The Arts

April 20, 2020

Life and times of Prof Akin Euba (1935-2020)

Life and times of Prof Akin Euba (1935-2020)

By Osa Amadi

Professor Akin Euba, who retired in 2011, lived in the United States until his death last Tuesday, April 14, 2020. A few years ago, he attended a conference with a few other Nigerian classical music scholars including Prof. Bode Omojola, in a university in the Caribbean. On one of the evenings, as they were driving to where they had dinner, Professor Akin Euba saw a neighborhood which he said reminded him of Lagos.

On that cue, the other Nigerian scholars said to him, “Prof. you know, you should come to Nigeria; you should come home. You’ve not been home for a very long time.”

“So that informal discussion would then transform into something more formal,” said Prof. Bode Omojola. “We decided we were going to organize this conference so that he will come home.”

The conference Prof. Omojola referred to was an international symposium and concert organized in honor of Prof. Akin Euba from January 16–18, 2019. It was jointly sponsored by the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos and the Musical Society of Nigeria, MUSON.

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“Akin Euba has this model of symposia that he was organizing all over the world,” Omojola continued. “He would have a scholarly session and then complement it with a performance. So, we decided we were going to use that model for this conference. We unanimously appointed the late Prof. Obidike to be the chairperson, and she started doing a great job, mobilizing people and support for this conference. But unfortunately, as we all know, she passed on.

“When she passed on, I went to meet Prof. Akin Euba and told him I would like to continue (from where Prof. Obidike stopped) if he would give me his blessings. He did. And the rest, as they say, is history. I got in touch with UNILAG, ANIM (Association of Nigerian Musicologists).

“Then we got in touch with the Creative Arts Department. People decided that Dr. Olusoji Stephen will be the chairperson. I have never seen a group of committed, hardworking and industrious group of lecturers as we have at UNILAG. They are truly wonderful. We also got in touch with MUSON asking them to partner with us. When I spoke with the Director of MUSON I said: ‘Could you sponsor the musical part of this event?’ He wrote back and said: ‘Well, we will not only sponsor the musical part, we will also sponsor the symposium.’”

That was how much the late Prof. Akin Euba was loved and respected – A distinguished scholar who was celebrated for his contribution to Africanist music scholarship and growth of African art. He introduced the concept of “African Pianism” to theorize the ways in which composers could use the Western pianoforte compositionally to reinterpret the structural and performance features of African music. He also coined and popularized the term, “Creative Ethnomusicology”, to conceptualize the relationship between ethnographic research and musical composition.

Tracing the roots of his musical influences, Akin Euba had said the 1960s was a period he began to understand the key to developing an African voice in composition; a time he came to the conclusion that an African voice would depend on using African musical instruments. Subsequently he celebrated this discovery by composing a work titled “Igi Nla So” for piano and Yoruba drums. “Igi Nla So” means A big tree bears fruit. He said Klaus Wachsmann was a great scholar of African music who not only encouraged his scholarly efforts but was a sort of role model. In 1966 he composed for his M.A thesis an ensemble consisting entirely of African musical instruments.

It is not clear when Prof. Akin Euba came home last, and why he decided to stay away for so long to the extent that other Nigerian scholars who met him in the Caribbean began to say him; “Prof. you know, you should come to Nigeria; you should come home. You’ve not been home for a very long time” as well as to began to organize a conference in his honor “so that he will come home.”

However, those who studied music at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife between 1990 and 1993 may recall seeing him Prof. Akin Euba at the Music Department of that University. Once or twice, he had briskly walked into the African Studies Building, dressed in the most casual manner – wearing his hair in an afro style with his long-sleeved shirt tucked in and folded up to the elbows. He enchanted all – students and lecturers, including the late Dr. Joshua Uzoigwe who later became a professor of music and an apostle of “African Pianism” following Prof. Akin Euba’s trail. There were talks then that “he just came in from the United States of America”.

In year 2000, Prof. Akin Euba composed “Orunmila’s Voices” for soloists, chorus, dancers and symphony orchestra, obviously in US where he resided until his death last week Tuesday. “My interest in using African instruments had waned considerably, for here is a major work, describing aspects of Yoruba culture, in which not a single Yoruba musical instrument is used,” he told Robert von Bernewitz in an interview on December 21, 2014.

Perhaps his interest wouldn’t have waned if he had come home, for the Yoruba land was replete with those Yoruba musical instruments and their players. But he rationalized the gap: “I reasoned at the time that there are enough musical instruments available in a normal symphony orchestra to simulate African instruments and there was no need for using African instruments. This reasoning was no doubt born of the difficulty of assembling instruments and players in the performance of compositions that feature African instruments.” Yes, difficult, may be in the United States, but certainly not at home.

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By interrogating the reasons Prof. Akin Euba decided to stay away from Nigeria for such a long time, one is not trying to blame him for doing so, for what economic, social or political conditions of Nigeria would encourage anyone abroad to want to come home? There have been quite a number of brilliant Nigerian minds abroad who desire to come home but are dissuaded by the rot created by Nigerian politicians who rule the country. What, for instance would they wish to come home to? Darkness without electricity; to run power generators daily? Or to gullies and ditches-riddled roads? To be killed or kidnapped by Boko Haram or Fulani Herdsmen? Where are the hospitals, schools, and other vital social infrastructure that would motivate them to return to their fatherland?

When Prof. Isidore Okpewho, renowned Nigerian novelist and critic, died in 2016 in Binghamton, New York, United States, and was buried there, his wife told Vanguard that it was the wish of the erudite professor that he should be buried in the United States. According to Obi Nwakanma, “It was the things (present crop of Nigeria’s bad leaders) carried with them to nation-building that drove people like Isidore Okpewho into exile (as he) could no longer tolerate the failures, nor thrive within a rapidly disconcerting social order.”

Nwakanma recalled that Okpewho once told him “the story of how he escaped with his life just in whiskers on returning from London on Longman’s business on July 29, 1966, and was nearly shot at the airport, mistaken for an Igbo…It was an experience that engraved itself in his psyche much of his life.”

Akin Euba, as a boy, grew up in Lagos. He attended missionary schools operated by the Church Missionary Society (CMS), an Anglican organization based in the UK. In those days, music in the schools consisted of singing lessons during which he and other children learned British folk songs. Occasionally they sang Nigerian songs but it was mainly British folk songs.  He was given his first music lesson by his father in 1943 when he was 8 years old.

Through the help of Major Allen, an official of the colonial administration, the young Akin Euba later received a Federal Government scholarship to study music in the UK at the Trinity College of Music.

For many years, Prof. Akin Euba edited a newsletter, directed a research center, and organized an inter-continental symposium series to explore the significance of interculturalism in musical composition and performance. His works include numerous academic publications and compositions such as his book, “Yoruba Drumming” and “Chaka”, an opera in two chants which was recorded by the City of Birmingham Touring Opera in UK and conducted by Simon Halsey in 1999.

Professor Akin Euba retired in 2011 and lived in the United States until he died.