Nigerian Music Scene: A Case For A Conservatoire

by Felix-Abrahams Obi

While in Port Harcourt in November 2005, I saw myself glued to the TV watching an early morning program on NTA Plus where the Turkish Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Hakan Okcal was being interviewed in respect of the “Turkish Cultural Days” which held in Abuja from the 1st through the 10th of November. The purpose was to introduce the Nigerian public to aspects of Turkish culture, especially Turkish classical music, Turkish-Islamic decorative arts, and Turkish cuisine.

I was enamoured when three young gifted women, the “Moonlight Trio” mounted the stage and performed rare classical tunes that got me craving for more. What struck me was that they played with traditional Turkish folk music instruments namely the “kemanche” (small traditional Turkish violin from the black sea region played like a cello), “kanum” (a zither-like instrument with 72 strings) and the round rhythm (a minstrel-like small drum). Though two of the women (Filiz Kaya and Guniz Alkac) are 25years old and the oldest (Nurcan Betul Arisoy) is just 37years old, they are accomplished musicians in their respective specialties. More importantly, they all studied Turkish Classical Music at the “Turkish Music Conservatory” of the Istanbul Technical University.

The alluring tunes I heard that morning in Port Harcourt left a nostalgic feeling in me that when I got back to Abuja, I stowed away partly from work to listen to these young women play. For over a week, visitors to Nicon Hilton Hotel were drawn to the irresistible appeal that Turkish Classical Music Commanded and the grace with which these women played those difficult instruments each evening, drew admiration from many that the Turkish Embassy officials were inundated with request for the sale of the CDs brought along by the women which unfortunately were not for sale. They never had anticipated such an overwhelming response from Nigerians and other expatriates. I truly was disappointed for I wanted to have the “moonlight trio” Cds in my collection by all means!

Like the maxim used in marketing which says that “a good product always sells itself”, Turkish Classical Music needed no marketing to be accepted by arts and music lovers at NICON. Originally played as the Ottoman Empire’s court music and restricted to the palace, Turkish classical music now enjoys international appeal owning the painstaking efforts by Turkish Music masters at the Conservatories. Today, Turkey’s musical heritage drawing from the Ottoman era is still preserved and patronized by contemporary Turkish men and women.

As I left NICON, I couldn’t help but wonder aloud to myself, “Will Nigeria ever have a homegrown classical or folk music that can be exported to other cultures and drawing respect and admiration like Turkish Classical Music?” “Do we or shall we ever have a National Music Conservatory where Proudly-Nigerian Musical maestros can be produced?” Much as am not a musician, but I am not sure if we have any genre of music that can be classified as “Nigerian Music”. When you hear a typical music from Southern Africa, you can be sure it’s South African because of its uniqueness. When the African Nations Cup was held in Mali few years ago, the opening ceremony was full of grandeur as traditional orchestra was conducted but not with violins, cellos, saxophones and clarinets. I saw xylophones and other traditional Malian Musical instruments being used to produce delectable tunes of international standards. But such is not the case with Nigeria despite our rich cultural and musical heritage.

Much as Nigeria has produced great composers in the likes of Ayo Bankole, Prof Laz Ekwueme, among others, we cannot boast of a home-grown musical tradition that can stand side by side with classic works. Though Nigeria has produced musical icons like Fela Kuti who popularized Afro beat, we cannot nod our heads in self-adulation like the ego-bloated lizard. Fela achieved fame not on the crest of our collective effort as Nigerians, but by dint of his own hard work and creative exploit because he had a good understanding of the rudiments of musical composition and stage dynamics.

As the euphoria that greeted Tuface Idibia’s MTV Base Award dies down, we have to face the fact that Nigerian Music has not fared well. Though contemporary Pop, R & B, and Rap command large follower ship among Nigerian youths, it doesn’t detract from the fact that Nigerian music is in dire straits and cries for recognition. Highlife is seen by the youths as the music for the “old school”. Worse still, Highlife music exponents in Nigeria, both dead and alive seem to have left no relics of their works in form of compositions save their LPs such that enlightened musicians can not reproduce their works. Because many were not educated music wise to write down their classic compositions like Handel, Mozart, and the rest, immortalizing highlife music etc may become an impossible task. And what a disservice to posterity when there are no archives of written compositions with details of chord progressions, vocals and other condiments of music left behind by custodians of music in Nigeria.

