11 October 2021

Rebeca Omordia brings to life the rhythms of African culture

By Lark Music

African classical music is not widely played or understood but 37-year-old Nigerian-Romanian pianist Rebeca Omordia is now leading the way to bring this unique genre to London audiences with an exciting African Concert Series at Wigmore Hall in February 2022. She tells Lark Music how her early days in Romania helped her to become a pioneer of the rhythms of Africa.

“I always wanted to play Schubert and Liszt piano concertos and Beethoven sonatas because as a pianist in Eastern Europe you have the technique and training for that repertoire. I also like to play Romanian classical music, it has many sources of inspiration from the authentic folklore and cultures like Byzantine, Slav and Gypsy.

My Nigerian father moved to Bucharest to train as a doctor and married my Romanian mother.

He was from the Igbo tribe and we would sing traditional music but otherwise I knew little of my ancestors’ music and history.

It was only in the last eight years or so that I started to explore African classical music. It is a unique genre because not only has it not been heard in music concerts, it uses African traditional melodies and rhythms in a classical language.

Through the music, a listener gets to know the culture of the African continent which is very diverse. The African Concert Series at Wigmore Hall will be ground-breaking for the classical music industry, its musicians and for the African culture – we get to bring the African culture to the Western world and form a bridge between Western classical music and traditional African music.

My interest grew when cellist Julian Lloyd Webber retired. It was a moment in my life when I had to reinvent myself because I had been playing a lot of chamber music concerts with him. My upbringing was as a soloist, so I needed to pick that up again.

At the same time I was researching African repertoire, but it was not very easy as most of the scores have still not been published.

African classical music was composed for Western instruments by African composers. They tried to bring, through the music, the similarities between the Western instruments and the African traditional instruments, using Western musical language and instruments.

On Facebook, the only international African composer I could find was Fred Onovwerosuoke, who lives in St Louis, USA. He was founder of the African-American Music Festival. It is now called the Intercultural Music (IMI) an outreach programme that features classical and contemporary works by composers of African, Hispanic and Asian descent, alongside standard repertoire.

Fred put me in contact with many other musicians, most of whom were on Facebook too, and when they heard about me, they asked me to send videos for them to post online.

These contacts led me to further research early 20th century West African composers who travelled to Europe in the 1920s to study in London. They then went back to Nigeria and Ghana, lecturing at universities and teaching their students to write classical music.

What I find most fascinating is that in Nigeria there are more than 200 ethnic tribes and each one has its own language and music, so when Nigerian composers wrote classical music they used melodies and rhythms from the tribes they came from. That’s why the music is so diverse.

Musical language brings tribes together. Some of the classical music is composed in a more European style – it was not until I went to Nigeria and played some of the African music I got the impression that pieces by Ayo Bankole sounded European but he had used Yoruba melodies, too.

I was so impressed by his work that I have already introduced his music into my programme alongside music by Christian Onyeji, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Akin Euba and Nabil Benabdeljalil.

I want to identify those melodies and a way of playing them because they have a different phrasing to how I was trained to play. As a performer, you can’t really understand it unless you research it.

The Africans play traditional music to express life, but they do not really play classical music much and that’s why it took so many years to discover this genre.”


Piano: A lesson in sitting still

“I started to play the piano as a way to get out of going to the local school. I was the youngest daughter and always trouble. My parents kept saying ‘you will have to be quiet when you go to school or you will be punished’.

I used to watch my older sister having piano lessons and I told my parents, ‘I do not want to go to the local school’. I was frightened of the head teacher who reminded me of Elena Ceau?escu, the wife of the Romanian Communist Party leader Nicolae Ceau?escu!

I said: ‘I want to go play the piano and go to music school.’ Yes, really. They held off my school entry for a year and I practised enough to get in. It was something that made me sit still and focus!

I began winning national awards from the age of nine and went onto the National Music University in Bucharest and moved to England after winning a scholarship in 2006 to study at the Birmingham Conservatoire and later, Trinity College of Music in London.

Another breakthrough came in in 2009, when Julian Lloyd Webber was judging the Delius competition at the Conservatoire. We kept in touch and in 2012 we started work together on several collaborations, including concerts at Wigmore Hall, at Highgrove for the Prince’s Trust and live broadcasts for BBC Radio 3.

Julian is an amazing teacher. Through him I changed more than 50% in the way I see life and the way I see music. I will always be grateful.

Learning in a Communist country was much more about practising and so I developed many new skills. Julian is now supporting my work as Patron of the African Concert Series.


I continue to learn – and although I have played at Wigmore Hall before, joining its family of partners for the African Concert Series is an exciting opportunity to share this wonderful music that I have so recently discovered.”


  • John Gilhooly, artistic and executive director of Wigmore Hall, says he is ‘delighted to welcome the African Concert Series’.  He told Lark Music: “I invited Rebeca because of her trailblazing work in establishing the series and feel that it is a natural fit for Wigmore Hall, where we hope to enjoy working with the African Concert Series for many years to come.”
  • Wigmore Hall African Concert series starts on Saturday, February 5, 2022 at 11.30am, 3pm and 7.30pm. Full details and ticket prices to be released soon.