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