For Ugbabe '98, music is his passion: Senior Fellow, Ugbabe hopes to pursue musical composition studies

by Maura Henninger | 11/20/97 6:00am

Onche Ugbabe '98 doesn't like to "put things in boxes." When asked what kind of music his senior fellowship centers around, his response is a little chuckle and shake of his head.

In his native country, Nigeria, he says, people don't categorize music -- or anything -- as strictly as Americans.

For Ugbabe, coming to the United States to attend Dartmouth, this was one of the most difficult things to adjust to. The piece he is composing for his fellowship, he says, invokes classical and African roots. It is a conglomeration of many influences.

"People ask what kind of music I'm composing, and I'm just letting the music come out. So for me to put it in a box is difficult -- I feel like I'm having an identity crisis trying to do so."

Growing up in Nigeria, Ugbabe was exposed to all sorts of music from jazz to classical Indian music to Nigerian popular and traditional music. Though, for him, music was just music. He never thought of jazz as jazz, for example, but rather as a part of a larger whole that was music.

At the age of seven, Ugbabe started taking piano lessons and at the age of 10 he began composing musical sketches.

"I didn't even know I was composing. I just kept all these pieces in a book and didn't show them to anyone. Then my teachers realized I had some talent when I started to perform some."

In high school, Ugbabe became interested in working with electronic music production and synthesizers, though resources were limited in Nigeria. When he arrived at Dartmouth, he found the Bregman Electro-Acoustic Music Studio where he spent hours learning the"cutting-edge technology of the United States, where everything is happening."

With this knowledge, Ugbabe returned to Nigeria in 1995 on a grant to explore Nigerian popular music. He produced two albums, one of which was released.

In addition to Nigerian popular music, Ugbabe also took an interest in learning about jazz when he matriculated to Dartmouth. With Senior Lecturer in Music, Fred Haas, Ugbabe took lessons and studied jazz piano and theory, which was a departure from his classical training.

Ugbabe has composed numerous pieces, including one performed by Lark Quartet at the Festival of New Musics 1995, a compostion performed at the World Music Percussion Ensemble concert Winter 1997, and various instrumental and electro-acoustic music pieces that have been performed on campus.

This year, he joined the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble as a pianist, although he was previously a trombonist for the group. Earlier this year the Coast performed a piece he composed and arranged -- the first-ever student piece the Coast has performed.

It was this composition that inspired one of Ugbabe's friends and fellow musicians, Mike Roberts '00 to write a song inspired by Ugbabe and his work.

"As I have worked more closely with Onche this year, those feelings of respect have deepened into sheer admiration. Onche is by far the hardest-working, most diligent musician on this campus -- truly a great inspiration to me and many other musicians at Dartmouth," Roberts said.

The song, "Onche," was developed by Roberts and the band Groovemerchant, for which Roberts plays the guitar, over the summer and was included on their recently released compact, "Dance With Gravity."

Currently, Roberts is working on the big band arrangement, for which it was originally intended. It's slated to be performed by the Coast this winter -- with Ugbabe on piano.

This past summer, Ugbabe had the opportunity to explore his diverse interests in music

He divided his time between interning at the Sony Music Studios in Manhattan and interning at the Lake Placid Institute for the Arts and Humanities, which boasts a series of music seminars with some of the best classical and jazz musicians.

Despite his interests in different musical genres, Ugbabe's senior fellowship involves neither of these.

"Students, my friends, who've seen me only in certain venues such as jazz and such might be surprised at the finished product," Ugbabe said.

Ugbabe is working on what is, essentially, a three-part composition for a small chamber ensemble which includes a cello, a flute, an oboe, a piano, and mallet percusison.

Harmony and melody will be primary elements in the first movement. The second will explore orchestration and timbres. The third will be more rhythmic and polyphonic. In the piece, Ugbabe will attempt to combine elements of West African music with elements from the 20th century classical tradition.

The piece will be performed at the New Musics Festival in the spring by a group of hired musicians.

As a economics and music double major, Ugbabe has no doubt that he'll continue to work with music after graduation. But just how, he's not sure.

"In a perfect world, I would return to Nigeria and work in music, but that would be musical suicide. Nigerians are very musical people but for the most part they have little disposable income. Therefore, there is not much funding for people who would like to pursue the Arts," Ugbabe said.

In Nigeria, he said, music is a craft like any other. Most traditional dancers and musicians are not famous because music and dance, such an integral part of life there, is practiced by most everyone. In the U.S., he has a chance to make a living from his music, which he wouldn't have in Nigeria.

Ugbabe hopes to go to graduate school for music composition, but his main goal after graduation is staying in the country.

In the meantime, Ugbabe will continue to work on his senior fellowship which he's almost a third done with.

"Whatever happens, as long as I can keep exploring music and learning, I'll be content."