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Ghanaian Concert Pianist Chapman Nyaho Delights Washington DC Audience
But where is the broad support for serious black artists?

Franklyn Ayensu

As part of its African-American History Month celebrations in Washington DC, the National Gallery of Art invited the Ghanaian American concert pianist and professor of music William H. Chapman Nyaho to give a piano recital in the East Building Auditorium of the gallery on Wednesday February 16. Titled “Music of the Diaspora,” the 70-minute midday concert was attended by about a hundred. It was a joy both to hear and to see Chappie, as close friends call him, as well as other Ghanaians who had come to support him, including several childhood friends he has known since his days as a precocious young music student at Achimota School.

A tall, striking figure in a rich kente waistcoat—or “vest” in the US—Chappie introduced his audience to a repertoire that, at least in the US and perhaps elsewhere as well, one is not too likely to hear on Classical FM radio, playing little-known gems from seven composers of color: Florence Price, the first African-American concert pianist and composer to reach national recognition; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, in his day sometimes referred to as the “African Mahler,” the part-Sierra Leonean Creole, part-English composer-conductor who set many of African-American Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems to music, including Deep River, which Chappie played; Margaret Bonds, a student of Florence Price’s who, at 20, became the first African-American guest soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and went on to open a music school for black children and champion the works of both innovative white and black composers; Fred Onovwerosuoko, a talented Nigerian Ghanaian whose first degrees are actually in electrical and electronic engineering; Bongani Ndodana-Breen, an award-winning South African composer; Jamaican composer Oswald Russell, who was one of Chappie’s piano instructors at the Conservatoire de Musique in Geneva, Switzerland; and Alberto Ginastera, an Argentine who studied and borrowed heavily from music of African origins, especially West African Creole music.

The pieces were all excellent and performed with both emotion and technical virtuosity. Between them Chappie, who compiled and edited the five-volume anthology Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora (Oxford, 2009), offered insightful introductory capsules. Margaret Bonds Troubled Water, written in 1967 during the civil rights movement, was intense, percussive and explosive. By contrast the second of Oswald Russell’s Jamaican Dances had a lilting beauty that lingered in my mind all day. Others made similar remarks after the concert.

Fred Onovwerosuoko’s evocative piece Agbadza was sheer fun. Situating the composition within the call-and-response tradition of West African music, Chappie turned to the audience and unpacked the rhythmic structure of the piece into its separate strands, getting us to clap them out. Imagine that—at the National Gallery of Art. Some of our more rhythmically-challenged brothers and sisters—you know which ones I mean—may have been a little out of their depth at this point, but they were all good sports and followed along politely. Then like a master drummer, Chappie reassembled the rhythms back together, revealing the complex polyrhythmic layering of much of our African music. The melody of Agbadza itself sounded somewhat northern Ghanaian to me, reminding me of some of the Fra Fra songs that our own domestic help in Accra, Adombila, used to sing when I was a toddler and he was working. (He was my “main man” back then since my parents were both at work.)

Alberto Ginastera Sonata No. 1 was masterful. The first movement was amazing in every way. I did not know there were “Anumle Cowboys” in Argentina way back when, but Chappie reassured us that there were—muchachos and gauchos of African descent whose pentatonic harmonies (reminiscent of Ewe music) and vivid call-and-response patterns Ginastera closely studied and incorporated into his own compositions.

The second movement of Ginastera’s sonata had these chromatic progressions that sounded eerily like excited mice running around in the eaves. It is amazing how, in the hands of a virtuoso such as Chapman Nyaho, an ordinary piano, an ordinary senku—well okay, a nine-foot Steinway concert grand—can be made to produce such extraordinary effects. The third movement was very different. Like many of the other composers whose works Chappie played, Ginastera uses not just notes themselves but silence, stillness and elongated time to convey musical and emotional information. One often thinks of African and African-inspired music as loud, dynamic, percussive and boisterous, and it can be. But like the arid stretches of the Sahel, empty stillness is also a profound part of our musical expression.

Watching and listening to Chappie play, I was reminded that great music performed well confronts you with feelings you may not even have the musical vocabulary to express. My mind returned to the first time that I remember hearing him play—at 12 or 13 nonchalantly sight-reading a fairly difficult piece he had never seen before on one of the music school pianos at Achimota. Kwamena Bentsi-Enchill, one of Chappie’s Achimota classmates, has a similar recollection: “My memories go back to our very first music lesson, in Form 1A, when we were about 11. Mr. Essah walked in, put a score on the piano, pointed to Chappie, and signaled him to the piano. It was a rather intricate piece by Bach chosen to illustrate the complexity of his contrapuntal composition style, yet Chappie performed it with aplomb.”

Mentally I tried to trace the evolution of his extraordinary gift from those early years to this present stage, a man at the height of his powers, a man and his 88 black and white keys, a journey made possible only by years of training, focus, discipline and artistic solitude. I also wondered—not out loud, of course—why so many of Ghana’s best classical musicians, like Chapman Nyaho, seem to be Ewe. Is it genetics or environment? Innate or cultural? Is the claim even true, or might our perceptions be founded on anecdotal evidence that would not pass statistical scrutiny? Hypotheses are welcome, but it certainly appears true. I should add that Chappie describes himself as a Ghanaian American.

