaluable learning tool for all who wish to explore this music and understand its inflections and interpretation.


Additionally, Nyaho’s albums Asa and Senku include many of the pieces found in the later books of the series.

Volume 3

An instant highlight of the third volume, for many, will be the classic Deep River, the most famous of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s collection of 24 Negro Melodies Op.59 (please could somebody publish a good edition of the whole cycle?).


Preceding this in the book, John W. Work III’s Take Me Back from Appalachia is a highly infectious concoction with overt folk/spiritual roots, and easier to play than some of the later pieces in Volume 2.

But in general however, I would suggest this ‘Early Advanced’ collection is suitable for players from around Grade 7 – first diploma.

The 13 pieces are as varied as ever, other highlights including the inspired pianism of Abdel-Rahim’s Variations on an Egyptian Folksong (a brilliant concert work at diploma level), and Russell’s delicate and ripely melodic Jamaican Dance No.2: what a joyful discovery!

Cheatham’s scarily evocative Didn’t it Rain vividly reminded me of the time I was caught in a monsoon downpour while visiting Ghana to teach a few years ago. Dramatic!

Lamothe’s meringue-tinged La Dangereuse brings a lightness of touch and melodic charm, while Price’s Nimble Feet seems sure to bring the house down!

Volumes 4 and 5

The final two volumes in the series are both described as “Advanced” and I certainly have no argument with that: the 15 pieces spread across these two books are all easily diploma level concert works.


My only question is whether there is a progression between the two books: it seems to me that they comprise a single selection which simply needed the space afforded by two books rather than one.

Highlights abound. In Volume 4, Troubled Water by Margaret Bonds mixes echoes of the spiritual with the pianistic tropes and harmonic colour of Albéniz.

Halim El-Dabh’s Coma Dance is a dazzling showpiece with a touch of middle eastern modality, while Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s Flowers in the Sand is indisputably a masterpiece of impressionistic piano writing.


The fifth and final volume begins with Coleridge-Taylor’s joyous The Bamboula, and later includes the picturesque Township Guitar by Isak Roux, a minimalist composition evolving into an impressive tour-de-force.

But my personal favourite here is H. Leslie Adamns’ Etude in C-sharp minor, a delectably lyrical highlight.

Conclusion

That such a body of truly fabulous piano music has been allowed to languish is without question scandalous, but an injustice which can begin to be righted with the help of this superb series.

My only small criticism of OUP’s otherwise faultless series is that they have rather under-estimated the difficulty of these pieces in their level descriptions. Such a small point aside, these are gorgeously presented books, offering a wonderful introduction and compilation of brilliant gems.

It is heartening to see that Trinity have picked several pieces from the series for their new 2021 syllabus; we must hope that others will now rapidly follow suit and that these books will become standard repertoire selections for performers and educators alike.

With such a superb edition at our disposal, we truly have no excuse to ignore these masterworks any longer.

Volumes 1 and 2 of Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora without doubt belong in the collection of all piano educators, and deserve to be standard, mainstream repertoire collections for intermediate students upwards.

Volume 3, meanwhile, offers a particularly fine compendium of superb piano music for those who are more advanced. And the last two volumes provide some fabulous concert material and encore pieces; I urge concert pianists to investigate them forthwith!

These pieces belong in piano studios, schools, concert halls and exam rooms not simply for the sake of inclusion, but because we value musical honesty: quite simply, this music is an astonishing body of repertoire.


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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

8 thoughts on “Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora”

  1. Thanks for featuring these books Andrew. I found them quite by chance when they were first published. Since then I have both taught some pieces and performed others myself. They are always well received. I highly recommend as a great resource for us all to explore music from composers who are easily overlooked.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. from an intermediate-level pianist: I love the first two volumes — their range in cultures, and their balance of lyricism and angularity, ease and challenges. The recordings have been very helpful as I work on individual pieces. None of the easier pieces ever gets boring, because they need (or summon up in the pianist) alacrity to navigate all the shifts and changes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love these books – I regularly perform pieces from them in October at a Black History Month piano recital in Southwark.
    PS Hope all is well in the world of Dao!

    Liked by 1 person

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