DIALOGUES: Towards Decolonizing Music and Dance Studies

Decolonizing African Compositions

Deconstructing the Theory and Practice Using Traditional Models


Ukeme Akpan Udoh (University of Uyo, Nigeria)


Christian Onyeji (University of Nigeria, Nsukka)


English/ Igbo/ Ibibio


Ukeme A. Udoh
Johnson J. Akpakpan (University of Uyo, Nigeria)
Charles Mandor Asenye (University of Uyo, Nigeria)
Boniface Akpan Inyang (College of Education, Afaha Nsit, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria)

The most extreme form of colonization in Africa has been underlying, hidden institutional colonization. This is colonization of internal systems that affects music-making and its compositional practices, and is founded on colonial and Christian educational models. These models involve hegemonic binaries (e.g., high culture/low culture, primitive music/modern music, Global North/Global South) that undermine the legitimacy of Indigenous creativity in music. In Nigeria, for example, along with the establishment of Western Art Music traditions, a dichotomy has been established between elitist composers (gown) and local music practitioners (town). Further, unless musical creativity is based on Western written traditions (e.g., hymns, anthems, works that represent the Western historical epochs such as Baroque, Classical, Romantic), it is viewed as primitive or unacceptable in some way. Weary of the longtime influence of Eurocentric cultural models in the theory and practice of music composition in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, musicians and composers of these regions are now searching for styles and idioms that are Africa-based and Africa-sensitive. Increasingly, contemporary Indigenous Nigerian composers are composing based on styles and paradigms that draw on Africa's unique creative idioms and Indigenous musical elements.

In this ICTM Dialogues session, we discuss examples of traditional, popular and art music styles of Nigeria, particularly of Ibibio and Igbo cultures. We consider our positions and engagement with various oral and written materials of these cultures. We also discuss ways of decolonizing deeply rooted and epistemic systems through an employment of a range of compositional strategies, from those that are historical and Indigenous to those that are more contemporary and practical in nature. In the process, we bring to light modes of coloniality that are entwined in conventional music compositional models, and juxtapose them with traditional Indigenous ones.

By sharing our ideas about decoloniality in the context of musical creativity, we make plain the ways in which Western (written) culture has been dominant over Ibibio/Igbo (oral) cultures and traditional modes of expression in music composition. In this session, we address various meeting points between foreign and Indigenous compositional models, and ways in which hegemonic (colonizing) systems have been set up to suppress and/or appropriate localized traditions. For instance, African pianism borrows from the percussive style of Indigenous music instruments, including the imitation of melo-rhythmic elements. Yet, we also argue that the value of African pianism should not be overestimated because it is shaped by colonizing influences. Therefore, we advocate for an equal importance of foreign and Indigenous models in African compositional practices.


