Joshua Uzoigwe, a Nigerian Composer-Ethnomusicologist.


In his career Uzoigwe was active both as a composer and as a scholar; his scholarly publications include two books Akin Euba: an introduction to the life and music of a Nigerian composer (1992) and Ukom: a study of African music craftsmanship (1998) as well as articles in various journals.

Joshua Uzoigwe was born in Umuagu village in Umuahia, Abia State (formerly Imo State), Nigeria on the 1st of July 1946 and began his education at the village primary school in Umuagu. He attributed his first contact with music to his participation in various musical activities in his village. The annual wrestling match in his community offered one forum for music performance. His involvement in this match was mainly audience participation, such as hand-clapping, singing and dancing.

Uzoigwe also sang as a child in a local church choir and occasionally performed the works of Igbo composers, including hymns and sacred anthems during special services. In this way, Uzoigwe, like many Nigerians, grew up bimusical, that is, he had an intuitive understanding of, and was trained in the skills of, two or more musical traditions. As a child he drummed and played the Oja, a traditional African flute of the Igbo people of Nigeria, for various churches and at different cultural events.

Josua was admitted in year 1960 to high school at King’s College, Lagos, one of the leading secondary schools offering Western classical music in Nigeria. He was also a chorister in the school's Protestant chapel and later went to the International School,  Ibadan from 1965 to 1967 (where he became a pupil and protégé of the  music  master, Tony White) to study for his Advanced Level Certificate.



He proceeded to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the only Nigerian tertiary institution with a department of music at the time. He was at Nsukka from 1970 to 1973 and received a diploma in music. Uzoigwe studied orchestration and counterpoint, theory of music, history of Western music, piano and voice. He was also exposed to some aspects of Nigerian traditional music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka the university that offers a fairly bicultural music education. From May 1967 to January 1970 his music education was interrupted by the Nigerian civil war.2

Through a scholarship he received from the government of the former East Central State of Nigeria, he studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, from 1973 to 1977 and received a licentiate in piano (1974) and a graduate diploma in piano and composition (1977) from the School. He later studied ethnomusicology with John Blacking at the Queen’s University, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from 1977 to 1981, receiving an MA (1978) and a PhD (1981). Among his honours are a composition prize received from the African Studies Center of the University of California, Los Angeles (1973), and a composition prize awarded by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (1974).

The search for a deeper knowledge of Nigerian traditional music led Uzoigwe to compose some works on an experimental level. In 1978 he wrote his first composition at Queen's University. Ritual procession for African and European orchestra. Merging all his experiences, Uzoigwe originated a new style in African art music which captured the essence of the African spirit in a manner that had never been attained. His Ritual Procession for African and European orchestra, which premiered in 1980 while he was a student at the University of Belfast, marked the beginning of a new style to be adopted by Uzoigwe, a synthesis of both Nigerian and Western musical elements.

Artis Wodehouse plays Nigerian Dance 1 by Joshua Uzoigwe

In his compositions for piano, voice, orchestra, flute, trombone, and African instruments, Uzoigwe's treatment of African musical elements evoked African scenes, smell, festivals, and ceremonies in a way that touched Africans and non-Africans alike. His Nigerian Dances evoke Igbo and Yoruba festivals, while his Talking Drums transform the piano into a series of African drums. Uzoigwe's works are truly a testament that beautiful things do come out of Africa.

In his career Uzoigwe was active both as a composer and as a scholar; his scholarly publications include two books Akin Euba: an introduction to the life and music of a Nigerian composer (1992) and Ukom: a study of African music craftsmanship (1998) as well as articles in various journals. 

He composed music for a variety of media and, in addition to the piano music mentioned above, his  works include Lustra Variations for symphony orchestra (premiered in London in 1977), Royal Procession for European and African instruments (first performed in Belfast in 1980), Watermaid for  bass voice  and  symphony  orchestra  (1989), Four  Nigerian  Dances for flute, clarinet, violin, viola and cello (premiered in London in 1976),  Masquerade for African tension drum and piano (first  performed  in  Aba, Nigeria in 1979), Fanfare for brass ensemble (1981), and Sketch for trombone and piano (premiered in Ile Ife, Nigeria, in 1986).
Several of Joshua Uzoigwe piano works have recently appeared on CD, such as Talking Drums performed by William Chapman Nyaho (ca.  2003), Lustra Variations performed by Glen Inanga (2005), and Agbigbo performed by Darryl Hollister (2005).

