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Pianist explores classical music of Africans

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Concert pianist William Chapman Nyaho has a global perspective that extends far beyond most classical musicians even in our increasingly global 21st century.

On Sunday, Chapman Nyaho plays a solo recital of music by composers who are African or of African descent. The concert, "African Voices," is the first in a new series presented by Pro-Arts Collective that celebrates classical music by African and African diaspora composers and musicians. The series, the Metropolitan Classical Series, is co-sponsored with the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of Austin's oldest black churches.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1958 when his father was serving as Ghana's first ambassador to the United States, Chapman Nyaho grew up in Ghana, where his early music education was a fusion of the Western classical canon, especially the British classical music tradition (Ghana is a former British colony) and the rich musical traditions of his native Ghana.

"I learned a lot of traditional (African) dances, but I also loved my Bach and my Beethoven, too," says Chapman Nyaho by phone from Seattle, where he now lives. "It was always hard for me to try to find a way to meld those two parts of my identity."

Chapman Nyaho found a way, but it wasn't until after years of international study, first at Oxford University in England, then at Eastman School of Music and finally at the University of Texas, where he received his doctorate in music in the late 1980s.

Now, Chapman Nyaho dedicates his career to promoting the music of African and African diaspora composers.

He wrote the book on the topic, in one sense.

His five-volume sheet music anthology, "Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora" (Oxford University Press), includes many pieces that are published for the first time, finally making the work of several composers available for learning and performing. Chapman Nyaho spent several years digging through various archives to find music manuscripts.

He has also released two CDs - "Senku" and "Asa" - featuring piano music by composers of African descent, much of it recorded for the first time.

Chapman Nyaho recalls that when he started his search for classical composers of Africa and the African diaspora, he found little understanding from those in the music profession.

"When I enquired in (record and music) stores I was always asked `do you mean jazz?'" he says. "(People) didn't understand that there even were African or African diaspora classical composers."

Among the composers whose work Chapman Nyaho will play on Sunday is Florence Price, largely recognized as the first black woman in the country to receive recognition for her symphonic compositions, first publishing her music in the 1920s.

There's also Price's student Margaret Bonds, who was most active in 1950s and 1960s. Chapman Nyaho will play Bonds' "Troubled Water," a spiritual-inspired concert piece.

Chapman Nyaho will also play works by living composers including Fred Onovwerosuoke from Nigeria and Bongani Ndodana of South Africa.

The pianist will finish his program with a sonata by Alberto Ginastera, an Argentine composer who is not of African descent but, as Chapman Nyaho points out, represents the indelible influence of African music on the music of Latin America.

"My reasoning for putting Ginastera's music on the program is that it's very reminiscent of West African music. Its tonalities, its rhythms are actually very similar to music from my father's part of Ghana, Ewe," says Chapman Nyaho.

"I want to bring an understanding to the cross-cultural influences going on in all of classical music."