Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tunji Sowande

Tunji Sowande was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1912 to a fairly wealthy local family by standards – his father being the Anglican Priest- Emmanuel Sowande, a pioneer of Church music in Lagos and contemporary of the distinguished classical composer and organist- Dr Ekundayo Phillips.

His was a musical family, with his older brother being none other than the renowned Classical composer- Fela Sowande, described by Wikipedia as “the father of modern Nigerian art music, Sowande is perhaps the most internationally known African composer of works in the European "classical" idiom.” A reputable resource on Fela Sowande is attached - FELA SOWANDE.

Tunji Sowande had his early education at the CMS Anglican Grammar School in Lagos and proceeded to the Yaba Higher College, where he obtained a Diploma in Pharmacy on or about 1940. As was the practice, he worked with the Public Health department in Lagos as a Dispensing Pharmacist for a number of years. His contemporary being the late Adeyinka Oyekan, his good friend, who was later to become the Oba (King) of Lagos.

In the family tradition, Tunji was an excellent Baritone Singer, Organist and later a Jazz Drummer. Largely plying his musical skills in the conservative surroundings of the Anglican Cathedral in Lagos in his spare-time.

In or around 1948, he decided to travel to the United Kingdom to pursue a career in Law, though his personal account was more to the effect that he wanted a change of scene to pursue his musical skills, with legal studies being a respectable adjunct to his genuine quest.

He studied Law at Kings College and took and passed the Bar Finals at Lincolns Inn, having said that he occupied himself primarily playing around the UK, supporting several acts both Jazz, Classical and Choral. He collaborated on live sets with several contemporary heavy-weights like Johnny Dankworth, Ronnie Scott, Paul Robeson to name a few as well as popular Afro-Caribbean icons like Ambrose Campbell and Edmundo Ros. He is on record as having formed a long standing partnership with the hugely popular pioneering Black Singer and Pianist Rita Cann and was indeed part of the circle of Black Intellectuals and musicians who met regularly at the Regents Park flat of the African-American musician- John Payne. Rita Cann had actually been mentored by Fela Sowande. A link to the resource is attached- Rita Cann

He also recorded at least one single on the Afro-Caribbean Melodisc label, the track being “Thin Rere” and Igi T’Olorun” a link to this resource is attached- MELODISC. Contemporary acts on this label being Lord Kitchener and Ambrose Campbell. He is also reputed to have dedicated a substantial part of his musical career to playing for Charity entertaining an Elderly audience- as a duo with Rita Cann, travelling around the UK for this purpose.

Tunji Sowande upon completing his pupilage was informed by his Pupil Master that he had been offered a full Tenancy at the prestigious 3 Kings Bench Walk Chambers. His reaction was however that of surprise, since his own ambition was to pursue his musical career on completion of his studies. This is to be seen in the context of the fact that Tenancies in prestigious Chambers were not available to Black Barristers- the UK still being subject to the racial and class strictures attendant at the time. He initially refused it but subsequently accepted it after pressure from his Pupil Master, who would not countenance a Lawyer of his exceptional intellect and ability doing otherwise than taking the opportunity of a career at the Bar.

Tunji went on to pursue a distinguished career at the Bar, specialising in Criminal Law, he was recognised as an exceptionally competent, unassuming and scrupulously honest Lawyer. His only other Black contemporary at the Bar at the time being the Caribbean Barrister – Learie Constantine, who was a professional Cricketer but rather wonderfully practised Law as a hobby and who had sued and won compensation from the Imperial Hotel in London in 1944 for barring him “on the grounds of colour”. Constantine later became Trinidadian High Commission to London and indeed the UK’s first Black Peer.

He rose to the rank of Head of Chambers at 3 Kings Bench Walk after several years, no mean feat. In addition, he was appointed a Recorder (Judge) of the Crown Court, from where he retired on or about 1989. He handled a large number of complex Criminal matters in the course of his career, I am in the process of researching the archives to locate some of these.

There is speculation on this point, but there is evidence that Tunji Sowande was the first person of Black African descent to be appointed a Recorder of the Crown Court and indeed to Head a Barristers Chambers. Whilst Dr John Roberts QC (the Sierra Leonian born former RAF officer) is listed by the Black Lawyers Directory as the first of such, link is attached to this resource-ROBERTS, I disagree completely in that Dr Roberts was appointed to the Bench in 1987, whilst Tunji Sowande was certainly sitting as a Recorder in 1985. In addition it is to be remembered that Tunji Sowande was called to the Bar in 1952, whilst John Roberts was called in 1969. Whilst this is not necessarily a requisite for appointment to the Bench, it is a fair Indicator. In any event, Tunji Sowande assumd the Headship of 3 Kings Bench Walk in 1968, before Roberts was called to the Bar.

I recall sometime in 1983, reading the magazine Tatler- belonging to my mother, of which contents were plainly meaningless to me on account of the status-based content- I had nothing else to read on that day- and I noticed a photograph of a very tall, elderly Black gentleman, amidst all the great and good of English society at some society function, the gentleman was described as Judge Sowande, the same one. This sparked my interest and on an aside, enquiries almost 10 years on showed him to be the father-in-law of my Uncle (my mother’s cousin) and the grand-father of some of my closest cousins.

