Suggested Listening: “Ukom” from Talking Drums by Joshua Uzoigwe

Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC comes from a fantastic album I recently stumbled upon, Senku: Piano Music by Composers of African Descent by Ghanian-American pianist William Chapman Nyaho.  Bradley Bolen, a reviewer on Amazon who enjoyed the CD as much as I did, had this to say:

Every now and then a recording comes along that is as important as it is unique….I approached this CD with a desire to explore a back road of art music, in the hopes that I might find a hidden gem of inspiration, or even a piece to perform myself (I am also a pianist). What I found instead was a superhighway of talent and creativity that has somehow remained overlooked by the “mainstream” art music world….I highly recommend this CD to anyone wishing to enrich their musical life.

I would definitely encourage my readers to listen to the whole album, an entirely enjoyable wealth of little-known music performed with precision, pizzazz, and perspective… but for now, let’s take a listen to “Ukom” from Talking Drums by Joshua Uzoigwe, performed below by Mr. Nyaho.  (Unfortunately, the video can only be accessed in the U.S.  To listen globally, don’t hesitate to purchase Mr. Nyaho’s album — it’s well worth it!)

About the Composer:

When Joshua Uzoigwe (1946-2005) was born, slavery had been outlawed in Nigeria only a decade earlier.  A British colony since 1800, Nigeria wouldn’t gain independence until Uzoigwe was a teenager; and within seven years of independence, the young nation would face brutal civil war.  Uzoigwe was a member of the Igbo ethnic group, which was the target of a horrific 1966 pogrom that escalated the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War and resulted in the slaughter of over 3 million Igbo.  The massacre took place in southern Nigeria, however, while Uzoigwe grew up in the east, distanced from the heart of the violence but not unaffected.  After studying at the University of Nigeria in the central city of Nsukka, Uzoigwe headed abroad.  He trained at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1973-77 before receiving his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1981.  Upon returning to Nigeria, he received faculty appointments at the Universities of Nigeria and Uyo, composed an immense output of chamber and piano works, and contributed to a Nigerian cultural renaissance that lent strength, imagination, and identity to a nation with a bloody past and an uncertain future.

About the Piece:

Talking Drums is one of Uzoigwe’s most celebrated works, a multi-movement suite for piano rife with rhythmic intrigue.  Each movement is meant to emulate a particular style of Igbo drumming, the study of which was the focus of Uziogwe’s Ph.D.  The first movement, “Ukom,” depicts the ukom drumming used by the Igbo when a prominent woman in the community passes away, commemorating her accomplishments and helping to guide her to the afterlife. The drum used in ukom music is, aptly, a talking drum: with its two drumheads connected by cords stretched along its hourglass shape, the player can manipulate the tension in the cords to produce sounds and tones that mimic the contour and prosody of human speech.  Talking drums are unique to West Africa, woven into the cultural identities of distinct communities ranging from Igbo to Yoruba, and master talking drummers not only create artful music, but can also convey complex messages using drumming as a “language.”  The Igbo’s ukom drums can produce ten different pitches, a range of color and vibrancy which Uziogwe captures in his playfully percussive melodies.  Minimalistic and mesmerizing, the music is a complex interleaving of Western-colonial pianism and Igbo tradition, at once striking, harmonious, and infectious.

If you enjoyed “Ukom,” you might also like…


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