Keys of the continent: Pianist Rebeca Omordia brings together African and European classical music to reach a wide audience. Photo: Silas Eziehi
‘Playing the piano was a passion right from the beginning. I always knew what I wanted to become — a pianist,” says Rebeca Omordia.
The 39-year-old, London-based virtuoso, who has a broad career as soloist, chamber musician, recording artist and scholar, has carved a unique path by blending the rich traditions of Africa with a classical repertoire.
Omordia has focused on championing the music of African composers. In 2019, she launched the world’s first African Concert Series, in London. Now in its fifth year, the series reflects all aspects of African classical music — centuries-old traditional music, as well as the works of art composers who write in European styles.
Omordia’s multicultural background — she has a Romanian mother and a Nigerian Igbo father— laid the foundations for her appreciation of diverse musical traditions.
Growing up in Romania, she was exposed to the country’s classical music heritage, complemented by the stories of her paternal grandfather, a chief musician in Nigeria.
Romania has a rich and long tradition of classical music, with revered composers such as George Enescu, Radu Lupu, Vladimir Cosma and Péter Eötvös.
Omordia says growing up, “it was custom at that time that every child should learn to play an instrument or sing”.
“My mother bought a piano for my older sister, who had already started taking piano lessons, so we had music in our house.
“Romania was also a communist country, so many great concert pianists from the Soviet Union were coming to perform there; we had access to the highest musical education, for free.”
Her exposure to both European and African musical influences, combined with the access to an excellent musical education, set the stage for her journey. At the tender age of seven, she was enrolled in a specialist music school.
The competitive nature of the field required her to increase her practice hours, eventually reaching an impressive five hours a day by the time she was 11.
“In Romania, the specialist music school is designed to train talented children who want to develop a career in music. From very early years, you learn to practise many hours every day and prepare for national and international competitions.”
Despite her father’s dream of her becoming a doctor, he recognised and supported her passion for music.
“It is known that, for a Nigerian father, you must become either a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, otherwise you have failed in life.
“But my father was very impressed with my commitment to the piano — as a teenager my practising had reached seven hours a day — and the fact that I was already successful. As a result, he supported my choice of career,” she says.
Omodia was accepted at the National University of Music Bucharest when she was 18. After graduating, she continued her studies in the UK at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Trinity College of Music in London, where she settled. She holds a doctorate from the National University of Music.
When she won the Delius Prize at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, it opened a collaboration with world-renowned British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber.
“We toured the UK as duo partners until 2014, performing in iconic venues and on BBC Radio 3 broadcasts.”
African classical pioneer
Omordia’s journey took an unusual turn when she discovered the wealth of piano music written by Nigerian composers, leading to the inception of the African Concert Series.
“About a decade ago, I started investigating if there was any piano music by Nigerian composers. I had visited my family in Nigeria very often but I didn’t know a classical music scene even existed.
“Not only did I discover hundreds of piano works but a whole School of African Art Music that was created in the 20th century in West Africa.”
Musicians from Nigeria and Ghana, who had pursued classical music education in Europe, subsequently returned home. There, they skillfully integrated the distinctive melodies and rhythms of their respective tribes and ethnic communities into classical music.
“The results were fascinating.”
Faced with initial scepticism as the UK’s classical music scene didn’t have a place for music by African composers, she collaborated with the Nigerian High Commission in London to showcase Nigerian classical music in the UK.
“I believed recording an album would reach a wider audience but all classical record labels refused to record the music as they considered it wasn’t classical music but ‘world music’. It was frustrating — how can a piano sonata by Ayo Bankole be labelled as ‘world music’?”
Despite the challenges, she released the groundbreaking album Ekele: Piano Music by African Composers, in 2018.
Merging classical sounds
The fusion of African and classical music became Omordia’s passion.
“Merging African and classical sound together is fascinating! Africa is a diverse continent hosting about 3 000 ethnic groups, each with their own language, culture and music.”
By integrating the unique melodies and rhythms embedded in African art music into classical idioms, she made this rich cultural heritage accessible to a wider audience.
Performing African classical music worldwide, Omordia has had a warm reception and her pioneering efforts have opened doors for African classical music on the global stage.
“African art music has its roots in traditional music — the music is inspired by traditional songs, or dances or chants. Listening to this music gives you an insight into the richly diverse culture of the African continent. The classical idiom this music is written in makes it accessible to the regular classical concert-goers who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it,” she says.
Seven of the continent’s composers in one
Rebeca Omordia’s African Pianism, featuring piano music by seven African composers, represents a significant step in her exploration of new musical traditions.
Released late last year, African Pianism takes its title from Ghanaian composer JH Kwabena Nketia’s Twelve Pedagogical Pieces. From Morocco, there is Nabil Benabdeljalil; there are pieces from three Nigerian composers, Ayo Bankole, Christian Onyeji and Akin Euba. Also featured is Fred Onovwerosuoke, a composer born in Ghana of Nigerian parents, known for Bolingo, which featured in the 2006 Robert de Niro film, The Good Shepherd.
The seventh composer is David Earl. His Princess Rainbow, from his autobiographical Scenes from a South African Childhood, is a touching memory of fly-fishing with his father.
African Pianism is also a popular concert series. It is a deep exploration of the multifaceted musical practices of composers from across the continent. The latest concert, in Washington in the US this weekend, has sold out.
Omordia’s journey from a child with a passion for the piano to a pioneering force in African classical music is a testament to her dedication and resilience.
By bridging European and African musical traditions, she continues to break barriers, making classical music a global and inclusive experience.