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Gateway to West Africa

The St. Louis African Chorus' Fred Onovwerosuoke brings to fruition the Festival of African and West African Music in St. Louis


They call St. Louis the "Gateway to the West." This weekend, that will be shorthand for the "Gateway to West Africa" and the rest of that distant continent as the Festival of African and African-American Music in St. Louis brings performances, lectures, demonstrations and panel discussions to a variety of local venues, including the Sheldon Concert Hall, Steinberg Gallery at Washington University and Christ Church Cathedral.

The conference is the brainchild of Fred Onovwerosuoke, the director of the St. Louis African Chorus, which recently was awarded the prestigious 2001 Missouri Arts Award. Onovwerosuoke is a locally based West African composer and choral director with boundless energy who has been teaching St. Louisans from all backgrounds to sing in African dialects for years. His chorus will perform in the festival (7 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at Steinberg Gallery), but it is only part of a great wealth of talent, both local and far-flung, that will introduce those in attendance this weekend to some surprising directions in African music.

As a classically trained composer and conductor, Onovwerosuoke has a keen ear for African music as it interacts with Western classical traditions and techniques. As such, the festival will offer a tremendous amount of insight into traditions that few of us even know exist. Haitian composers and East African choral music will be explored in lectures and recitals, for example, and a performance of piano works by Jamaican, Cuban, Dominican and Panamanian composers will be presented. If you thought there was nothing to African music other than thumping drums, and nothing to the Diaspora but reggae and soul, then this festival will be an ear-opener.

That's not to say folk and pop music will be ignored. Black gospel piano music, ragtime and African talking drums will all be presented and discussed, and Los Angeles composer Ed Bland, who has worked with the likes of Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie and George Benson, will be featured in a series of concerts, including one with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (4 p.m. Sunday, April 1, at Christ Church Cathedral).

If a dominant theme emerges from the programming, though, it is music by black composers -- indeed, the festival would gain coherence by being renamed accordingly. It's safe to say that few people in the world know more about music by black composers than Onovwerosuoke, and one of them, J.H. Kwabena Nketia (director of the world-renowned International Center for African Music and Dance at the University of Ghana), will preside over a panel discussion during the festival.

Another distinguished scholar who will contribute to that panel, Dr. Dominique de Lerma, says, "I'm confident this is going to be the most important and comprehensive gathering on this subject, ever." And he should know.

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