The Organ

Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora

Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora, Volumes 4 and 5 (Advanced). Compiled and Edited by William H. Chapman Nyaho. Oxford University Press.

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The five volumes in this unique and pioneering series have been hailed by pianists and academics as 'a gold mine for performers, teachers, and students'; 'a wonderful introduction to the composers of African heritage'; a 'precious treasure trove of music [that] may [otherwise] have been lost'; a 'dazzling array of forms, styles and techniques'. The 15 fascinating pieces in these two volumes (the series is graded from music for beginners to pieces which challenge the performer both in terms of technique and interpretation) certainly provide strong support for these views.

Historically, the music in these anthologies begins with a piece from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Twenty-four Negro Melodies Opus 59, in which he avowedly set out to achieve for African, West Indian, and African-American melodies and folksongs 'what Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian'. The Bamboula, a ternary piece in a diatonic A flat with a modulatory middle section, proceeds at an exhilarating pace in which rhythmic ostinati generate rising excitement to a presto sempre ff climax. This is followed, in Volume 5, by an extended, freely chromatic work by the Jamaican composer and pianist, Oswald Russell (born 1933), who has studied in London, New York, Paris and Geneva. His 'subtle blend of Caribbean and Western musical idioms' (to quote the erudite compiler and editor) produces in Humoresque No.1 passages reminiscent of both Schoenberg and Poulenc together with syncopated fragments and bluesy chord progressions, which create a surprisingly compelling and highly distinctive musical experience.

H Leslie Adams' Etude in C sharp Minor is a late Romantic work, as its title suggests. Ali Osman's Afro Arab Blues demands vocal interjections and finger-snapping from the pianist in the introduction and coda of a fiendishly complex 10/8 piece in an advanced jazz idiom. Township Guitar, by the South African Isak Roux, imitates the sounds of the eponymous instrument while suggesting also something of the harmonic and rhythmic world of gospel choirs. Egwu Amala, from Talking Drums, by the Nigerian composer, Joshua Uzoigwe (who is also represented in Volume 4 by another piece from this collection) is a terrifyingly rapid piece some ten pages long in 19/8 time, with quartal harmony chords and pedallic ostinati in the left hand juxtaposed in the right by longer-breathed scalic passages and a lulling semitone quaver figure. The final piece in this volume is by the African American Martin Scherzinger (born 1969); his Tumbling Dance is based on the kind of 'emergent patterns' employed by Minimalist composers.

Volume 4 is similarly varied – and similarly challenging – with the impressionistic Flowers in the Sand by Bongani Ndodana-Breen from South Africa and the highly coloristic Coma Dance by the Egyptian Halim El-Dabh extending the stylistic range of the collection still further. Technically accomplished pianists seeking to develop their hands, ears and imagination in new ways, and to take their audiences on voyages of discovery, are recommended to obtain these volumes at the earliest opportunity