As we sat among the hushed sculpted spaces of the gallery, I also could not help reflecting that we live in an age in which classical music, poetry, drama, art and sculpture sometimes seem to have given way to the more Philistine values of MTV, gold chains and rap; an age in which excellence in cultural expression, in intellectual achievement and in performance standards often seems suspect—and thus dismissed—as a kind of elitism; an age in which majoring in Business is considered far smarter than pursuing Art or History or English, or God forbid becoming a golfer, unless of course you become the next Tiger Wolf, in which case the end, if you ever manage to wade past your parents’ opposition, may finally justify the means. One rues not only the commercialization of the performance arts but the coarsening of culture and, indeed, of life itself. Yet on Wednesday afternoon, Chappie reminded us that excellence in the hard pursuit of complex skills and specialties is not only very much alive but legitimate, laudable and worthwhile.

Still, I could not help noticing that the audience at the recital was not just predominantly white—it was overwhelmingly white. In the United States as well as in Africa, where, one asks, is the broad support for serious young black artists, novelists, poets, musicians and film directors? Even as musicologists and concert pianists such as Chappie attempt to place composers of African descent in their rightful positions of prominence and add them to the standard mainstream canon, he himself is part of a contemporary cadre of culturally significant African Diaspora musicians who themselves are at risk of being overlooked, who themselves need to be given proper recognition and patronage. Somewhere in junior secondary school, the next Chappie is practicing his or her arpeggios. Will we support and encourage them, or leave them to fight the temptations of Commerce and other more “pragmatic choices” by themselves?

Celebrated in the United States, Jamaica and Canada, Black History Month—as part of which the National Gallery of Art hosted this recital—is intended to help deepen appreciation for the past and present contributions of black individuals and groups to history. The aim is to help both blacks and non-blacks know who we are and were. The question is, what happens once February ends? Are there more permanent ways to keep the luminaries of our culture, after their obligatory annual February parade, from simply fading back into the archives of national memory—washed-out reflections of who they once really were?

Take, for example, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. A graduate of the Royal College of Music—he entered at 15—at 22 he wrote Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, an internationally acclaimed choral work that took London by storm. Sir Charles Parry, the composer and Oxford professor of music, who attended the premiere of the work at the Royal College of Music, described it as “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.” The English composer Edward Elgar was smitten with him. Performed more than 200 times in the UK alone, it led to three concert tours in North America, one of which included a personal visit with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House—remarkable for any person of African descent at the time, let alone one only 29.

Yet today the African Mahler’s name is barely mentioned, his works barely remembered. And Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the rave-reviewed musical? In financial desperation, Coleridge-Taylor had sold the rights to it to beady-eyed publishers for only 15 guineas, thereby shutting him and his widow out of the substantial royalties that it generated for many years. At just 37 he died of pneumonia, perhaps a victim of inadequate access to a good healthcare system. His story is not unique. Black history is littered with the detritus of prematurely closed files and derailed destinies.

One can therefore understand why, the intrinsic merits of the music itself aside, musicians like Dr. Chapman Nyaho with a deep sense of the richness of our past are keen to rediscover and resurrect compositional giants such as Coleridge-Taylor. “A people without history,” wrote Eliot wrote in Little Gidding, “is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern of timeless moments.” In all our to and fro about GDP and oil and participant democracy, let us also get some culture and support the arts, for in doing so we are engaged in far more than mere patronage and entertainment: we are emancipating ourselves from mental slavery, which is the deepest sort.

Given the auditorium lighting, it was only after the concert that Chappie realized that, among the sea of white faces, there were a few people of color—including seven or eight Ghanaians, some of whom like me he had not seen in years. He was visibly delighted as he tried, rather unsuccessfully, to compress decades of catching up into a few minutes of post-concert conversation. There was much to say, and little time to say it in. Those same Philistine Values of Modern Life that sap the patronage of the arts dictated that folks who had taken their lunch hour to come and listen to him had to rush madly back to work, with barely time to exchange email addresses.

With any luck Dr. Chapman Nyaho, who lives in Seattle on the West Coast, will play Washington DC again. And perhaps this time his friends and supporters will organize a proper lunch or dinner after the performance to honor one of Africa’s most accomplished classical pianists. Metropolitan DC’s cultural calendar—which has included even events hosted at the Ghana Embassy—does quite well in supporting artists of color. It is up to us, both here and back home, to manage our time well and take advantage of the structures already in place. On Wednesday, the weather in DC—sunny, light breeze and near 60˚F (16˚C)—was fabulous for February and seemed to say, “Missed opportunity.”

Incidentally, the Steinway that Chappie played on was the very same piano used on April 9, 1939 to accompany the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson during her famous concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, attended by 75000, after Washington DC’s white officials had barred her from singing at Constitution Hall because she was not white.

You can find out more about William Chapman Nyaho at, where you will also find his CDs, several of which have received critical acclaim, including the solo CD Senku: Piano Music by Composers of African Descent, pieces from which he performed on February 16.

Franklyn Ayensu, Washington DC, February 19, 2011





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