Classical Music from Africa and the African Diaspora

MBC Presentation Materials

MBC provides resources to facilitate presentations about each composer in our published volumes. Bullet Point Biographies and downloadable PDF maps representing the geography of each composer’s life make sharing information about these remarkable individuals easy and exciting!

Amanda Ira Aldridge

  • Amanda Ira Aldridge was born in London, England in 1866. She was the daughter of an African-American Shakespearian actor and his Swedish wife.
  • She became well known throughout Europe as a singer, but her singing career ended when she developed laryngitis, a throat condition that affected her voice. After that, Aldridge put all of her energy into teaching and composing.
  • She published all of her music under the male pen name “Montague Ring.” Most of her compositions were art songs and solo piano music.


Ephraim Amu

  • Ephraim Amu (eh-FREHM  AH-moo) was born in the West African country of Ghana in 1899. When he was a boy, he learned music theory and piano from his middle school teacher and from a friendly minister in his hometown.
  • When he grew up, he became a Christian religious teacher, and later he taught music at universities. He helped to develop the school of music and drama in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Legon.
  • A great number of Amu’s compositions have a Christian theme, and many of them are shaped by African vocal and rhythmic traditions. One of his compositions has become a famous patriotic song in Ghana and is performed at national events.

Nicholas Ballanta

  • Nicholas Ballanta was born in 1893 near the capital city of Freetown in the West African country of Sierra Leone. When he was a boy, he learned to play the organ and clarinet, and he was elected the sergeant of his school band.
  • When he grew up, he traveled to the United States, where he became well-respected for his composing and for writing articles about African music. He also studied the music of African Americans, and he published a collection of American spirituals.
  • Later, he returned to West Africa where he studied African scales, melodies, rhythms, musical forms, and instruments. He also taught music at the same school he attended as a child.

Basile Barès

  • Basile Barès (bah-ZEEL bah-REHS) was an American composer who was born into slavery in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1845.
  • He grew up working in the music store of his enslaver’s family, which is where he probably first learned to play the piano and began to compose.
  • He wrote “Louisiana Infantrymen’s Grand Polka” when he was only 16 years old. It is the only American piece that was published and given copyright protection to an enslaved composer!
  • After becoming free after the Civil War, he traveled to Paris where he played piano at the Paris International Exposition.

Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

  • Joseph Bologne (boh-LOHN-yuh), known as the Chevalier (shuh-val-YEY) de Saint-Georges (sain-JOHRJ), was born in 1745 on the island of Guadeloupe (gwah-duh-LOOP) in the Caribbean.
  • He moved to France with his parents when he was six years old, where he studied sword fighting and music.
  • He became the most important composer in France during his lifetime—his music inspired other composers, including Mozart.

Will Marion Cook

  • Will Marion Cook was born in 1869 in Washington, DC and grew up with his grandparents in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
  • When he was just 21, he became the director of an orchestra, and he studied at some of the best classical music schools in the United States.
  • He faced discrimination as a classical performer, so he became discouraged and turned to popular theater music. His unique classical music background allowed him to help create a new type of popular song for Black American musical comedies in the early 1900s.

William B. Cooper

  • William B. Cooper was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1920.
  • He was an organist and composer, and he earned a doctorate of music from Columbia Pacific University in California. He worked as a professor in North Carolina and Virginia, and he taught for 26 years in the New York City public school system.
  • Cooper was the organist and Minister of Music at two churches in Harlem in New York City. He wrote music for organ, voice, chorus, solo instruments, orchestra, and ballet.

Francisca “Chiquinha” Gonzaga

  • Francisca “Chiquinha” Gonzaga (fran-SEES-ka she- KEEN-ya gon-ZAH-ga) was born in 1847 and lived in Rio de Janeiro, which is one of the biggest cities in the South American country of Brazil.
  • She got married, but her husband did not want her to have a musical career. Even though it was very scandalous at the time, Gonzaga divorced him.
  • She wrote more than 2,000 pieces throughout her lifetime, and became the first woman in Brazil to conduct an orchestra.

