Figaro makes return to Nigeria

August 23, 1996

The Trenchard Hall, named after a pioneer British university administrator, is acquiring a renewed reputation for the return of classical music to the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

Each performance usually finds the university choir, under the direction of Christopher Oyesiku, its founder, marching into the hall in evening dress - not professionals but amateurs whose mission is the resuscitation of classical music, especially on the university campus which is an oasis of European musical culture within an African setting.

As an experienced professional who has an enviable mastery of his art, Oyesiku, dressed in immaculate white tuxedo, laced with a black bow-tie and a black pair of shoes shining under his black trousers walks into the hall with majestic confidence. Emmanuel Boamah, a pianist from Ghana, takes his seat with eyes fixed on the conductor ready to accompany the choir.

Oyesiku raises both hands and the choir commences with the university anthem. The words were written by Isidore Okpewho, a professor in the English department and the music composed by Oiaoiu Omideyi of the faculty of education.

The anthem is laced with secular messages in honour of the university. Those who have become accustomed to the piece often sing along with it the following lines: Unibadan fountain head/Of true learning/Deep and sound/Soothing stream for all who thirst/Bounds of knowledge to advance, etc.

Christopher Oyesiku has juggled three jobs since 1987: artist-in-residence in the department of theatre arts; director of the choir and president of the music circle. According to Dapo Adelugba, a former dean of arts and a renowned music critic: "For those who saw the beginnings of the University of Ibadan choir barely two years ago and the long hours of patient work Christopher Oyesiku had to put in to turn a relatively amateur set of volunteers - university lecturers in various disciplines, university students with varying degrees of initial commitment and, mercifully, a handful of professionals - into a coherent and fascinating team, the rendering of the university anthem by the survivors of that early group . . . must have come as a very special delight."

The recital continues with Handel's Si Tra I Ceppi, Lully's Bois Epais, Arne's Now Phoebus Sinketh in the West, and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.

Femi Akinkugbe, a soprano and former lecturer in linguistics at the university of Lagos, sings Purcell's Nymphs and Shepherds, Grand Little One written by Nigeria's Ayo Bankole, and Schubert's Du Bist Die Ruh'.

One of Oyesiku's innovations is combining Nigerian compositions, both classical and folk songs, with Western classical music.

Born 70 years ago, Oyesiku's musical career started in 1933 when he joined the choir of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, Lagos. As a member of the Lagos Musical Society in the late 1940s, he was the leading bass soloist in Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

In 1955, he was awarded a scholarship to study music and singing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. While there, he qualified for fellowship of the Trinity College of Music, London, Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, London, and Licentiate of the Trinity College of Music.

He performed in a number of concerts as a student in Britain, memorably the Commonwealth gala concert in May 1958 and a concert of three Bach cantatas in Sherborne Abbey later that year which was conducted by Paul Steinitz. He was also the leading bass in the choir of St Michael's Church, Chester Square, London.

He is now busy drawing up a five-year programme to institutionalise music at the university.

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