Friday, February 5, 2021

Seeking Truth as a Rule

Photograph of Fela Sowande at a pianoWhile preparing for a class this last week on the History of Africa from 1800 to the present day, we explored a small collection that immediately drew us in. The collection consists of the papers of Fela Sowande MBE, a Nigerian musician and composer, who was born in Nigeria in 1905. After receiving an initial education in Lagos, Nigeria, he traveled to London in 1934 to study European classical and popular music.

Over the next several decades, Sowande would accumulate an impressive resume of musical performance and accomplishment: In 1936, Sowande was solo pianist in a performance of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." He also played as duo-pianist with Fats Waller, and was theatre organist for the BBC, as well as organist and Choirmaster at Kingsway Hall, London. Later, he studied organ privately under Edmund Rubbra, George Oldroyd, and George Cunningham and became a fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1943.

Sowande also won several prizes, obtained a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of London, and became a fellow of Trinity College of Music. During World War II, he worked as musical advisor for the Colonial Film Unit of the Ministry of Information, providing background music for educational films. From 1945-1952, Sowande was an organist and choirmaster at the West London Mission of the Methodist Church. Sowande's orchestral works include "Six Sketches for Full Orchestra," "A Folk Symphony," and "African Suite for string orchestra"; these all display clear characteristics of African rhythms and harmonies.

The single photocopied sheet of "Standard Rules for the Student."Later in life, Sowande moved to the United States, where he taught in the Department of Pan-American Studies at Kent State University. One of my favorite documents from the collection is his "Standard Rules for the Student," which he presumably distributed at the start of his college courses. He first drew it up at Howard College in 1969 and then eventually "restructured" it during a visit to Dartmouth College in the summer of 1975. One of his rules seems especially relevant to our current climate: "Seek TRUTH and pursue it, to the extent of remaking your own mind no matter the cost, should it become necessary." To explore the Fela Sowande Papers, ask to see MS-78.