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Photographs by
Ric Evans

One of the world’s preeminent West African composers is among the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. By melding African musical traditions with modern Western music, Akin Euba is crossing musical and cultural boundaries and, in the process, influencing a variety of musical genres.

Musical Safari

Meghan Holohan

Akin Euba

Walking toward an audio system by his office door, Akin Euba selects an album from his record collection. He places it on the turntable. Easing onto a piano bench, he gets ready. A crackle hisses over the speakers before Euba’s piano piece begins. Once Scenes from Traditional Life starts, the crackle disappears. Low tones from a piano reverberate in the room. It’s raw, discordant. The deep tones permeate the air. Building to a crescendo, then suddenly changing course, the music flies, becoming higher, lighter, sounding like running water. Euba has his head cocked toward the speakers. His eyes close slightly. He nods his head as if he is meditating to the beat.

Later, he’ll say how he thinks that there was one misplaced note, but the untrained ear cannot distinguish it. Later, he’ll say that he is happy with Scenes from Traditional Life; he communicated all the thoughts and ideas he had. Later, he’ll say that despite its earthy, disconnected highs and lows, it sounds like a Western piece, though most Western listeners have never heard anything quite like it. Later, he’ll say this piece concerns Africans.

For Akin Euba, the Andrew Mellon Professor of Music, that is the thing that he does. That thing is combining African music with Western music. That thing, while sometimes criticized by the purists—who say there should be no fusion between cultures because it contaminates traditions—is Euba’s way of making Western classical music accessible to African ears and African music accessible to Western ears. That thing is strengthening the University of Pittsburgh music department’s ties to West African music and multiculturalism.

That thing is more than just a thing; it is part of who Euba is. Music is something that he lives with, that crawls around in his head.

Years ago, in the 1980s, a colleague sang a Nigerian folk song about a hare and a water goddess. The sounds wafted in the air—spreading, floating. Akin Euba liked the African folk song. It was reminiscent of his youth in Nigeria. The tune stuck in his head. He’d hear it all the time. Then, he started thinking about it. It would make a good piano melody, he thought, as the song buzzed around in his imagination. Although, he wasn’t ready to write it down yet. It wasn’t quite developed in his mind.

Meanwhile, he was busy working on other music and research. So he’d start writing another piece, but his thoughts would go back to the song about the hare and the goddess that his colleague had sung. Over time, the song in Euba’s head evolved, yet he still didn’t want to write it down. He wanted to let it grow more in his mind. It wasn’t just the song that grew; soon the idea of basing piano pieces on traditional songs grew. Euba now had three compositions in his head; each based on a traditional African tune.

In 1989, Bunmi Anyaoku, the wife of a Nigerian diplomat, asked Euba to perform in a concert at Royal Albert Hall in London. He sat and finally wrote down the three compositions that had been banging around in his head. The program ended up taking a different shape, making Euba’s new compositions unnecessary, but those three works became Wakar Duru: Studies in African Pianism.

The music ends. Euba stands, placing another of his records on the turntable. Once again, the hiss of the beginning of a record fills the room, as Euba eases onto his piano bench to listen. His composition sounds like it could be from the score to a silent-movie comedy; yet, there is an elegance to the work, a sophistication not heard in the scores of the silent film era. Once again, Euba’s head moves with the beat as if he is having a conversation with the music, nodding in agreement.

Sometimes he sits at a desk, perhaps staring at a blank sheet of paper, thinking, wondering what to write first, and then how the next note would sound. While it might be more common to envision a composer sitting at a piano banging out music, Euba composes everything in his mind.

Yet, music wasn’t always stuck in his head. He became a musician with some resistance. As a child in Nigeria, his father—who sang in a choir and played clarinet in a jazz band—believed that it was his son’s destiny to play music. At the age of 5, Euba picked out tunes by himself on the piano, and, when he was 8, his father started giving him formal lessons. Although Euba was at an age where he preferred a different destiny, he sat inside, begrudgingly practicing scales while his friends were outside running after soccer balls. As Euba got older, playing piano wasn’t so torturous, especially when he started winning awards in high school.

As an adolescent, Euba and his father joined the newly formed Lagos Musical Society, where Euba first met Major J.G.C. Allen, a British officer. For three years, Allen gave Euba piano lessons, eventually introducing him to French Consul Tessier du Cros, Euba’s next piano teacher. When Euba graduated from high school, Allen arranged for him to study piano, composition, music theory, counterpoint, and the history of music at the Trinity College of Music in London. This is where Euba learned to compose music in his head. After studying and composing in London, he returned to Nigeria in 1957, working at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as a producer of music programs. In 1962, he won a Rockefeller Fellowship to study ethnomusicology at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

After earning a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Ghana in 1974, and serving in a variety of positions at the Universities of Ife and Lagos in Nigeria, Euba moved to Germany to be a research scholar at the University of Bayreuth. During that time, he also founded the Center for Intercultural Music Arts in London, a center that promotes intercultural exchange in music by staging concerts, workshops, and other activities. While Euba is no longer the director of the center, he still sits on its management council.

"From my vantage point as a colleague, he’s many things," says Deane Root, chair of the Department of Music. "His primary roles are that of creator, scholar, performer, and listener."

