Churchill College Celebrates Abiola Irele

by Wumi Raji

The event took place at Wolfson Hall Auditorium, Churchill College, University of Cambridge, UK; and the date was Saturday, November 11, 2006. It was a concert featuring the recital of works by African and African diaspora composers by the duo of Dawn Padmore and Glen Inanga. The activity was put together to mark the 70th birthday anniversary of Abiola Irele, foremost scholar and critic of African, African American and Francophone literatures. It was organized jointly by the Centre for Intercultural Musicology at Churchill College and the Churchill College Music Society.

The Centre for Intercultural Musicology at Churchill College, CIMACC for short, is a new organization founded under the directorship of Akin Euba, world renown Nigerian composer, musician and scholar, and currently Andrew Mellon Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh, USA. The Centre more or less shot off from the Centre for Intercultural Music Arts (CIMA) registered as a British charity organisation in 1989 and with Akin Euba again as the founding director. Every two years since 1990, this latter organization has managed to put together an international symposium and festival of music, and has sponsored the publication of a series of books under the general theme of intercultural music. Recently, CIMA has, for some reason, had to relocate to Spain and it was from there that it organized the 2006 biennial symposium and festival. The Centre for Intercultural Musicology at Churchill College seeks to fill the vacuum created by CIMA, and do more. Its objectives, among others, are to promote the composition, performance and research and studies in cross cultural music by organising symposia and festivals on a regular basis, by sponsoring summer residencies for scholars and composers from different parts of the world and by organising concerts throughout the year. As a man of multiple talents and interests, Abiola Irele is a member of the management board of this new organisation. Tim Cribb, recently retired tutor for advanced students and Director of Studies in English at Churchill College is also a member; just as are Ruth Davis, Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicology and Fellow and Director of Music at Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge and Hwee-San Tan, lecturer in Ethnomusicology, University College, Dublin. Professor Irele first became active in the music circle of Churchill College of the University of Cambridge when he visited the College in the capacity of an Overseas fellow in 1999.

Wolfson auditorium was filled to capacity. Abiola Irele had himself flown in from Harvard to grace the occasion with his presence. The audience greeted his introduction by Akin Euba with a prolonged ovation, moving on, almost spontaneously to sing for him a birthday chorus. Next, the President of the College, Sir David Wallace, took over the stage, making a short speech in which he affirmed the stature of the celebrant as an eminent scholar and emphasised the College’s total support for the activities of the Centre for Intercultural Musicology. As already stated, Professor Irele was an Overseas Fellow of the College in 1999. Akin Euba held the same fellowship in 2000, and one of the achievements of the composer during the period was the premier staging of his opera, Chaka. It should be recalled that Wole Soyinka was a fellow of the same College in the early seventies. It was at this time that he wrote the essays now published in Myth, Literature and the African World and the play Death and the King’s Horseman generally ackowledged as a classic of World drama.Immediately after the President’s speech, the duo of Dawn Padmore and Glen Inanga took over the stage. Padmore, 39, is a strong soprano. Originally from Liberia but currently based in the US, Padmore has performed in different parts of the world. She featured at the 2003 opera recital of No Easy Walk to Freedom, and at the international music festival held in Fort de France, Martinique, in 2004. She also performed at the New Music Indaba Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa. On January 16, 2006, she sang the Liberian national anthem at the swearing in ceremony of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s and Africa’s first female president. Padmore has a record of collaboration with Akin Euba. This included an opera recital which they did together at the same Churchill College, Cambridge in 2004. She also featured as a soloist in the world premier of Euba’s opera “Orunmila’s Voices” staged in Toronto, Canada in 2003; and performed as well in the festival of African and American Song put together by the Nigerian composer at the University of Pittsburgh also in 2004.

Inanga, a Nigerian pianist of distinction, had originally studied Engineering at Clare College, University of Cambridge, before proceeding to the Royal Academy of Music, London to pursue a former qualification in the area of his first love. Now a holder of a Master of Music degree of the University of London and Associate of Royal Academy of Music, Inanga has a standing partnership with Jennifer Micallef together with whom he won the 1995 Schubert Piano Duo competition in the Czech Republic. He is also a distinguished soloist and in this regard, a major feat of his was the Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue performed to a capacity hall at Lincoln Centre, New York in 2000.