While taking some guitar lessons from an ace highlife guitarist in Lagos 2 years ago, I was appalled when all he could do was teach via rote memory of chords and rhythms that he learned in his 35 years of being a professional guitarist. He could play highlife, jazz and other masterpieces that he created but they are all in his head. He has not painstakingly put them on CD let alone immortalized as a written musical composition. And should he drop dead today, all he has learnt would go along with him to the grave-“the richest place on earth were unproduced and unreleased music lie in waste”.

Our Music schools within Nigerian Colleges and Universities have a onerous task of creating and creating a musical tradition that can be Proudly-Nigerian in every sense of the word. It is only in a music conservatory that the complexities of music compositions that will draw richly from the existing traditional Nigerian music forms can be crafted. The MUSON (Musical Society of Nigeria) Centre should look beyond the usual hosting of its numerous music concerts and festivals that attract international artists and think of ways to refine, develop and ultimately export a truly branded Nigerian Music to the outside world.

A pianist friend who called the shots at MUSON’s concerts while in Nigeria was stunned when he traveled to England to take up lessons at the prestigious Trinity College of Music, London.To his amazement, the mastery he thought he had achieved in Nigeria was far below the threshold of skills exhibited by his British contemporaries who were products of Musical Conservatories in England. He had to shed the

toga of Nigerian piano whiz kid to start the preliminary class preparatory to starting a degree program in Music at that Institution. We need such home-grown conservatories to harness the rich potentials we have in Nigeria.

It is on this note that I commend the efforts of a 25 years old young and budding artist from Jos, Jeremiah Gyang who is working hard unlike his peers in the Naija hip hop world by incorporating traditional/folk musical instruments in his compositions. I was impressed at a recent concert where his horde of young instrumentalists, in addition to piano and guitars used local ceramic drums (udu), wooden gongs (ekwe) and metallic gongs (ogele) to produce soul soothing music that enthused the listeners greatly. In a chat, he told me he was going back to the roots to bring back those rhythms that our fathers and mothers played in our communities. And I look forward to the day when a “Proudly-Nigerian” symphony orchestra or jazz ensemble will be solely composed of talking drums, wooden drums, gongs, flutes (oja), xylophones, etc and conducted and performed by music maestros trained at the “Nigerian Traditional/ Folk Music Conservatory”. This is not an impossible dream or a trip to fantasy world of Alice in Wonderland. It is possible and can be achieved when men and women with passion for excellence begin to rule the Nigerian Music scene and industry.

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5 comments March 17, 2008 - 6:29 am

Thanks Temi…do you know I am seeing your comment few seconds ago. I am most grateful and hope your program is going on well and you’d come back someday to enrich the Nigerian music scene. Meanwhile, would you mind visiting Asa’s website, or She’s done well with her debut effort and I believe her training in music in naija and France helped her so much. It would be nice to keep in touch. Cheers

jide March 17, 2008 - 6:18 am

you are gold

Temi. A November 29, 2007 - 11:35 pm

Excellent article. As a student of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada, I can appreciate the reasoning behind your article. I decided to get classical training to enhance my skills; how I wish we had that back home in Nigeria where I could have learned a lot more when I was a child. Despite the fact that we don't have a conservatory in Nigeria, I believe our culture is so immersed in the "arts" : music, drama and dance, that it is more like a way of life for many. Transforming that way of life into something formal for those who wish to pursue it is an added bonus. Thanks for your write up. I enjoyed it.

Anonymous March 10, 2006 - 5:39 pm

Dear Obi, thank you for your interesting article. I wish to say though that you will find excellent traditional music in every Nigerian village and quite a number on CDs. I will suggest that those who wish to enjoy such music should seek it. I bet you will find a lot in your village as I find in mine. It does not have to be performed in an Oyibo conservatory or in the university to be recognised. Those who are interested in us should learn to come find us for a change or else they stand to loose a lot. From my observation as a musician living in Europe,they are now seeking our traditional music as they should. The attention the BBC has shown towards my highlife(masquerade) band might be a good example. I agree with you but it should be a two way thing if anything. (We no be 'Zombie' at all at all). Thanks again Obi Cheers. G.Amas

Anonymous March 8, 2006 - 10:04 am

Great read. Couldn't stop


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