British Music Collection composer Edewede Oriwoh is an African composer from Edo state, Nigeria, who now works in Britain. Here she looks into the lack of accurate representation of African composers, and the history of African composition, across the internet.
A few years ago, I came across the page below on the Quora website.
In response to the question, several users provided the names of composers from different parts of the world. One of the responses to the question halted me mid-scroll:
At the time I appreciated - and still appreciate - the “mention” by the person who posted this response. I observe however that, as far as I know, I have not actually composed a symphony.
This particular response on Quora, though present, was a rather hidden one (see How does the ranking of answers on Quora work?). The more visible, top-ranked results did not contain the names of African composers. I wondered why this was the case. As an African, who personally knows some African composers and who is aware that there are institutions across Africa that regularly graduate composers, this absence caught my attention.
Yes, the majority of the responses addressed the question that was asked by providing the names of several black composers, but, I wondered where the information about Africa’s composers was?
A bigger hole?
Intermittently, over several months, I conducted web searches* for African composers of symphonies and, with increasing concern and perturbation from the results returned, searches for “African composers” more generally.
The top-ranked web search results were bewildering and, even when I looked at the lower-ranked results, something completely unexpected became clear: there is a significant gap in sources of reliable, unfiltered and up-to-date information online about “African composers” of all kinds of works i.e. choral, orchestral, opera, etc. Indeed, in some instances the top-ranked search results for “African composers” make it appear that African composers did not exist at all - or that there are only a very small number of African composers worth “knowing” anything about.
Several online resources, although well-meaning and earnest, present dated or limited viewpoints and are either under-representing or mis-representing African composers. Several write-ups use labels along the lines of the top, the best, the most important, the ones to watch, the ones to listen to, etc. But perspectives and lived experiences matter. Where were the cohesive resources which recognise the full breadth of African composers, from those who have passed away to the significant and active body of the composers of today?
As part of a small information-gathering exercise for this article, I conducted a quick online survey. The survey respondents were invited through Facebook contacts, public WhatsApp choral groups and other online forums randomly selected with the only criterion being that these forums had something to do with African music. The target respondents were composers, choristers, instrumentalists/musicians, choral directors/conductors and singers/performers from Africa. The survey was kept open for just over 11 hours. The goal was to get a quick snapshot of responses to the following:
“Please fill in the names of your two (2) favourite African composers. Names of composers of all genres and types of works are welcome e.g. choral, instrumental, etc. They can also be living composers or composers who have passed away. Please spell their names clearly. *We want to know what YOU as an African consider to be important so, please do NOT fill in names that you HEARD/READ about but those whose works YOU actually like. Thank you.”
The results below were acquired from the 25 people who responded:
Interestingly, the breadth of responses shown here go far beyond the articles online that promote certain composers from Africa - or “black” composers – as the ones to know, to watch out for, etc.
Therefore, alongside the composers that do have significant representation online, there is an essential need for resources that fully represent the African compositional landscape, allowing results of online searches for “African composers” to present a fuller representation of what is available.
A Global Solution?
These and other observations led to the creation of the African composers website, the African composers Facebook page and the African composers online database. These resources (which are not comprehensive by any stretch) do not present African composers after they have been filtered through the criteria for composers from other continents – but rather present them in their own, independent light as who they are: the creators of the body of work that makes up and will continue to contribute to the history of African musical compositions. The resources do not view their music as being a subset and/or needing to meet the requirements of any other society but as varied, authoritative creations of African composers. By recognising the unfortunate historical promotion of “preferred” voices or the voices that are conveniently reachable e.g. due to physical proximity and shunning this approach, these newly created resources take an unfiltered approach to address this lack of information.
Edewede Oriwoh enjoys music. She is an African composer from Edo state, Nigeria, working in Britain – read more about her in her British Music Collection profile here, and listen to a track below:
If you’d like to support Sound and Music’s work to champion new music and the work of all British composers and creators you can do so here.
*I highlight here the caveat that online search results can be influenced by, among other factors, the (declared) location of the person conducting the search.