Further References

Agawu, Kofi. 1984. “The Impact of Language on Musical Composition in Ghana: An Introduction to the Style of Ephraim Amu.” Ethnomusicology  28 (1): 37 – 73.
Agawu, Kofi. 2011. “The Challenge of African Art Music.” Circuit: Musiques Contemporaines 21 (2): 49-64.
Agawu, Kofi. 2016. “Tonality as a Colonizing Force in Africa.” In Audible Empire: Music, Global Politics, Critique, edited by Ronald Radano and Tejumola Olaniyan, 334 - 355. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Agawu, Kofi. 2016. The African Imagination in Music. New York: Oxford University Press.
Akpabot, Samuel Ekpe. 1975. Ibibio Music in Nigerian Culture. Michigan: Michigan State University Press.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. [2000] 2007. “Decolonization.” In Post-Colonial Studies - The Key Concepts, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Herbst, Anri, Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph and Christian Onyeji. 2003. “Written composition.” In Musical Arts in Africa – Theory, Practice and Education, edited by Anri Herbst, Meki Nzewi and Kofi Agawu, 142 – 178. Pretoria: Unisa Press.
Katz, Ruth. 2009. A Language of Its Own Sense and Meaning in the Making of Western Art Music. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kessi, Shose. Zoe Marks, and Elelwani Ramugondo. 2020. “Decolonizing African Studies.” Critical African Studies 12(3): 271-282.
Nzewi, Meki. 2003. “Acquiring Knowledge of the Musical Arts in Traditional Society.” In Musical Arts in Africa – Theory, Practice and Education, edited by Anri Herbst, Meki Nzewi and Kofi Agawu, 13 - 37. Pretoria: Unisa Press.
Nzewi, Meki, Israel Anyahuru and Tom Ohiaraumunna. 2008. Musical Sense and Musical Meaning: An Indigenous African Perception. The Netherlands: Rozenberg Publishers.
Okafor, Richard C. 2019. Popular Music in Nigeria. Enugu: New Generation Educare Ltd.
Omojola, Bode. 1995. Nigerian Art Music. Ibadan: Institut Francais de Recherche en Afrique (IFRA).
Onyeji, Christian Uzoma. 2016. “Composing Art Music Based on African Indigenous Musical Paradigms.” In The University of Nigeria Inaugural Lecture Series, February 11, 2016 (www.unn.edu.ng).
Onyeji, Christian. 2008. “Drummistic piano composition: an approach to teaching piano composition from a Nigerian cultural perspective.” International Society for Music Education (ISME) 26 (2): 161–175.
Stanton, Burke. 2018. “Musicking in the Borders toward Decolonizing Methodologies.” Philosophy of Music Education Review, 26 (1): 4-23.
Strumpf, Mitchef, William Anku, Kondwani Phwandaphwanda and Ncebakazi Mnukwana. 2003. “Oral Composition.” In Musical Arts in Africa – Theory, Practice and Education, edited by Anri Herbst, Meki Nzewi and Kofi Agawu, 118 - 141. Pretoria: Unisa Press.
The Best of Uko Akpan Cultural Group. 2016. “Sabon Sabon.” The Best of Uko Akpan Cultural Group. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TpMw_Q3zp0.
Udoh, Ukeme Akpan. 2012. “An Evaluation of the Compositional Styles and Techniques of Uta Dance Music of the Ibibio.” An Unpublished Masters Thesis, Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria.


This ICTM Dialogues session was an avenue to rethink, expand upon and re-engage our decolonial models and strategies. Our initial focus was on art music and its inferiorization of traditional musical practices and models. However, our understanding broadened to include all music(s) within our modern cultural space, including popular music. Also, during our presentation, one previously underestimated issue was raised: the issue of generalization in Africa. For example, when we use the term ‘African art music’ or ‘Nigerian art music’ to represent culturally differing internal systems (Ewe, Akan, Yoruba, Ibibio, Igbo, etc.), what do we mean? Is the pentatonic scale of the Ibibio the same as that of the Igbo, or are we aligning our scales and internal structural designs and patterns to the Western diatonic system? Two decolonial initiatives have already been proposed between some of our presenters and localized music practitioners, and we will continue our conversation in this new direction beyond the ICTM Dialogues session. The first group involves a collaboration related to harmonic peculiarities of the Ibibio, and Igbo traditional music (in pristine or near-pristine form). The second group will explore the patterning of specific scale systems.


Questions to Consider

How many Indigenous cultural tones (that is, scales) are retained in the contemporary traditional instrumental system, especially where tuning of instruments like the Ibibio xylophones has been pressured to align with the Western diatonic system?

At what point did Africans begin to use or deviate from parallelisms in their music composition?

Are there ways of notating oral music? Such a notation would involve a mechanism (that is, a semiotic representation) that accommodates several possibilities, and conforms to Indigenous modes of expression.

How is an interest in oral music evident in schools within the Nigerian educational system? To what extent does borrowing go the other way? For example, did Western rap music borrow from the example of Ntañ (speech form) as exemplified in one of the presentations in this ICTM Dialogues session?

This page has paths:

This page has tags:

This page references: