Quick Questions: Samantha Ege

Find out more about pianist and historian Samantha Ege ahead of her concert with Castle of our Skins on Sunday 26 May. African Tales shines light on classical works by three Black composers from Africa and the Diaspora.

SE I was born in Guildford, and I grew up in Purley. I have been playing the piano since I was three years old, so I don’t really remember a time without music in my life. But there were very few composers of African descent in my music education, and I didn’t really think that there was anything strange about that until I studied abroad for a year in Canada at McGill, and I learned of African American composers like Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, and I was just so amazed that there were Black women in classical music. That really changed my whole outlook and motivated me to undo the education that I’d had and to set out and do something different.

SE I went to Bristol to do my Bachelor of Music and the main reason I went to Bristol is because they had a study abroad program. Day one, I was in the International Office trying to figure out how to get the hell out of there, and I did, and it was amazing. But it was difficult coming back to Bristol and just having a very traditional curriculum while knowing that there was this incredible history out there. It was almost like seeing all these new colours, then you come back, and everything is very black and white. So, I had to navigate that for a while.

SE I think so. I’ve always drawn inspiration from what my colleagues and predecessors have been doing in the States. There are so many more areas of inquiry that scholars and performers pursue, and I was very lucky to find a professor who just had the diversity of classical music built into the curriculum. There wasn’t any special focus on Black composers or women composers. It was, “here is a course about 20th century music” and she covered exactly what 20th century music was, rather than telling it through one kind of lens.

SE I discovered musicology, or I should say musicology discovered me, when I went to Bristol. I didn’t know that you could tell a history of the world through music, so I thought that was really fascinating. What I loved was the storytelling, and then when I discovered composers like Florence Price and Margaret Bonds through my experience of studying abroad, I decided that these were the stories that I want to tell because these are the ones we need to know. These are the stories that can empower us and inspire us, more so than mostly the traditional stories which are often told to death.

SE I think when we study music history, we gain a deeper sense of what we’re capable of as humans in terms of our expression and in terms of how we communicate and connect with one another. The fact is that through so many seismic political and cultural shifts, music has been a huge part of galvanizing people, of inspiring and empowering people who didn’t feel that they had a voice. Those people found their voice through music and completely transformed the world. So, you can’t really understand the world without music. And when you miss communities, you miss these incredible pockets of creativity, you miss so much.

SE I got a position as a research fellow at Oxford, and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, otherwise known as TORCH, approached me and said, “we have these incredible resources, what do you want to do?” My first thought was I want to invite Castle of Our Skins over. Obviously, Oxford has this very deep and complex history in relation to colonialism and apartheid and the slave trade, and because Castle of Our Skins have such a politically conscious edge to what they do, it seemed like a really good idea to interrogate that space through music. They have been working with the South African composer Bongani Ndodana Breen, who grew up under apartheid and has emerged as one of the leading Black South African composers in post-liberation South Africa. And so, his piece, Safika, was a really important counter narrative to what Oxford in its history represents.

And then I do a lot of work on African American composers and Undine Smith Moore, who’s another composer. She wrote a piece called Soweto in response to what she was witnessing happening in real time. There’s that sense of empathy in the way that we can connect with one another and have these conversations across time, across geographies, and so that was really special to play that music in that particular space and feeling that we could centre Black voices in such a space.

We’ve got Samuel Coleridge-Taylor as well. And the more time I spend with his music, the more I realise how much my work as a Black classical pianist has such a precedent. There are often times when you feel like you’re the only one, but I’m playing his music – which is more than 100 years old – and I’m realising that I really have a history in what I do. So, we’re playing his piano quintet, which is very of its time stylistically, but I think that’s a really beautiful thing because it shows that he was of the fabric of British classical music. He was at the heart of it, you know, he wasn’t just this man operating on the periphery, which is how we view people who are not the white male norm. We think that they are outsiders brought into the fold by our diversity efforts, when actually they were at the heart of it all along, so it just fills me with such pride to play his music.

And then the quartet will be playing one that’s new to me, On the Impulse to Move. It’s a really exciting piece and it’s lovely and really important to show the past and present of Black classical composition.

SE Some people cried. I also got various emails from people of African descent thanking me for making that space welcoming to people who like classical music but felt that they would be the odd one out in that kind of environment. Baroness Valerie Amos emailed me to say how much she enjoyed the concert, so that was really special – I had no idea that she would be there. But it was a reminder of why this work is important and why it matters.

SE The performance stems from the research, so I’ll be interested in an idea, and I love that stage because there are so many possibilities like I can perform this or with this person or in this place. The ideas are swimming around and that’s how the research develops. For example, my interest in Undine Smith Moore will make me think about other pieces that might connect or intersect with the message of her music. Then I also have to find the time to practice and dedicate that time as if playing the concert piano was my whole life, even though I have another life as well. That’s why the dialogue between research and performance is so important, because otherwise you can be spread really thin. But this feels like a consolidation of the areas that I’m interested in, from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor through to present day composition.

SE I’ll go with the one that my mind went to first, which was when I made my Barbican debut. It was as society was edging back into normality [after Covid lockdowns] and everyone in the audience had masks on, so I was just a bit unsure of the reception. Then at the end of the performance – I can still picture it – this couple in the middle stood up and the standing ovation rippled out. I just couldn’t believe it because the masks were not giving anything away, but the response, the warmth, was just incredible. Then backstage, when I was meeting with friends and family, I met a very young girl of African descent and her mother. It turned out they had left the performance early to get me some flowers and they’d been desperately trying to get back in because I guess they tend to close the doors. But they finally managed to get in and they handed me those flowers. And I know universities talk about impact and all this kind of stuff, but that’s what it’s about, the next generation seeing themselves reflected and seeing what’s possible for them.

I think you really have to love what you do because there are going to be times when you wonder if this is going anywhere. It’s in those moments where you have to still love what you do, and know that, in a way, it doesn’t necessarily matter how things are going because what matters is what you put in. It might take 10 years for you to get the recognition that you think that you should be having, or the opportunity that should be coming your way, but if you stop, you won’t be prepared for when that moment comes.
If you think about how long I’ve been playing the piano, and that my first album came out in 2018, that’s a long time of practising. I had my first major concert in 2021. I’d played concerts before but that was the first where I felt like, “okay, I’m a serious concert pianist now.” That’s decades of work. Imagine if I wasn’t ready? So, I would say you just have to keep going, but you also have to love it because there’ll be times when you’re tested.

Book your ticket to hear Samantha Ege perform with Castle of our Skins on Sunday 26 May

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