As a Kenyan in the world of composition, part of my musical journey has involved discovering other African classical composers that came before me and who have paved the way for the many others after them. Here is a list of five groundbreaking composers who continuously expanded and enriched what it means to be an African composer, having an impact on local and international musical communities, and also shaped the cultural and political conscience of their countries in the process.
1. Ethiopian pianist/violinist, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (b. 1923).
Born to a privileged family in Ethiopia in the early 1900s, Emahoy was sent to boarding school in Switzerland, where she discovered her love of music. Her 1993 return to Ethiopia was short-lived due to the second Italo-Ethiopian war, and she fled to Cairo, Egypt where she studied with Polish violinist, Alexander Kontorowicz. When it was safe to return home, she became the first woman to sing in an Ethiopian Orthodox church, and the first woman to work for the country’s civil service. At the age of 97, she remains a dedicated nun, whose passion for music shaped her life’s journey.
Her famous solo piano album was released under the Éthiopiques collection (Éthiopiques, vol. 21: Emahoy), and it bursts with influences collected over years of travel: from Switzerland, to Cairo and Jerusalem, to the US, and of course, from Ethiopia. Some of my favourite tracks include Homesickness and The Garden of Gethesemanie. You can find out more about Guèbrou on BBC’s radio documentary, the Honky Tonk Nun, by Kate Molleson.
2. Ugandan contemporary composer, Justinian Tamusuza (b. 1951).
Tamasuza’s early training is in traditional Kigandan music, where he learned the endigidi (tube-fiddle), drums, and voice. He went on to study music in Belfast, Ireland, and completed his PhD in Northwestern University, where he was a student of American composer Alan Stout. Tamusuza’s compositional works masterfully explore the translation of Ugandan musical traditions into Western classical spaces. The first movement (Ekitundu Ekisooda) of his first string quartet, Mu Kkubo Ery’Omusaalaba (‘On the Way of the Cross’), appeared on chart-topping Kronos Quartet 1992 album Pieces of Africa, and from thereon, Tamasuza has received commissions from notable classical institutions, including the Chamber Symphony of Princeton and the International Society for Contemporary Music, ICSM.
3. Egyptian composer and oud player, Riad Al Sunbati (1906–1981).
The ninth child (and first son) of a famous oud player, Riad learned to play by listening to his father play, and eventually began performing alongside him at weddings and other formal occasions. Riad went on to teach voice and oud at the Arab Music Institute, but he eventually left to pursue more composition-based work.
By the time of his death in 1981, Al Sunbati was an icon of Egyptian music, having written over 500 works ranging from Egyptian opera to taqsims (a type of improvisation), to vocal and oud works, sometimes paired with piano, strings, accordion, and other Western instruments. His biggest collaborative partner was the Egyptian actress and singer Oum Kalthoum, and one of the pieces he wrote for her, Al-Atlal (The Ruins), is often considered by critics to be “the crown of the Arab song”.
4. Zimbabwe’s ‘Queen of Mbira’, Stella Rambisai Chiweshe (b. 1946).
A list of African classical composers wouldn’t be justified without the ‘Queen of Mbira’, Zimbabwe’s Stella Rambisai Chiweshe. Stella picked up the mbira in her twenties, at a time when women were not allowed to play the instrument, and at a time when the British colonial regime had banned all Zimbabwean cultural practices: playing mbira was punishable by prison. Her connection to music remained fierce regardless, and after Zimbabwe’s independence, Chiweshe went on to become an important figure in the development of Zimbabwean music, releasing multiple albums (her discography spans from 1987 all the way to 2018), touring worldwide, and establishing The Chivanhu Project, a cultural centre near the Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, that is aimed at preserving and teaching the heritage of Zimbabwean mbira music. The living legend is now widely known as ‘Ambuya Chinyakare’ — Grandmother of Traditional Music.
5. Cameroonian electronic composer, Francis Bebey (1929–2001).
Bebey was a guitarist, vocalist, and played several African instruments, particularly the sanza. In his book, African Music: A People’s Art (published in 1969), Bebey mentioned his belief that “it is imperative that the future of African music be based on the development and not merely upon preservation.” As a result, he welcomed and sought to include foreign contemporary influences into African musical traditions: his first few acoustic albums fuse Cameroonian makossa music and European classical influences; and in the 70s, he delved into electronic composition, blending African musical styles and instruments with synthesisers, drum machines and electric keyboards in over 20 albums. Bebey passed away in 2001, a pioneer in African electronic music.
Nigeria’s symphonic composer Fela Sowande, Ghana’s Kwabena Nketia, Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali, Algeria’s El Hadj M’Hamed El Ank, Nigeria’s Akin Euba, Gambia’s Foday Musa Suso, Kenya’s Ayub Ogada, and South Africa’s Abdullah Ibrahim.
The names and pieces featured in this article are only a small representation of the breadth, depth and diversity of the work by African composers. There are millions who have contributed to Africa’s cultural and musical footprint, some who may passed the musical traditions orally, some of whom we might not have existing records of, and many that we’ll come to learn about as time goes on. For me, it’s been an exciting time to observe and absorb all of the new and old sounds from the continent I call home, and to watch our musical creations grow, evolve, and influence the world over.