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Spring 2005 | Volume 28, Number 1 | Campus

Celebrating African Composers

Raised Between Two Cultures, a Musician Finds a Way to Bridge Them

To find inspiration for his current musical project, pianist William Chapman Nyaho didn’t have to look beyond his own name.

“The piano,” William Chapman Nyaho explains, “is both percussive and melodic, which are important elements of African music.”

“In the language of my father,” says Nyaho, who grew up in Ghana, West Africa, “Nyaho means ‘Remember your history.’” As an award-winning educator and concert artist, Nyaho not only remembers his history but also shares it — through works by classical composers of African descent.

In many genres of folk and popular music, composers from the African diaspora are well known. Not so in classical music — a situation Nyaho is working to change. “I think my calling is to celebrate this music and bring it to the fore,” he says. The musician has released a CD of several works by African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean composers (for most of them, it’s the only recording there is) and showcased the music in concerts around the world.

Nyaho’s mission brought him to Seattle Pacific University in March 2005 as part of the Lawrence and Ruth Schoenhals Symposium, an endowed program that enables Free Methodist colleges and universities to host Christian artists of national stature. In concert (aided by SPU faculty members and students), he presented enthusiastic renditions of eight different composers’ works, ranging in style from accessible and familiar to challenging and complex.

Nyaho wasn’t always so at ease with this repertoire. While at boarding school in Ghana, he learned both Western piano literature and traditional African dance music, and for a long time felt torn between the two — even after completing his doctorate in musical arts. During a 15-year teaching career, he sought out African classical music to include in his keyboard-literature courses. After accumulating precious copies of unpublished or out-of-print works, he took a sabbatical to study them. That’s when the lights came on.

“I realized I was trying to filter this music from a Western point of view,” Nyaho says. So he put aside (temporarily, at least) Western music: “No Bach, no Chopin — it was a resolution, almost. I had to stop playing anything else and just pound this music into my fingers.” Through this exercise, he was able to connect the notes on the page with the dance rhythms of his childhood. And in the process, he believes he integrated both sides of his musical background for the first time.

That was only four years ago, and though Nyaho has accomplished much since then, he says he still has a lot to do. Currently he’s compiling an anthology of the works for publication by Oxford University Press. And he’s aiming high for the future. “There are 50 recordings of Chopin etudes,” he notes. “There need to be 50 recordings of these African pieces.”


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From the President
Can a university change the world? To reach such a goal, says Presi-dent Philip Eaton, “we've got to intensely sharpen our focus on the vision that drives us as a university.”

The Results Are In! [Campaign]
The Campaign for SPU raised $55.8 million, breaking all of the Uni-
versity's previous fundraising records.

Behind the Scenes [Faculty]
An exhibition celebrates SPU set designer Don Yanik in a retro-
spective showing 20 years of creative genius.

Engaging Artists [Alumni]
Medallion Awards go to three gifted alumni whose artistry “engages, provokes, and rattles the senses.”

Candid Camera [Books & Film]
Documentary filmmakers capture glimmers of hope for children in the Red Light district of Calcutta, India.

Making Memories [Athletics]
The Falcon women's basketball team reached the NCAA title game for the first time in the team's history.

My Response
For 1966 graduate Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li, the tragic case of Terri Schiavo hit close to home.

Back-Cover Art [New]
Response's popular back-cover
art makes its online debut with a painting by an SPU adjunct professor of art.

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