Chief Fela Sowande, traditional African culture and the Black Studies Movement: a student remembers.

Author:Okantah, Mwatabu S.

African-Americans must ensure each new generation the existence of a sound knowledge base that informs and elucidates the history and experiences of black people.... This is the continuing role of Black Studies programs as they struggle to exist in an era of advanced technology, with rapidly changing social patterns and limited resources. The promise of Black Studies ... lies in the ability to provide the foundation that supports and enriches; to nourish the vision and motivation of present and future generations; and to reaffirm the continuity between past, present and future. (1)


In a very real sense, this paper is my way to say "thank you," and to acknowledge, in a formal way, my own understanding of the teachings of Nigerian musician and philosopher Chief Fela Sowande; a mentor whose work has been a major influence, not only on my development as an artist and an educator, but also as a human being. Chief Sowande's teachings allow me to appreciate the comments of Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young quoted above, which, in light of the crucial theme of the 2007 SIRAS conference, "Links and Relationships: Africans and the African Americans in the 21st Century," express timely points of view.

As a faculty member teaching in a Department of Pan-African Studies, I am confronted by the challenge of making "Black Studies" relevant in a rapidly changing 21st century. I often find myself frustrated and depressed at each day's end as I am forced to accept the fact that too many students do not know how to process the information we impart to them in our classes. Our students come to us with virtually no knowledge or sense of their history and heritage as Americans of African descent; that there might be "links and relationships" between Africans and African-Americans in the 21st century is not a thought on their personal radar screens.

In this paper, I will discuss the teachings and perceptions of Chief Sowande in an effort to assess his recommended approach to teaching Black or Africana Studies; an approach many now call "Afrocentric" or "African Centered." Individual Black Studies units, be they degree granting departments or academic programs, must necessarily provide curriculum offerings designed to help faculty, staff, students and community stakeholders move from genuine African centered theory to practice.

Sowande presented the global African community with a viable blueprint for action that offers a healthy cultural vision both Africans in Africa and peoples of African descent living in the Diaspora can embrace. Given the legacy of colonialism in Africa and racial discrimination in the US, Sowande's work is also instructive because we are now living in an era when "being or thinking African" is no longer solely a function of one's origin of birth. My travels in West Africa--through Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal--have made it abundantly clear that many Africans in Africa, today, are in need of a fundamental reintroduction to their own "Old World" traditions. Too many of us have become more British than the British or more French than the French or more American than the Americans. We must finally resolve our collective identity crisis before we can improve the quality of life for our people anywhere we might find ourselves living in today's world.

I will focus attention on selected works given to me by Chief Sowande during the 1970s: The Africanization of Black Studies: From the Circumference to the Center; African Studies and the Black American in 1968; The Way of Life of Peoples of African Descent and The Learning Process, Part One. I will use these now seminal writings to explore the philosophical center Sowande established to guide our investigation into what he preferred to call traditional African "Lifestyle." I will consider Sowande's ideas in relation to those expressed in Molefi Asante's Afrocentricity (1980) and Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge (1990), Malidoma Patrice Some's Ritual: Power, Healing and Community (1993), and Asa Hilliard's African Power: Affirming African Indigenous Socialization in the Face of the Culture Wars (2002).

Finally, I will also touch upon the special relationships Sowande developed with AfricanAmericans, first during his London period--1930s/40s, and again with Black students during the heady days of the 1970s when Black Studies Programs were being created nationwide in response to a volatile Civil Rights/Black Liberation/Black Student Movement. Sowande understood the degree to which we needed to avoid what he called "the tyranny of skin color identification" and learn the appropriate use of traditional African notions in our efforts to reclaim and redefine our lives. Toward this end, it is imperative that our students, as well as those community supporters who look to our programs for guidance and direction, understand how to employ African centered strategies in their daily lives. It is my position that African centered values and ethical standards are needed in our lives today more than ever.


Olufela Sowande was born in 1905 in Oyo, where his father, Emmanuel, of Egba origin, was an Anglican minister on the faculty of St. Andrews College. Music study was a requirement here of all students for the priesthood. Sowande thus was surrounded by music from his earliest years. When his father, his first music teacher, was transferred to Lagos, Sowande began his twenty year association ... with Thomas King Ekundayo Phillips (who had been the first Nigerian to study music in London), originally as a choir boy at Christ Church Cathedral and then as his student. Like Phillips before him, he was enrolled at the Church Missionary Society Grammar School and later at Kings College.... On his graduation from Kings College, he was an accomplished pianist and was engaged as deputy organist under Phillips at the Cathedral. (2)

Retelling his story in The Learning Process, Part One, Sowande writes:

My parents were in the Anglican Mission field in Nigeria. My father was an ordained Priest of the Church of England, and my grandfather a converted Yoruba traditional priest, who was widely acknowledged as an adept in that field prior to his conversion. My father was inducted as the minister in charge of St. Peter's Church in Lagos in 1910 or 1911. (3)

His father's untimely death in 1918, however, would initiate a series of events that would change the direction of a young Sowande's life. He continues:

Slowly but surely, they propelled me towards parting company with my own traditional past as a Yoruba, in favor of what I thought I saw of the life-style of the British, through those that were in Nigeria at that time, in various posts, including the missionaries. (4)

For our purposes, de Lerma points out Sowande's unique attraction to, and, affinity for, African-American culture that would ultimately shape his approach to teaching African Studies to Black Americans. Sowande first met jazz in the company of fellow Nigerians in 1932 listening to Duke Ellington on short wave radio. Added to this were broadcasts from France, the BBC, and from New York and Chicago, and recordings by Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines. This led to his organization of the Triumph Dance Club Orchestra, in which he played piano. He was also a member of the jazz band, The Chocolate Dandies that had been organized about 1927 in Lagos. In 1935, he moved to London with the intent of studying civil engineering, but he arrived already experienced from his days in Lagos as a jazz musician.

African Americans were delighted by his ability to imitate the piano styles of jazz figures. By music, he was able to pay for his education. He organized a jazz septet, consisting largely of musicians from the Caribbean, and he was assumed to be a Black American. He abandoned his plans for civil engineering and dedicated himself to music, attending the University of London and Trinity College of Music as an external candidate. His work in Lagos with Phillips provided him with a European musical perspective, and he intensified that by studying with George D. Cunningham, George Oldroyd and Edmund Rubbra. However he was influenced by these contacts, it was in 1935...

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