Rebeca Omordia’s “African Pianism”

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Discovering new repertoire, personalities and sound worlds has long been a particular goal when selecting the Pianodao Recording of the Month, and for March 2022, I am excited to be writing about a new album that ticks all three boxes.

African Pianism is a revelatory collection of music by seven African composers, none of whom I was previously familiar with. Released to coincide with Black History Month in the United States, the album marks the solo debut of Nigerian-Romanian pianist Rebeca Omordia on the SOMM label.

There’s certainly nothing predictable or conservative about this release, so let’s take the disc for a spin…

Discovering African Pianism

“African Pianism refers to a style of piano music which derives its characteristic idiom from the procedures of African percussion music as exemplified in bell patterns, drumming, xylophone and mbira music. It may use simple or extended rhythmic motifs or the lyricism of traditional songs and even those of African popular music as the basis of its rhythmic phrases. It is open ended as far as the use of tonal materials is concerned except that it may draw on the modal and cadential characteristics of traditional music.”

So writes Ghanaian composer Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia (1921-2019) in the introduction to his collection African Pianism: Twelve Pedagogical Pieces, four of which are included in Omordia’s recording. Though speaking principally of his own work, Kwabena Nketia’s words loom larger over all Omordia’s selections, as indeed they perhaps do over the piano music of the African continent.

Here is the complete track listing for Omordia’s album:

Ayo Bankole (1935-1976)
Egun Variations in G major

J.H. Kwabena Nketia (1921-2019)
African Pianism — Twelve Pedagogical Pieces:
• Play Time
• Dagarti Work Song
• Builsa Work Song
• Volta Fantasy

Christian Onyeji (b.1967)
Ufie (Igbo Dance):
I. Moderately fast
II. Slow
III. Fast

Fred Onovwerosuoke (b.1960)
Five Kaleidoscopes for Piano:
I. With vigor
II. Adagio molto parlando
III Larghetto espressivo
IV. Lentissimo e languendo
V. Vivace con brio

David Earl (b.1951)
Scenes from a South African Childhood:
II. Princess Rainbow

Nabil Benabdeljalil (b.1972)
Nocturne IV
• Nocturne V
• Nocturne VI
• En attente du printemps

Akin Euba (1935-2020)
Three Yoruba Songs Without Words:
I. Ore Meta (Three Years)
II. Mo Ja’we Gbegbe (I pluck the leaf of remembrance)
III. L’ori Oke ati petele (On the hill, on the plain)

The colours, rhythmic and modal inflections of the African continent seem to infuse the music of all seven composers here, and yet each has a very distinct personal style, range of influence, and unique musical language.

Rebeca Omordia has written,

“Africa is home to more than 3000 ethnic groups, each with their own language, culture and music. Music is part of people’s everyday lives, existing at the heart’s core of the African nations’ beliefs, customs and traditions. Highly lyrical melodies using complex rhythms accompanied by traditional instruments are closely linked to rituals – weddings, funerals and social and cultural events – expressing people’s joys, sorrows and celebrations. When African composers began to incorporate traditional melodies and rhythms characteristic to their own ethnic groups, it produced music that synthesizes – and celebrates – the cultural diversity of the vast African continent.”

It is hardly a surprise to discover that her selection for this recording showcases an astonishing range and quality of original piano music.

Seven Composers…

Nigerian composer Ayo Bankole was a leading figure in modern African art music whose life was cut tragically short when he (together with his wife) was murdered aged just 41. His Egon Variations are based on the soulful song Tona Nowe, a theme they beautifully develop with consummate compositional flair and pianistic understanding.

The four pieces from Kwabena Nketia’s set follow, in which the strains of African song can perhaps be heard more readily than the rhythmic drumming patterns found elsewhere in this recital, and notably in Christian Onyeji’s three movement Ufie (Igbo Dance) which follows. Here the mood is festive, Omordia’s pianistic vivacity also fully on display.

Fred Onovwerosuoke was born in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana’s second city (and one which I have personally visited as a teacher), and has emerged as one of the leading figures in contemporary African art music.

The Five Kaleidoscopes for Piano were composed in 2013 and commissioned by Omordia, who gives the world premiere recording here. These pieces have a tremendous depth of expression, modernistic in tone, exploratory in their approach to the sonorities and creative potential offered by the instrument.

Commenting on Omordia’s overall representation of African music on this recording, Robert Matthew-Walker notes in his detailed and informative CD booklet essay,

“Nor should we assume that all the composers in her recital are black: music by the white South African David Earl has as much validity as music by coloured Africans. It is not a racial issue, but one of artistic merit.”

Earl’s Princess Rainbow is notably more romantic in tone than the music which precedes it. A delicious concert piece, it evokes the composer’s memories of fishing with his father, whose stories about a trout called Princess Rainbow clearly captivated the young boy.

The Moroccan musician Nabil Benabdeljalil is the youngest represented here, and the most significant composer to emerge from his homeland to date. While his own comments about his Nocturnes pay homage to the influence of Chopin, Benabdeljalil’s modal writing is infused with the exoticism of Middle Eastern scales and musical gestures, picking up perhaps where Gurdjieff and de Hartmann left off, and reminding me of the creations of Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan at his most inspired.

For his En attente du printemps and Nigerian composer Akin Euba’s Yoruba Songs without Words, Omordia is joined by percussionist Abdelkader Saadoun, and we return to the joyous outpouring of festive African rhythm that has been a leitmotif of this superb programme.

…one recording

Described in the press as “a classical music game changer”, London-based pianist Rebeca Omordia was born in Romania to a Romanian mother and a Nigerian father. Since studying at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Trinity College of Music in London, Omordia has carved out a growing reputation as an ambassador for African classical music.

On the basis of this recording, my first encounter with her, I think it safe to say that she is a major talent in pursuit of a hugely important cause.

photography: Fourchiefs Media

Omordia’s pianism probes the personalities and fully captures the shifting temperaments of each composer, revelling in virtuosity one moment, painting impressionist effects and weaving lyrical melodic patterns the next, her playing always informed by rhythmic vim and emotional vigour.

Omordia’s performances (on a Steinway ‘D’ Concert Grand) are brilliantly captured at the Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon by engineers Adaq Khan and Paul Arden-Taylor, the album produced by Siva Oke.

Closing Thoughts…

With African Pianism, Rebeca Omordia has delivered what is sure to be one of the most mesmerising, invigorating and frankly marvellous piano records of 2022.

That the music on this outstanding album isn’t already better known seems to me a perplexing injustice. Confronted with the testimony of so abundant a stream of piano music, saturated with artistic credibility and emotional power, it becomes clear that all of us as pianists, publishers, promoters and pundits need, simply, to do better.

Kudos to Omordia for so eloquently bringing this truly great music to a wider audience; she is the most gracious but compelling of advocates, and we must hope her stellar efforts turn the tide.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.

7 thoughts on “Rebeca Omordia’s “African Pianism””

  1. Apologies for mis-identifying the record company in my earlier comment. It was provided to YouTube by Naxos of America.

  2. Just caught the tail end of one of the Nabil Benabdeljalil Nocturnes on Radio 3 (chosen by Julian Lloyd Webber), and was very taken by it. I’d like to buy the sheet music, but can’t find it anywhere. Do you know who publishes it?

    1. To answer my own question, the Nabil Benabdeljalil pieces are unpublished, but can be bought from the composer (with the kind help of Rebeca Omordia). Just send a message to Nabil on Facebook.

      1. Thanks Simon – glad you managed to get to the bottom of this. They are wonderful pieces, but I couldn’t find them in the likely collections I have…

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