Rebeca Omordia, the pianist dedicated to the renaissance of African art music

by Segun Fajemisin

Often, a lingering impression is made whenever a rather casual initial encounter has been supplanted by the overwhelming charisma of that individual you have just met. Such is my first contact with Rebeca Omordia at the Africa Centre in November 2019. Soft-spoken and with a beautiful smile that intermittently plays around her face, Rebeca however packs quite a punch. The bashful looks belie the persona of a gifted, boisterous performer; an award-winning pianist beloved throughout the UK and overseas. She is that vibrant and exciting wunderkind whose work continues to impress long-term enthusiasts as well as wooing new adherents to classical music performance.

Born to a Romanian mother and Nigerian father, Rebeca demonstrated a talented streak as a child growing up in Romania. She would later move to the UK to study at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and the Trinity College of Music in London. She also holds a doctorate in Music from the National University of Music in Bucharest, Romania.

The classical pianist has worked with an array of international musicians, including a three-year partnership with world renowned British cellist, Julian Lloyd Webber; they had toured the UK performing in venues such as the Wigmore Hall and Kings Place in London, at Highgrove, the residence of Prince of Wales, and they made live broadcasts for BBC Radio 3. Says Julian of Rebeca: “Rebeca Omordia is half Romanian, half Nigerian – and it’s a powerful combination! Rebeca’s technique knows no bounds but, more importantly, she plays with a depth of insight and understanding which is all too rare today.” (London Magazine).

What was initially scheduled as a regular interview with the affable founder/curator of the African Concert Series invariably ends up as a questionnaire exchange due to the lockdown. Even at that, Dr Omordia shines forth brilliantly in this exclusive insight into the life and career of a prodigy.

What first got you into music? Who inspired you to make music? When and why did you start playing?

I was born in Romania to a Romanian mother and a Nigerian father. When I was a child, my family used to go to a Baptist Church where every child in the church was learning an instrument or was singing in the choir, so my mother decided that we should learn how to play the piano. My father was a doctor and, like every African father, wanted his children to follow in his footsteps or to study Law or Engineering. I was a very energetic child and my parents soon discovered that playing the piano was calming me and that was the only time they could breathe, so they allowed me to go to the Specialist Music School in my hometown. I loved playing the piano and my teacher sent me to a national piano competition which I won and within the first year of learning the piano I appeared on the National Television. More competitions and performances followed and my parents realised that playing the piano was the only thing that kept me out of trouble, so they supported what later became my full-time career.

How would you describe the music that you typically compose/recite?

I am a performer and I interpret other people’s (composers) music. I specialise in performing classical music.

What is your creative process like?

The process of learning a piece of music always depends on the time (the deadline) I have to deliver it. But starts by learning the music itself – reading the notes, while I work on understanding the music – the message the composer wanted to send. The process is quite complex as each composer has a different style depending of the era he comes from. The technique of playing the piece helps you to work on the sound you make to create a certain ‘sound world’ full of a variety of colours and characters, that express certain emotions – joy, sadness, passion, etc.

What is your first instrument? What instrument (s) do you play now?

I only play the piano.

What would you be doing if it wasn’t for your music career?

I have played piano professionally since I was a child. Once music enters your blood, there’s no going back. I ‘flirted’ with the idea of becoming something else, but I always returned to being a pianist. There was a thought many years ago of becoming a Lawyer as I always believed very strongly in justice, fighting for a cause – my close friends and family see me as a freedom fighter.

Tell us your most iconic performance/venues? Any favourite (s)?

I have played at the Royal Albert Hall and Wigmore Hall in London, and personally I think Wigmore Hall has the best acoustic in the world for recitals and chamber music. I also had the opportunity to play at 10 Downing Street for the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2012. It was a life changing experience.

Which famous composers do you most admire, and how have they affected your career?

I was trained to play the great German and Russian romantics, and I loved them all. The composers that impacted my career most were the African Art composers, which I only discovered about ten years ago – Fela Sowande, Ayo Bankole, Joshua Uzoigwe. It was fascinating to hear Yoruba and Igbo tunes presented in a ‘Sonata’ form (Western classical music) form. It soon became a mission to make this music known in the UK, which I have ever since.

For a genre that’s primarily considered an elitist indulgence, how would you suggest making classical music reach a far wider African audience?

Classical music is considered elitist to Africans because they are not accustomed to it, they don’t necessarily understand it. But they all know their own tribe’s melodies and rhythms, and I believe African Art music is the best way to introduce an African audience to Western classical music through a language they understand. This was one of the major reasons behind launching The African Concert Series London in 2019. And it worked. 90% of the audience that attended our concerts were people of African descent who came because of the cultural element featured in the concerts. We had music from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Morocco – the people could relate to the music of the country they came from.

Your CD, ‘Ekele’, was released in 2018 to critical acclaims. What message were you trying to get across?

In Igbo language “Ekele” means Greetings and the CD was a Greeting from the “Land of the Rising Sun” to the Western world, an introduction to the richly diverse genre of music – the African Art Music.

The African Concert Series debuted in 2019. It was an ambitious project and turned out successfully. The pandemic (COVID-19) with its obvious restrictive effects have no doubt contributed to this year’s edition being held online. Tell us about the 2020 edition.

The pandemic moved our entire lives online – we worked online; we saw our loved ones online, and it was also an opportunity for The African Concert Series London to reach a wider audience. People from all over the world – from the United States, Africa, Asia – tuned in to The African Series Facebook page to watch our concerts that otherwise would have been impossible to attend due to the distance. Social media audience also witnessed something that had never been done before and listened to music that never gets played online. We had one week of daily performances: from Nigeria – music for organ and songs for voice and organ with tenor Jo Oparamanuike and organist Babatunde Sosan, recorded at the Cathedral Church of Christ in Lagos; Nigerian pianist Glen Inanga performed all the way from the Cayman Islands music by Ayo Bankole and Christian Onyeji; South African double bass virtuoso Leon Bosch performed from the UK music from South Africa especially written for him; Moroccan-Hungarian pianist Marouan Benabdallah recorded a short lecture-recital of sparkling virtuosity of music from Morocco and the Arab world; from the United States, composer Fred Onovwerosuoke with wife, flutist Wendy Hymes and the IMI Chamber Players, performed music from Ghana and Nigeria. And finally, I closed the series with a selection of Studies in African Rhythms for piano by Fred Onovwerosuoke, short little pieces, each of them inspired by a different country in Africa.

Considering the ostensibly far-reaching impact of online broadcasts, do you see this becoming an integral feature of the future edition of the series?

All the artists miss the concert halls and the direct contact with the audience that inspires you – and the audience misses us. We look forward to returning to live concerts, but online broadcasts have proved the far-reaching impact to a wider audience, and I believe this will remain a permanent element in our activity.

Tell us your immediate musical plans? What projects do you have in the pipeline for 2020 and beyond?

2020 was supposed to include solo tours in the USA and in Nigeria as well as a Concerto premiere and various commercial recordings in the UK, but they were all postponed or cancelled because of the pandemic. Apart from working on moving the African Concert Series online, I took the opportunity to finish editing my Doctoral thesis, which will be published as a book later this year.

Interview arranged by Segun Martins Fajemisin
Photo credits: Rebeca Omordia / African Concert Series

© Feferity Media Group 2020

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