July 23, 2024

Black Entrepreneur History

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Fela Sowande – Pioneer of Modern African Classical Music in Nigeria

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History there lived a Nigerian man named Chief Olufela Obafunmilayo “Fela” Sowande who was a Nigerian musician and composer and known as the father of modern Nigerian art music.

Sowande was born on May 29, 1905 in Abeokuta near Lagos in Nigeria, and was son of a priest, Emmanuel Sowande. His father, alongside Dr. T.K Ekundayo Philip, an organist and composer of church music, was a big influence on Sowande’s early music education.


Against his musical background, Sowande achieved a scholarship to attend London’s royal society of organist. Therefore, he relocated to London, UK in 1934 to study music after changing his mind about civil engineering.

He eventually began playing the organ in some recordings by Adelaide Hall and Dame Vera Lynn. Sowande’s gift for music landed him several prizes, and he also obtained a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of London while becoming a fellow of Trinity College of music, and as a fellow of the Royal College of Organist, he was a triple prize winner.

Being a highly prolific composer, Sowanda produced in a variety of genres such as organ, choral, solo and orchestral works. He was also an author of four books between 1964 and 1975 titled:

  • The Mind of a Nation
  • Ifa
  • Come Now Nigeria
  • The Africanization of Black Studies

His career as a composer reached a high point when in 1944 he conducted the BBC symphony orchestra in a premier performance of his work ‘Africana’.


Sowande returned to Nigeria to scholarly work with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as the musical director in 1953. In 1956 Sowande was made a member of British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his work in the Nigeria Broadcasting Service.

He later moved to the University of Ibadan, Nigeria as a research fellow from 1965 to 1968.

It was in the year of 1968 that Fela Sowande moved to the United States which was where he took an academic position at Howard University. He remained at Howard University for four years before going to the University of Pittsburgh. Sowande turned his skills toward education and played an important role in the emergence of black studies program at several universities in the United States.


In the later years prior to his death, Sowande taught at Ohio’s Kent University in the department of Pan-African Studies, living out the rest of his life his wife Eleanor McKinney, a co-founder of Pacifica radio.

He died in 1987 in Ravenna and is buried in Randolph Township, Ohio. Sowande also held the title “Bagbile of Lagos” in recognition of his research into Yoruba folk-lore (1968).

This article was written by BEH Contributor Emmanuel Chike Nnama of Lagos, Nigeria.