Euba is credited with founding three critical theories: African pianism, creative ethnomusicology, and intercultural musicology.

African pianism reflects the concept that while the piano is not an indigenous African instrument, Africans have instruments that employ the same techniques, making the piano an instrument that is easily assimilated into African culture.

Observing students and colleagues helped Euba come up with the second theory, creative ethnomusicology. Many times ethnomusicologists in the field spend all their time recording how, for example, people in a Vietnamese village use instruments. The researcher then goes home and writes a scholarly work on the observations. But Euba has discovered that many researchers also take what they learned and apply it to compositions of their own, creating new music from their field work.

Intercultural musicology, plainly stated, includes the study of different traditional music cultures and, also, the study of music where elements from different cultures are combined.

Root notes that Euba is a leading docent in West African music. Kofi Agawu, a professor of music at Princeton University, agrees. "The work he has done on traditional music is among the most important work that ethnomusicologists have produced. It shows a very subtle and lucid understanding of what traditional performers do. It is insightful on aspects of language."

Agawu adds that Euba also creates conferences to talk about issues in African art music, bringing the attention of the classical music world to African classical music. More and more concert pianists are playing African classical music, in part, because of Euba’s advocacy. Like art, classical music doesn’t change easily. When someone tries something new, as when Jackson Pollock splattered paint on canvas, critics do not immediately embrace the new genre. Rather, it takes time for society to embrace novelty. West African classical music isn’t in a lot of movie scores or on the radio, but as the work of composers like Euba gains more acceptance, the world may soon hear more African art music in its popular culture.

Posters announcing Euba’s conferences hang on his office wall, beside photos of him conducting. In one photo, he stands in front of a platform, where several performers sit with drums in their laps. His arms are raised. Although it is a static photo, it still seems energetic, especially while his music plays.

Euba started the International Symposium and Festival on Composition in Africa and the Diaspora. He did so while he was at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, as an overseas fellow from 2000 to 2001. The festival provides musical scholars throughout the world the chance to consider together the influence of African music.

Anicet Mundundu

At the second Cambridge festival this past summer, Anicet Mundundu plays his drums during one of Euba’s pieces, "Below Rusumo Falls." Mundundu, who teaches African drumming at the University and manages the W.R. Robinson Recording Studio, is accustomed to hearing the deep thud of many drums working together. In this performance, he plays beside a pianist, a flutist, and a musician playing the kayagum (a Korean zither), while a soprano sings. A Yoruba dancer performs as the multicultural musicians and instruments harmonize together. As Mundundu taps his drums with his hands, he realizes how exciting it is to play for Euba.

"He [Euba] has been a strong advocate of interculturalism; he tries to make these bridges," says Mundundu, himself an accomplished musician; he plays drums, keyboards, guitar, saxophone, and accordion. He never thought he’d be a professional musician until all the schools in his native Congo started wooing him to enroll as a music conservatory student. "He [Euba] has a gift of bringing people together," says Mundundu. "He [Euba] has had that urge of presenting African music and art and dance in his compositions. He tries to bring it all together."

Euba has an energy as a composer that Mundundu isn’t used to. It’s creative ethnomusicology at work.

Euba was moved to compose "Below Rusumo Falls "after reading the poem by Olusola Oyeleye, a West African artist and friend. The poem was about the genocide that occurred in Rwanda. From a traditional African viewpoint, this kind of tragedy leads the people to call on the gods and goddesses for mercy, so Euba, in the first part of his piece, incorporated a Yoruba chant, calling on the divinities to stop the massacre; the second part is Oyeleye’s poem, recounting the genocide; the third part is a ritual of pacification and healing. The piece allowed Euba to explore and combine many elements of composition using the medium of music theater, a style he embraces.

Euba had been working with Oyeleye for years; she directed his operas Orunmila’s Voices and Chaka. The composing of Chaka—performed in 1999 at Churchill College’s International Millennium Colloquium—is much like that of his piano pieces in Wakar Duru. He started writing Chaka in the ’70s, after reading a poem a friend gave him about Chaka, a great warrior king of the Zulu people. He worked on it over and over in his head—editing, changing, evolving, until finally committing it to paper. It wasn’t done, though. He’d revise it, then work on another piece. Finally, in 1998, he recorded Chaka.

He composed Orunmila’s Voices during a sabbatical leave in Cambridge. Orunmila’s Voices debuted in New Orleans two years ago. The opera is based on the Ifa literary corpus—a collection of ancient Yoruba poems—and it centers around Orunmila, the god of divination. Once again, this production is an example of how Euba blends the new and the old, the African and the Western. Once again, it is that thing that Euba does.

" ... it drew an ethnically diverse crowd and introduced new sounds to the audience," wrote Keith Marshall, classical music critic of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

With his eyes still closed, Euba continues to listen to the music, still nodding, still silently communicating. Sounds vibrate, bouncing off the walls, until the piece ends. Euba, no longer oblivious to his surroundings, gets up from the bench, shuts off the record player, closes the doors to the audio equipment. It seems the music has stopped, though for Euba that is never the case.

Meghan Holohan is assistant editor of Pitt Magazine.

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