Out of Africa

Michael Church meets Re­beca Omor­dia, a pian­ist on a mis­sion to bring the mu­sic of Nige­rian com­posers to a wider au­di­ence

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

Pian­ist Re­beca Omor­dia tells Michael Church how she is cham­pi­oning the mu­sic of Nige­rian com­posers

‘Ekele’ means ‘greet­ings’ in Igbo, one of Nige­ria’s eth­nic lan­guages, and as such it makes a very apt ti­tle for a new record­ing by the pian­ist Re­beca Omor­dia. Con­sist­ing of piano pieces by con­tem­po­rary or re­cent Nige­rian com­posers, none of the mu­sic on the disc has been recorded be­fore – Ekele wel­comes us, as it were, to a pre­vi­ously undis­cov­ered mu­si­cal world. Fund­ing the project her­self, Omor­dia trawled through a huge amount of ma­te­rial, and the re­sults are both en­gag­ing and re­veal­ing; the first 250 copies sold out quickly, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a sec­ond run. ‘My aim,’ Omor­dia tells me, ‘is to make these com­posers known to the West­ern world. There is much more piano mu­sic where this came from, still un­recorded, and plenty more is be­ing writ­ten.’

Two of the three com­posers on the record­ing trained clas­si­cally in Europe and the US, and their mu­sic re­flects this back­ground, but all have drawn heav­ily on African mu­si­cal tra­di­tion. It’s of­ten as­sumed that African mu­sic can’t be com­pared to Euro­pean clas­si­cal mu­sic be­cause it’s not no­tated and isn’t sup­ported by the­ory, but there is a the­o­ret­i­cal sys­tem which is based on per­for­mance.

And as these works by Ayo Bankole (1935-76), Fred Onovwero­suoke

(b.1960) and Chris­tian Onyeji (b.1950) demon­strate, that per­for­mance is above all a mat­ter of rhythm, as gov­erned by drums. Lis­ten­ing to this mu­sic’s polyrhythms, one is put vividly in mind of Bartók: the same trip­pingly ir­reg­u­lar rhythms, the same de­light in its com­plex­ity of pulse, the same roots in dance.

The other salient as­pect of Ekele lies in its re­flec­tion of vil­lage life, cus­toms and reli­gion. The scheme of Bankole’s ‘Pas­sion’ piano sonata may be overtly Chris­tian, but the sec­ond theme of its first move­ment is a Yoruba melody. His short pieces The blind mice and Which bird is this? have a play­ground charm, as do Onyeji’s Echoes of tra­di­tional life. Bankole was mur­dered in his prime; the other two com­posers are now re­search­ing tra­di­tional mu­sic in many parts of the con­ti­nent.

Omor­dia her­self has an un­ex­pected back-story. Born in 1983 in the Ro­ma­nian city of Craiova, she has a Ro­ma­nian mother and a Nige­rian fa­ther. Mixed-race mar­riages were for­bid­den by dic­ta­tor Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu’s regime, and Re­beca and her el­der sis­ter were the only mixe­drace chil­dren in their school. One evening when Re­beca was six, the fam­ily were sud­denly sum­moned to the po­lice sta­tion where her par­ents had to sign on each week to prove they weren’t ab­scond­ing, and they were all told to leave the coun­try at once.

Bound for Greece, they had to sleep at a rail­way sta­tion in Yu­goslavia, and there Re­beca saw a woman play­ing the vi­olin. ‘She looked home­less,’ she re­calls, ‘and she was play­ing folk mu­sic. I was very up­set at hav­ing left my world and be­ing in an un­known place, and that mu­sic brought me re­lief.’ In fact it proved a life-chang­ing mo­ment. Re­beca’s mother had bought a piano which her sis­ter, who had started

tak­ing lessons, was al­lowed to play, but Re­beca her­self was not al­lowed to touch it – ‘it was a for­bid­den plea­sure which I had to steal in se­cret’. Her en­counter with that vi­o­lin­ist made some­thing click: mu­sic, she de­cided, would be her life.

Omor­dia tells her story with amused de­tach­ment, as though it had all hap­pened to some­one else. ‘We were even­tu­ally al­lowed back into Craiova, and I de­cided I wanted to go to a mu­sic school which had just been set up on the model of the Gnessin school in Moscow. My par­ents were hor­ri­fied – my fa­ther is a pae­di­a­tri­cian, and he wanted me to do some­thing sci­en­tific which would lead to a proper ca­reer. I was only seven, but I was a naughty and hy­per­ac­tive child, and my par­ents had al­ready learned that once I was de­ter­mined to do some­thing, it was very dif­fi­cult to con­vince me oth­er­wise.’ Hav­ing fi­nally man­aged to get ad­mit­ted to the school, she next had to find a piano teacher pre­pared to take her on: ‘I hadn’t passed any ex­ams – I had just ap­peared from nowhere. I was a mys­tery child.’ She fi­nally found one, and also started tak­ing pri­vate lessons with a lo­cal teacher who had stud­ied with Ro­ma­nian piano leg­end Dinu Li­patti.

De­spite her par­ents’ op­po­si­tion, she was en­tered for a com­pe­ti­tion, play­ing a Beethoven bagatelle and some Ro­ma­nian com­po­si­tions; she came sec­ond, and was tele­vised. ‘I was just seven, and a lit­tle star. From then on I was reg­u­larly en­tered for com­pe­ti­tions, and reg­u­larly won prizes. I never had nerves, once I’d put my foot on the stage.’ Her big break came when she won the Lira de Aur na­tional com­pe­ti­tion at 12, with Chopin’s Im­promptu No. 1, Haydn’s F mi­nor Vari­a­tions and Liszt’s Pa­ganini Etude in E ma­jor. Four years later she won the Ro­ma­nian Olympics com­pe­ti­tion. Stud­ies in Bucharest and Birm­ing­ham, fur­ther com­pe­ti­tion wins and an ex­ten­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion with cel­list Ju­lian Lloyd Web­ber fol­lowed, as did a fas­ci­na­tion with 20th-cen­tury Bri­tish com­posers – Omor­dia has recorded a two-piano Vaughan Wil­liams al­bum with Mark Beb­bing­ton and is cur­rently writ­ing a doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion on the mu­sic of John Ire­land.

But for now, much of her fo­cus is on the Nige­rian piano mu­sic fea­tured on

Ekele, which she is in­clud­ing in her recitals. Mean­while, she is also work­ing with the black and mi­nor­i­tyeth­nic orches­tra Chineke! with whom she re­cently per­formed Sa­muel Co­leridge-tay­lor’s lit­tle­known Nonet in

F mi­nor. Her next recital project, mean­while, will re­flect her mu­si­cal jour­ney from the Balkans via Britain to Africa, where the au­di­ence for clas­si­cal mu­sic is now grow­ing.

I ask if she would like to demon­strate some­thing on the piano, but she de­clines. ‘It would give a bet­ter im­pres­sion if you came to a con­cert be­cause I am a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son on stage.

The most im­por­tant mo­ment for me is in the green room be­fore­hand. I’m not re­li­gious, but I have a strong faith. And I be­lieve the mo­ment be­fore go­ing on stage is the mo­ment when you con­nect with your­self and with your cre­ator. That’s where every­thing makes sense, and your per­for­mance be­comes the re­sult of who you re­ally are.’

Ekele: Piano Mu­sic by African Com­posers is out now on the Her­itage la­bel (HTGCD 188)

‘I hadn’t passed any ex­ams – I had just ap­peared from nowhere’

Notes from Nige­ria: pian­ist Re­beca Omor­dia; (be­low) with com­poser Fred Onovwero­suoke

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