Landscapes of Africa: Music for Orchestra

Fred Onovwerosuoke

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Landscapes of Africa: Music for Orchestra Review

by James Manheim

Music written by Africans for Western symphonic ensembles is not common on recordings or Euro-American concert programs, but several African countries have conservatories with music-making that would seem worthy of further investigation. Fred Onovwerosuoke was born Fred Okorefe Kwaku Onovwerosuoke in Ghana in 1960. His family was Nigerian, and his education in African idioms encompassed the music of many different ethnic groups. At the University of Ife in Nigeria he conducted a choral group, and he studied with Ghana's most famous musical scholar, J.H. Kwabena Nketia. Onovwerosuoke now lives in New Orleans, where many of his manuscripts were nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina; admirers recopied them off the soaked pages. The orchestral works heard here are strongly recommended to anyone interested in fusions between the European and African musical languages, for Onovwerosuoke's thinking is subtle and original. His music strikes the listener as characteristically West African, but at first it's hard to tell why this should be -- the traditions out of which his music grew are all heavily dependent upon percussion instruments, but he uses them only sparingly. (One that does appear is that great interlocutor between African Americans and the wider American culture: the snare drum.) The chief African components of his music are harmonic and melodic, with short, energetic motives in various pentatonic modes deployed across a full symphony orchestra. The orchestra itself is treated with a layered effect that suggests the texture of a group of drums without ever directly imitating it. At the base is an organ that lays out basic rhythmic motives and interacts with the orchestra or a varied group of solo instruments. Onovwerosuoke's rhythmic language would be worthy of analysis by students of the long process by which a common African-American language, musical and verbal, evolved out of the multiplicity of cultures of the enslaved. The overall effect is kinetic, colorful, and imposing -- any symphonic programmer looking for music that will meet urban constituencies halfway should hear this disc. The capable New Horizons Studio Orchestra, hitherto unknown, appears to be a pickup group associated with the St. Louis African Chorus, a group of musicians responsible for issuing this disc and others in an African Art Music Series that, on the evidence here, is eagerly awaited.

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