Sister Marie-Seraphine Gotay

  • Sister Marie-Seraphine Gotay (go-TAY) was born in 1865 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moved to New Orleans, Louisiana when she was 17 years old.
  • In New Orleans, she joined the Sisters of the Holy Family and became a Catholic nun.
  • There were many Black composers in New Orleans in the 1800s, but Sister Gotay is the only known Black woman composer from that time.

Felipe Gutiérrez (y) Espinosa

  • Felipe Gutiérrez (y) Espinosa (fey-LEEP-ay goo-tee-EH-rez ee es-pee-NOH-sah) was born in 1825 in San Juan, which is the capital city of the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.
  • He became one of the first classical composers born on the island, and the most important Puerto Rican composer of operas and religious music in the 1800s.
  • He ran a free music school so that he could teach and share music with anyone who wished to learn.

J. Rosamond Johnson

  • Rosamond Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1873, and he began to play the piano when he was four years old.
  • He and his brother James Weldon Johnson were a song-writing team; J. Rosamond wrote the music and James wrote the lyrics. Together they wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which is now often called “the Black National Anthem.”
  • The brothers also worked in New York creating vaudeville musicals. J. Rosamond later was the music director of the London Opera House in England. He also ran the Music School Settlement for Colored People in Harlem in New York City, a music school for African-American children.

Scott Joplin

  • Scott Joplin was an American composer, performer, and teacher who was born in 1867 or 1868.
  • He is best known for writing a style of music called ragtime, and his “Maple Leaf Rag” became the most famous ragtime piece in history.
  • He also wrote music for a ballet and two operas.

Kenneth Kafui

  • Kenneth Kafui (KA-fwee) was a composer and teacher from the West African country of Ghana where he was born in 1951.
  • He received an award for best contemporary classical music composer in Ghana in 1987.
  • His music often includes Ghanaian rhythms and themes.

Betty Jackson King

  • Betty Jackson King was an American composer, pianist, arranger, teacher, and supporter of Black musicians. She was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1928.
  • When she was a child, her mother taught music at the Southern Christian Institute in Mississippi. That was where King first heard spirituals, which later influenced her compositions.
  • She wrote arrangements of spirituals, and she also composed instrumental pieces, songs, three operas, a cantata, and a requiem, which is the music for a religious ceremony for someone who has died.

Lucien Lambert

  • Lucien Lambert (loo-see-AHN lahm-BEAR) was born in 1828 in New Orleans as a “free person of color” before the Civil War. His family was well known in their community and beyond for their musical talent.
  • When he grew up, he moved to Paris where he worked as a composer and musician. He also married a French woman and they had a son.
  • Later, Lucien and his family moved together to the city of Rio de Janeiro in the South American country of Brazil. There he continued to compose, had a piano and music store, taught music students, and became a member of the Brazilian National Institute of Music.

Thomas J. Martin

  • Thomas J. Martin was an American composer who was active in New Orleans, Louisiana in the mid-1800s.
  • He was a free man of color in the years before the Civil War, and he published many pieces between 1854 and 1860.
  • He played the guitar and the piano, and he operated a large teaching studio in New Orleans for many years.

José Maurício Nunes Garcia

  • José Maurício Nunes Garcia (hoh-sey mah-oh-REE-see-oh NOON-eys gahr-SEE-ah) was born in 1767 in the city of Rio de Janeiro in the South American country of Brazil. From the time he was a small boy, he had a beautiful singing voice and could easily remember melodies.
  • He was a deeply religious man and his compositions are mainly written to be part of church services. When he was 25, he even became a Catholic priest.
  • Garcia was the chapel master of the Rio de Janeiro Cathedral. Later he was appointed chapel master of the royal chapel of Prince Dom João the Sixth of Portugal, a country in Europe, whose court had been relocated to Rio de Janeiro.

Emeka Nzewi

  • Emeka (“Meki”) Nzewi (eh-meh-kah meh-kee en-ZAY-wee) was born in 1938 in the city of Nnewi in the West African country of Nigeria. He taught himself to play the guitar and composed popular music as a young man.
  • He was a member of the first class of music students at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Later, he earned a PhD in ethnomusicology from Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
  • Nzewi has researched African music theory and practice. He composes for theater and various ensembles, and he has worked to develop modern African classical drumming.