Sowande’s life was a study in simplicity, integrity and conviction. He lived his life in accordance with his own unique standards, applying himself excellently in all he chose to endeavour. He died in 1996, though I am informed that he still climbed the 3 floors to his flat in Temple EC1 up till his death at the age of 84.

Tunji Sowande was instrumental to the careers of several Lawyers of minority persuasion, always a source of subtle and useful fatherly advice, he however did not view himself purely in the context of an ethnic professional but recognised the difficulties faced by ethnic Lawyers. One such Lawyer being Kim Hollis QC, one of the UK's most popular Asian female Lawyers, who was given her opportunity of Tenancy by Tunji Sowande and indeed mentored her in the early stages of her career. A link to her Interview is attached Hollis. She cites his advice to her as the most important she ever received in her career- "BLD: What was the best career advice you were given? KH: This was from Olatunji Sowande, who offered me my first tenancy: if you are determined, you can succeed. BLD: What career advice would you give to others?KH: It is really what Olatunji Sowande told me. Determination and hard work: if you are determined to succeed and work towards your goal, you can achieve it."

There are several other accounts of several minority Lawyers who benefited from his assistance and mentoring. Another example being the highly respected Barrister- Chima Umezuruike, whom he beckoned at a function, whilst Umezuruike was still seeking a Pupillage and engaged him in a conversation about his plans. From thence a fatherly relationship ensued with, Tunji Sowande encouraging and imparting sage professional advice to him at several stages of his career. An undeniable fact is that the work of Tunji Sowande and some of his peers broke down the barriers that stood in the way of Lawyers of minority persuasion. This is to be read in the context of the times he practised Law, a period when minorities were effectively barred from several institutions of British life, much less the protected institution of Law Practice at the Bar, of which there are obstacles even today, not just to ethnics, but to White Britons from the wrong end of the class spectrum or the wrong Academic catchment i.e non-Oxbridge.

Tunji Sowande never achieved his ambition of becoming the UK's first Black QC but certainly left his mark on the profession and it is a mark of his modesty and under-stated substance that not much is known of his work and life, simply because he was an extremely humble man who did not believe in self-promotion, his disposition being to get on with the tasks at hand and show respect for all regardless of station and apply himself with complete dedication to his vocation.

This has been one of the more difficult articles I’ve written on account of the total dearth of web-based information on a very distinguished man. This probably being on account of his modest and private nature. I would thus appeal for more information and ask anyone with the same to please get in touch on or indeed by publishing a comment on these pages, which I shall publish upon verifying its authenticity.

I also noticed that Sowande was not listed amongst the 100 greatest Black Britons of the last century (of which his musical partner- Rita Cann was listed and undoubtedly most deserving) or even on any Who’s Who of Black Briton’s or indeed Nigerians, which I think borders on the criminal, well I’ve done my bit and ask that more be done in his memory to highlight his life as a beacon to persons of ethnic minority persuasion or indeed any one wanting an example in how to lead a simple, decent life. In my view he was one of the greatest Black Britons and indeed greatest Nigerians that ever lived.
© Edward Keazor
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this documentunder the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation;with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. GNU Free License


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:21 pm  
Blogger Seal67 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:04 pm  
Anonymous Abigail said...

Hi, I came across your article on Olatunji Sowande and intrigued as I think he is the same person who was my parents landlord.

Do you know much about his personal life such as where he lived?

I lived with my parents at Peak Hill Gardens in Sydenham, South London. They lived there for many years and Mr. Sowande also lived in the same house (the house was a tad strange as it was divided into 3 apartments and he lived in 2 of them.

I remember the King of Lagos coming to stay at the house and that Mr. Sowande was indeed a great barrister at Kings Bench. I do not think there can be any other person of the same name so it has to be him.

My last conversation with him was in the early 90's when he gave me some legal advice even though I was living abroad at that time and continue to do so.

He was a really nice man and some of my best birthday and Christmas presents were from him.

I often wondered what happened to him or if he was still alive. He sold the house we lived in during the mid 70's and he moved elsewhere although I cannot recall which area he moved to. I do remember that he lived with a housekeeper called Mrs. Stone...although in hindsight perhaps she was more than his housekeeper?

For some reason he came to mind today and I decided to google his name and then I saw your article on him.

4:02 pm  
Blogger Olufemi Sowande said...

Yes Abigail. Its the same person.

Femi Sowande

7:47 pm  
Blogger Olufemi Sowande said...

Yes Abigail. Its the same person.

Femi Sowande

7:49 pm  
Anonymous Abigail said...

Hi Femi,

Thanks for your reply. I didn't think that there could be any other person of the same name and profession. What a small world. Do you know what happened to Mrs. Stone? I would assume that she also has passed away by now.

I have wonderful childhood memories of Tunji and he was a very private man as far as I recall, but a very generous one with a kind heart.

I don't recall meeting any of his family but it was a very long time ago and as I was only a child I would not of known who most visitors were anyway.

Thanks again and all the best to you and your family.


11:26 am  
Blogger Olufemi Sowande said...

Hi Abigail
I tried a few times but it wouldn't post. Having another go.

Can you contact me on my email please

All the best


10:47 am  
Anonymous Abigail said...

Just sent you an email Femi.

12:38 pm  

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