With a population of 184 million, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh-most populous in the world. The historic seat of the Yoruba kingdoms and the geopolitically crucial hinge of the West African peninsula, it boasts longstanding aesthetic traditions both indigenous and colonial, and its unique blend of European, Arabian, Igbo, and classical African aesthetics has produced a distinctive musical tradition that rewards your attention.
If you’re a fan of classical music but not specifically familiar with Nigerian composers, you can start with the five names below.
Fela Sowande (1905-1987)
Arguably the most internationally celebrated African classical composer of the 20th century, Sowande was what classical music historians would describe as a nationalistic composer: someone who pioneers the incorporation of a country’s folk music traditions into Western classical forms. His *African Suite* (1955), from which the second movement (“II. Nostalgia”) above is taken, is his best known symphonic work—but he was a prolific composer, and he left us a great deal to work with. His more traditional vocal works, such as “The Wedding Song” (1957), are still sung in Nigeria to this day.
Babatunde Olatunji (1925-2003)
Percussion is central to Yoruba music, and Olatunji’s *Drums of Passion* (1960) was the first album to introduce Yoruba sacred drumming—or traditional African music of any kind, for that matter—to the West. It has sold more than five million copies and remains popular to this day, having influenced a wide range of Western classical composers. Any Western classical composer who uses African-style drumming in any context has almost certainly been influenced in some way by Olatunji, whether they know it or not.
Fela Kuti (1938-1997)
If you listen to Western popular music in any genre, you’ve almost certainly heard Fela Kuti’s influence. The inventor of Afrobeat created a new aesthetic that drenched contemporary jazz and neo-soul to the bone, and affected the sound of virtually every other kind of music, from hip-hop to the whitest folk-indie band you can think of, in many other ways. He is not often thought of as a classical composer, and whether you feel that label fits any of his work isn’t really any of my business, but his synthesis of Western and traditional music—represented in complex long-form compositions that defy genre classification—certainly *affected* classical music, especially on the African continent.
Joshua Uzoigwe (1946-2005)
While Sowande drew primarily on Yoruba influences in his music, Joshua Uzoigwe drew more on Igbo music. His masterpiece, *Talking Drums* (1990), draws on these traditions to express—in five movements—the complex relationship between melody and rhythm, and the way that one can become the other. The great Ghanaian pianist William Chapman Nyaho has championed Uzoigwe’s music and helped to bring it to the attention to a broader contemporary audience, but his work has always been appreciated in Nigerian classical circles.
Godwin Sadoh (1965-)
The most celebrated living Nigerian composer, Sadoh is also an academic musicologist with six volume-length studies and more than 100 peer-reviewed article publications to his credit. His research specialty is organ music, and while he has written chamber music, vocal solo compositions, and a wide range of challenging piano pieces, his *Nigerian Organ Symphony* (2007) is his most widely-performed work to date. Much like Sowande, he is a nationalistic composer who has blended Yoruba and Igbo aesthetics into his work—and, in keeping with his instrument, he also tends to rely heavily on liturgical motifs. His personal YouTube channel is one of the best places to look for new and established Nigerian classical compositions, as well as choral and organ music of all types.