Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Timeline: Olatunji Akin Euba (1935-2020)

Timeline: Chaka: An Opera in Two Chants (1970)
Olatunji’s masterwork is his 1970 opera Chaka: An Opera in Two Chants. This work tells the story of the 19th century Zulu king who built an empire on the back of human suffering.

We continue our series of episodes about African composers with an exploration of the life, music and legacy of Nigerian composer Olatunji Akin Euba.

Olatunji Akin Euba was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1935. His father was an amateur musician, who served as a chorister in the Methodist church and a clarinetist in a Lagos band; which also featured Fela Sowande. Olatunji’s father was his first piano teacher; encouraging his son to study music. As a child, Euba also took piano lessons with Major J.G.C. Allen, a British civil servant in the country.

As a young man, Olatunji enrolled at Trinity College in London. He studied music composition, and started incorporating the melodies and rhythms of his culture and heritage into 20th century Western musical language. His 1956 piece Introduction and Allegro for Orchestra was an early essay in this exploration, along with modern vocal settings of Yoruba songs. However, Euba declared that his work The Wanderer for cello and piano was his first successful attempt at this synthesis.

Euba considered himself to be a disciple of Bela Bartok. He wrote extensively about finding a theoretical understanding of African music. Olatunji coined a term called “creative musicology.” This is where the research into folk music and traditional musical idioms isn’t used to write scholarly articles, instead it is all incorporated into new compositions; using this music to fuel new music. Euba also developed a term called “African pianism,” using the piano to re-interrupt African musical ideas. Akin Euba believed the piano to be the perfect means of this expression; an accessible way to introduce this music to Western ears.

Olatunji was well known in Nigeria. He won first prize at the First Nigerian Festival of the Arts in 1950. A little over a decade later, Euba was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship which allowed him to travel to the United States. He earned degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles and later a doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Ghana.

Olatunji Akin Euba found a home in academia across the globe. He was a professor and director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Lagos and a research fellow at the University of Nigeria. He served as a scholar in residence for African studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, founded the Centre for Intercultural Music Arts in London and was director of the Centre for Intercultural Musicology at Churchill College of the University of Cambridge. Euba also founded the Elekoto Ensemble, bringing together musicians from Nigeria, China, India, Germany, Malta and the United States. Later in his life, Euba moved to the U.S. and served as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Olatunji’s masterwork is his 1970 opera Chaka: An Opera in Two Chants. This work tells the story of the 19th century Zulu king who built an empire on the back of human suffering. It’s a fusion of 20th century compositional techniques, like twelve-tone row, and elements borrowed from African music; using a combination of Western and African instruments.

Olatunji Akin Euba passed away in 2020; just two weeks shy of his 85th birthday.

Find out more and follow the Timeline.

James Stewart is VPR Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.