Tribute: Ayo Bankole (1935-1976) a phenomenal organist

A great organist, musicologist and indeed an imaginative and talented composer died forty years ago on November 6, 1976 at the age of 41. He will be celebrated for a long time as indeed he was during his lifetime. The legend of Theophilus Ayoola Bankole started like any other in history: simply and seemingly ordinary. Yet within his lifespan, he attained fame of mythical proportions.

A token memorial like this intends to inspire a budding talent somewhere about the beauty and joy of art music. It is welcome and even overdue that History as a subject is now back in the school curriculum. Internet websites are too surreal to make historical figures vivid.

Ayo was nurtured by parents who were musicians with the pedigree traceable to Akiije George a distinguished organist and maternal grandfather. His father, T.A. Bankole, was an organist complementing and partnering music educationist and pianist mother. This was the foundation which brought his talent and skill to the attention of expatriate teachers later on in life. He thereon benefitted from the towering figures of the day, Dr. T.K.E. Phillips, the Cathedral Church of Christ Organist, and others who gave him tutorials in organ on his journey to fame.

An asset and pride, he dazzled students and staff of Baptist Academy with his unusual competence as college chapel organist. He always placed first at the music categories in the Annual Festivals of the Arts run during the colonial days. This incubation period was further enriched when he came under the tutelage of Fela Sowande, the world acclaimed organ virtuoso and composer, who returned to Nigeria as director of music at the Nigeria Broadcasting Service in 1953.

Now in the crucible, he was refined in all facets of musical arts in this defining moment under Sowande, an outstanding person from the first generation. Sowande, born May 29, 1905 and Ayo Bankole, born 1935. A government scholarship enabled him proceed to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London in 1957, to pursue organ and composition studies. St James-The-Less in London appointed him as organist and choir director during his studentship which was a remarkably fertile period when he composed in many genres for student performing organisations and also conducted his own works. He made his mark in the London scene at competitions and auditions.

A moment of glory came when the famous maestro, Sir Malcolm Sargeant, spotted him at an audition and invited him to play an organ concerto accompanied by the British Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra under his baton on the last night of the Promenade Concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, in 1959. Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II would be seated at the Royal State Box. Ayo delighted the well-appointed audience and took his bow in the proscenium striding to greater fame. Many curtain calls were still in the offing in his chosen career. Favourable critical reviews and acclaim were showered on him; he went up to become the first black man to win the prestigious organ scholarship at Clare College, Cambridge University. Lord Eric Ashby, (of the Ashby Commission for Higher Education in Nigeria 1948 fame) was then the Master of the College. Ayo Bankole was the first to be created organ scholar since the 1326 charter of the foundation of Clare College. He graduated with Bachelor of Arts degree in 1964 and in December of the same year he added the Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO), emerging the second Nigerian after Sowande. Thus, he added M.A. (Cantab) to his credentials.

Laurels, Rockefeller and Ford Fellowships, and tours to American Universities poured in galore. A panorama of his output in music clearly establishes his elite class as prolific in the footsteps of his mentor and historical greats. I was privileged to become his pupil in the late 1960s a few years after his return from Cambridge to plant seeds for the future of trained musicians.

A representative profile of his works and activities would present a fair glimpse into his vision. He comfortably expressed his technique through all the genres and styles from his London days to the time of his tenure as a research fellow in the Institute of African and Asian Studies, University of Lagos. Worthy of note are: a Folk Opera – ‘Night of Miracles’ (Ajantala, legend of the Yoruba), and ‘Baba Se Wa L’omo Rere’, also a folk sacred Cantata, both from his days at Guildhall. His skill at part-songs has been rewarded by the popularity of ‘Ojo Maa Ro’ (Let It Rain), ‘Iya’ (in praise of motherhood), ‘Keresimesi’, and ‘Adura Fun Alafia’ (Prayer for Peace written during the Nigerian Civil War). He composed the anthem ‘Mighty Africa’ for the 2nd All Africa Games which held in 1973. Church music and liturgical works include ‘Requiem’ and the popular ‘Salve Christie’ rendered by the visiting King’s College Choir, Cambridge on September 8, 1972 at St. Jude’s Church Ebute Metta with Ayo Bankole conducting. His famous organ works are inscribed with ‘Room A-1 Clare College, Cambridge 1964’.

His last major work was the Festac Cantata in 1976.

The preceding paragraphs give an abbreviation of the landmark achievements of Ayo Bankole, the genius of music. This writer benefitted from his thoroughness and moulding. Bankole filled the ‘chinks’ with proper preparation for audition to famous conservatories. Harmony, theory and counterpoint and foundations in organ technique were put in place after Cambridge Higher School and A-Level attainment. I succeeded in gaining admission, with scholarship, to Hartt College (now Hartt School), University of Hartford, Connecticut, USA. I recall from my first lesson with the maestro – “You know a good organist by his registration”.

The human dimension of Bankole came only from personal closeness. A good child to his parents, indeed one only needed to savour his fish stew and rice which he took to his father for Sunday lunch. The mantle of being able to cook well in the kitchen even fell on me! His mother, Ayo jr., and Femi his children attended all his recitals and concerts. He was so passionate about the furtherance of my education that he offered to pay my passage to America. Coincidentally however, providence brought me a Federal Scholarship!

May 17, 1975 was a peep into the spiritual realm and was also a premonition. At his 40th birthday, during an informal musical evening at his home, he startled me and those around when he expressed “I would like the best music when I die – SILENCE”. This retort came in response to a sudden power outage. This resonates with a quotation of the great pianist, Artur Schnabel – “The notes I can handle, but the SILENCE in between, Ah! therein lies the art”.

I had the privilege of using his work ‘Lord Jesus, I love thee’, a Christmas carol, on Christmas Eve, 1976 at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Zion Street, Hartford where I was organist and director of music. Reverend Father Ballard Dorsee allowed this memorial, sung by Lynne Burfeind (Soprano), a few weeks after Ayo and his wife Toro died, on November 6. I was grief-stricken, but my playing the Cassavant Frere organ put a proper spiritual closure as his spirit found expression at the sanctuary. I later briefed Professor Fela Sowande by a call to Randolph, Ohio, that he, my music grandpa was the one left to pilot me.

The curtain was drawn on the display of a rare talent but I took a legacy from him – “bloom where you are planted”.

  • Gbenga Kayode-Smith, a pupil of Ayo Bankole

B.Mus (Hons), Hartt.