Among the most often performed works of Joshua Uzoigwe are the Four Igbo Songs for  soprano  and  piano;  their  chief  exponents  have  been  Ori  Enyi,  Joyce  Adewunmi and Dawn Padmore. Several of his piano works have recently appeared on CD, such as Talking Drums performed by William Chapman Nyaho (ca.  2003), Lustra Variations performed by Glen Inanga (2005), and Agbigbo performed by Darryl Hollister (2005).

Joshua Uzoigwe was a brilliant exponent of various theories of composition such as ‘African pianism’, ‘intercultural musicology’, ‘creative musicology’ and ‘auto musicology’. African pianism may be described as a style of keyboard composition and performance that is influenced by African traditional practices (as found, for example, in the music of drums, xylophones and ‘thumb pianos’). 

Uzoigwe’s exceptional success in articulating this theory stems from his research into the Ukom drum tradition of the Igbo of Nigeria, as well as his internalisation of idioms of traditional music that he heard while growing up in Nigeria. Uzoigwe’s connection of research to composition again exemplifies another theories (that of creative musicology) which may be described as using information obtained from field research and analysis of oral tradition music as the basis of composition. In normal musicology such information is presented in scholarly publications.

While Sowande drew primarily on Yoruba influences in his music, Joshua Uzoigwe drew more on Igbo music. His masterpiece, Talking Drums (1990), draws on these traditions to express, in five movements, the complex relationship between melody and rhythm, and the way that one can become the other. The great Ghanaian pianist William Chapman Nyaho has championed Uzoigwe’s music and helped to bring it to the attention to a broader contemporary audience, but his work has always been appreciated in Nigerian classical circles.

Ukom (Talking Drums) and Township Guitar played by Evan Engelstad

Uzoigwe was also the recipient of numerous awards in piano performance, music composition and orchestration. He won his first award in piano performance when he was a student at King's College Secondary School in Lagos, Nigeria, under the tutelage of his private piano teacher, Major J. J. Allen, who was then a Colonial Administrator. 

Uzoigwe's academic accomplishments and his first major work, Four Igbo Songs, won him a scholarship from the government of the then East Central State of Nigeria to continue his musical studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. In 1976, he won the prize in composition at the Guildhall School of Music with his Nigerian Dances for Chamber Orchestra. A much sort after product, Uzoigwe's works have been performed all over the world by people of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds.

Uzoigwe taught at four institutions in Nigeria: Uzoigwe was a lecturer in the Department of Music at the Alvan Ikoku College of Education,  Owerri,  from  1979 to 1981,  and  moved to the Department of Music at the University of Ife as  a  senior  lecturer  in  1981.  From Ife, he spent a period at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, before being appointed associate professor and head of the Department of Music at the University of Uyo in 1995.

In 1982 Uzoigwe married an Irish woman, Joanne McGuckin, in his home town of Umuahia and lost his wife at Ile-Ife in 1990 after the birth of their third child. Uzoigwe himself passed away on 15 October 2005, and was buried in Umuahia, on 5 November. He was survived by three children, Uzo, Nneka, and Ejike, who presently reside in Northern Ireland with their grandparents.

Through his sojourns abroad as a composer, teacher, and scholar Uzoigwe never forgot his cultural identity. He collaborated with people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds, embracing their cultural gifts and exposing them to the beautiful music, food, and customs of Nigeria.

When some of his colleagues left Nigeria for other countries, Uzoigwe chose to stay in African teaching and encouraging his students to use elements in their culture to produce music of world appeal while retaining their African identity. There is no doubt that Uzoigwe has left an important legacy for succeeding generations of African composers and that his stature will continue to grow as the modern African  school of composition gains more recognition around the world.