The performance opened with “Six Yoruba Folk Songs” by Akin Euba. Padmore gave a short background to the songs before launching out in a loud, enchanting voice that bubbled with strength, pulling the audience closer and closer until it transported them into the original Yoruba folk milieu of the song. The Yoruba lyrics came out clearly, distinctly and fully pronounced. The clarity was to the extent that a Yoruba member of the audience might feel that the Liberian singer had some competence in the language, a question which, if posed to her would have been answered in the negative. Following this opening were two songs by Kwabena Nketia, the famous Ghanaian musicologist and composer. Again, Padmore held the audience spellbound as she performed the songs respectively titled “Maforo Patahunu” and “Onipa Beye.” At the end of this, the soprano singer took a rest as Glen Inanga played “Fugal Dance” on the piano. The dance was one of the published works of Ayo Bankole, Nigerian scholar and musician who died under tragic circumstances in 1976. This over, Dawn Padmore returned to the stage again to perform some songs representing original works of five young composers who participated in the 2005 Indaba held in Grahamstown, South Africa. A short intermission was called after this. Deservedly so, since the duo had now performed for fifty-five minutes, non – stop.

The house lights went off again after fifteen minutes and the performance re-opened with the first two parts of “From Birth until Autumn,” a poem written by Olusola Oyeleye but which was set to music by Akin Euba. It was the world premiere of this composition which explores the theme of growth and ageing and which Euba composed purposely for Abiola Irele. In the first part titled “Spring,” Padmore’s voice was strong, boisterous, exuberant. The well – travelled singer retained the vibrancy in her tone as she proceeded to the second part titled “Summer.” This time however, one noticed that the exuberance had been tempered with some degree of mellowness, with a measure of

maturity. In her performance of the song, Padmore effectively put across the difference between youth and age and, as well, between raw energy and experience. At the end of the song, Abiola Irele was invited to the stage; and with Akin Euba standing beside her, Padmore presented a scroll containing the song to the foremost scholar who has just joined the prestigious club of septugenarians.

Then it was time again for Inanga to give the audience another of Ayo Bankole’s piano compositions. At this point, it is probably important to point out that Glen Inanga is an expert on Bankole. Indeed, in 2005, he performed the complete piano works of Ayo Bankole, published as well as unpublished. The concert was actually part of the Churchill College’s music festival titled “Compositions in Africa and the Diaspora” held from August 4 to 8 that year. The notes of the one played on the Irele night came across to the audience sombre, almost dark. It is titled “Rhapsody on a Theme from Egun.”

The night’s performance was rounded off with “Four Igbo Songs” by Joshua Uzoigwe. The mood of the songs was celebrative and Padmore made sure to put this across. Indeed, she did not just sing the songs, she literally acted out their themes. And as she and Inanga took a bow, signalling the end of the performance, the audience applauded and applauded.The duo acknowledged the ovation, indulging the audience with a repeat rendition of the last of the songs, and the audience applauded this further.

Both during the intermission and at the very end of the show, Professor Irele attended to the requests by some of the members of the audience for autographs and, as well, photographs. His face shone in the light as he obliged the people. He looked really radiant.

Among others, Professor Irele supervised the doctoral dissertaion of Femi Osofisan, playwright, scholar, Professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Ibadan and former General Manager of the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos; and that of Aduke Adebayo, Professor of French and current Dean of the Faculty of Arts also at the University of Ibadan. Irele himself had taken a BA Honours degree in English of this same Ibadan University in 1960, in the same set as Professor Ayo Bamgboye, national merit award winner and Emeritus Professor of Linguistics again at Ibadan, and M.J.C Echeruo, distinguished Professor of English at Syracuse University, USA and former Vice – Chancellor of Imo State University, Okigwe. Immediately after graduation, Irele had proceeded to France to learn French language, obtaining the Cerificat de Professeur de Francais a l’Etranger of the University of Paris in 1963. In 1966, he completed a Ph.D in French at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, with a dissertation on Aime Cesaire, the apostle of Negritude from Martinique. Irele was a Research Fellow, University of Ghana, Legon between 1967 and 1970 and a Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Nigeria between 1970 and 1972. He was Senior Lecturer at the University of Ibadan between 1972 and 1978, and Professor of French between 1978 and 1989. He was also at different times Head of the Department of Modern Languages in the same University. Professor Irele left the University of Ibadan in 1989 to join the Ohio State University, USA as Professor of African, French and Comparartive Literature. Currently, he is a Professor of African and African American Studies and Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University and has just taken up the editorship of Transition Magazine which is based at the Du Bois Centre for African and African American Studies of the University.

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Ajayi olufemi May 28, 2010 - 2:03 pm

Having come across irele’s books, essays, and write ups, i must confess that your article on him briefly but aptly captures his importance as a colossus among African and world literary critics.

Chris Wanjala November 14, 2007 - 6:55 pm

Irele is a foremost critic of African literature.He has analysed African literature from a cultural perspective and given it the colour that it deserves.I am delighted that he was celebrated.

Reply March 30, 2007 - 4:48 am

Thanks for reminding me of how much I still have to learn each time I dare to think that I have learned one more thing well…It's time to buy more books since I missed the experience you described.


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