Juwon Ogungbe

  • Juwon Ogungbe (joo-WAHN oh-GOONG-bey) is a composer and performer who was born in 1961 in London, England.
  • His parents are of Yoruba ethnic heritage from the West African country of Nigeria.
  • His musical style combines sounds from classical music, African instruments and rhythms, and pop music.

Alain Pradel

  • Alain Pradel (ah-LAN prah-DELL) was born in 1949 on the French island of Guadeloupe (gwah-duh-LOOP) in the Caribbean. He grew up in a rural community, and studied piano for three years beginning when he was 12 years old.
  • Starting when he was 21 years old, he spent seven years in Paris away from music. After that, he returned to Guadeloupe and became interested in music for dance.
  • He began to compose after he was 30 years old. When he did, he mixed classical music with the local Caribbean styles he had heard and studied when he was a child.

Florence Price

  • Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, and she learned music from her mother when she was a child. She performed on the piano for the first time when she was four years old, and her first composition was published when she was 11 years old.
  • A few years later, she became one of the first Black women to attend the New England Conservatory, which is one of the most important music schools in the United States.
  • She moved to Chicago where she raised her two children and earned money as a composer and a musician. In 1932, she became the first African-American woman to have her composition played by a major orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Estelle Ricketts

  • Estelle Ricketts was a composer who was born in 1871 and grew up in Darby, Pennsylvania. There is not a lot of information known about her life and career.
  • Her only composition that has survived to the present day is “Rippling Spring Waltz.”
  • Published in 1893, “Rippling Spring Waltz” is the earliest solo piano piece ever located that was composed by a Black woman.

Amadeo Roldán y Gardes

  • Amadeo Roldán y Gardes (ah-mah-DEY-oh rol-DAHN ee GAHR-dehs) was a composer, violinist, conductor, and teacher who was born in Paris, France in 1900. His parents were from the Caribbean country of Cuba.
  • When he was 21, he moved to Havana, Cuba, where he lived for the rest of his life, and he became a leader of cultural activities in the city.
  • He was the conductor of the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, and he became a professor of composition and director of the Havana Municipal Conservatory. In 1959, the school was renamed the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory in memory of Roldán.

Godwin Sadoh

  • Godwin Sadoh is a composer, instrumentalist, choral conductor, and scholar who was born in 1965 in the West African country of Nigeria.
  • He did advanced study of music in the United States, where he became the first African to earn a doctoral degree in organ performance anywhere in the world.
  • He composes for diverse musical ensembles and styles, and his music has been performed all around the world.

Ignatius Sancho

  • Ignatius Sancho (ig-NAY-shus SAHN-cho) was born in 1729 on a slave ship off the coast of Guinea in West Africa, and was taken to the Spanish colony of New Granada in South America.
  • He was sent to England when he was two years old, where he was freed when he was a young man after his enslaver died.
  • He became the first Black composer in history to have his music published!

Horace Weston

  • Horace Weston was an American composer and banjo player who was born to free parents in Connecticut in 1825.
  • He became a virtuoso banjoist, and he played in popular theater performances of the day called minstrel shows.
  • He was one of the first African-American musicians to become famous as a banjo player, and his style influenced many other musicians.

Clarence Cameron White

  • Clarence Cameron White was an American composer and violinist who was born in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1880.
  • He was one of the best violinists of his day, and he gave concert tours throughout the United States with his wife, Beatrice Warrick White, accompanying him on the piano.
  • His compositions were often influenced by spirituals and African-American folk music. Some of his operas were performed in Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
  • The famous violinist Jascha Heifetz recorded one of his pieces.

Thomas Green Wiggins

  • Thomas Green Wiggins, known as “Blind Tom,” was born enslaved in Georgia in 1849, but he became one of the most famous American entertainers of the 1800s.
  • He was autistic, which means that he experienced the world in certain unique ways. Some autistic people like Wiggins also have certain extraordinary skills—some of Wiggins’s skills were performing and composing amazing music.
  • He could play music on the piano that he had only heard once, play difficult classical pieces with his back turned to the piano, and could even perform three songs at once!

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