38 years after, Ayo Bankole lives on
Thirty eight years ago, November 6, 1976 precisely, Ayo Bankole, the prodigious and foremost Nigerian organist, composer and musicologist, was brutally murdered alongside his wife, Toro, in their Surulere, Lagos residence. Bankole was cut down prematurely at the prime of his blossom carrier. The gruesome act was committed by his half brother. This unfortunate death came just a day after he was publicly acknowledged in a concert at the Italian Embassy in Lagos.
Today, the seed of good works and discipline nurtured by the late composer extraordinaire waxes stronger. Apart from the contributions of his scion, Ayo Bankole Jnr., to the growth of the sector, his works have continued to enliven audience wherever it is played. Not only that, academia, examination bodies and critics have continued to celebrate and evaluate his works.
He lived for 41 years and for such a short life, it will be hard to confine the memories of his personality into the dustbin of history. Ayo Bankole was the first Nigerian to study music at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, United Kingdom. He is also perhaps the most decorated of them all. Although in his works, he maintained a close link with European musical culture, he nevertheless employed African traditional norms in the treatments of his elements and motifs. Bankole was a master of tonality and chromaticism who made use of simple Yoruba folk tunes and rhythmic patterns in his composition.
His works, which parade a strong national character, drew a lot of influence even as a student in London. According to Akin Euba, one of his contemporaries, Bankole “was an extremely popular student at the Guildhall School and soon got together a choir comprising fellow students which gave performance of his composition, many of them in the Yoruba language.” He exhibited a lot of close affinity with other nationalistic composers like Claude Debussy and Bela Bartok, particularly in his impressionist and folklorist approach to compositions.
For his brief stay on earth, Bankole stood like a colossus in the field of composition, choral conducting, music education, and musicology. He was said to have died before his genius came to full blow. Even at that, Bankole had transversed all the nooks and crannies of art music, and put no one in doubt of his unflinching love of father land. He died before Nigeria hosted the glamorous, Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Feb 1977, but his work, FESTAC Cantata No 4, was one of the most celebrated compositions of the events.
Despite acquiring fame and international recognition, Bankole returned to Nigeria to promote the cause of music at the grassroots. He started by organising trainings for young singers in high school and churches. He garnered talented young men and women for the purpose of exposing them to international standards and scholarships and became a rallying point in the community of arts music.
Describing the contributions of Bankole to the development of art music in Nigeria, Dr. Albert Oikelome, a Senior Lecturer of Music, Creative Arts Department of the University of Lagos, says it is quite enormous and commendable. “Judging from the fact that his compositions span across various artistic medium, such as choral (secular and liturgy), instrumental, since he was actually brought up under a strict Christian faith,” he noted.
Oikelome stated further that, the complexities of Bankole’s compositions made him compete favourable in the international scene. “His early exposure to Western act of music making fused into his background of African traditional, made him exemplary.” Oikelome agreed that while it is very difficult to have the likes of Bankole in today’s art music scene in Nigeria, it isn’t impossible, “because talents are born every day. I do believe in this usual concept of shoes too big for anybody to put on, but will rather say, Bankole has definitely made his marks in his own time having been availed the best opportunities around at the time.”
He also noted the environment in which Bankole operated is completely at variance with what we have today. “In terms of development in music and musicology, the environment isn’t the same, but we must give it to Bankole for his unalloyed dedication to art music and propagation of those traits of African music that were hitherto not known to the western world,” Okeilome concluded.
Born in May 1935 to a highly musical family in Lagos, his father was, for many years, the Principal Organist at St. Peter Church, Faji Lagos, while his mother also taught music for so many years at Queens School Ede, then in Oyo State. Bankole went into music early, became a chorister at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, where he started receiving training from the late T. Ekundayo Phillips.
While working as a clerical officer with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, luck, however, brought him in contact with Fela Sowande. It was with Sowande that Bankole began a carrier in organ music. He left for London in 1957, on the scholarship of the Federal Government, to study music at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After a successful stay in Guildhall, Bankole moved to Cambridge University and became the first Nigeria to study music in Cambridge, and won himself the Organ scholarship of Glare College.
Still in London, Bankole obtained the fellowship of the Royal College of Organists, being the second Nigeria to obtain this highest British professional qualification for organists. He also received a Rockfeller Foundation fellowship to study at the prestigious University of California, Los Angeles, United State of America. Bankole worked briefly at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria before he moved to the University of Lagos as a music lecturer, a position he held until he met his untimely death.
Thirty eight years gone by, the legacy of good art music left behind by Bankole rages. Some of his notable works are, Toccata and Fugue for Organ, Three Toccatas for Organ, The Passion (based on the Passion of Jesus Christ), Organ symphony for Drums, Trumpet and Trombone, Three part song for the Choir, Orisa bi ofun kosi, Yungban Yungba and Enikeni to ba gbe ara re ga. He also wrote songs for Baritone and Piano, Kiniun, Iya, and Ja itanna T’ontan, Nigerian Suite for Piano, the Fugal Dance of Piano and he wrote an opera titled a Night of Miracles and many others.
While works of this efficacious son of African still dominate airwaves, churches and concert halls abroad, it is almost lost in his fatherland. The land which he used his music and energy to promote in his days has not honoured him by upholding the culture of art music which he lived for. In the words of Euba at the demise of Bankole in 1976, when history of concert and operatic music in Africa comes to be written, the name, Ayo Bankole, will feature prominently. We are lucky that he left many works behind.
While the community of art music continues celebrating the memories of this distinguished art personality, it is hoped that concerned government authorities will, one day, honour him and situate him properly in the history of music arts development in the country.