One of my longest research projects is tracing the evolution of the orchestra. Not just the European orchestra, but all the orchestras of the world including indigenous large ensembles, slave orchestras, Soviet folk orchestras, and groups I’m starting to refer to as Anti-Colonial Orchestras.

These are orchestras which formed often immediately after independence, or in direct opposition to Western classical music cultural imperialism. In ways, this echoes the purpose of the Soviet folk orchestras (as well as the Folk orchestras of other communist states) but differ in that many of these weren’t necessarily state-sponsored groups, or at least not groups forced to form to directly counter Western Imperialism. The following is a small sampling of some of these groups and some of the reasons for their founding.

“[S]nobbism,” “elitism,” and a “colonial mentality” prevented Nana Danso Abiam from turning the National Symphony Orchestra of Ghana into the indigenous African Orchestra1 that he envisioned it could be. Abiam eventually resigned from the organization and would go on to create the Pan African Orchestra (PAO) in 1988.2

Pan African Orchestra YouTube playlist.

Since it’s formation, and up until Abiam’s tragic death in an automobile accident in 2014, the PAO would tour Europe, perform at WOMAD (1994), and form the Pan African Youth Orchestra (1995) in partnership with the National Theatre of Ghana. In 2001, A tour to the UK brought the group in a collaboration with London’s Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble for a collaborative performance of Ghanaian born author Margaret Busby’s Yaa Asantewaa: Warrior Queen.3 In 2003, the POA would collaborate with Irish Nigerian composer, cellist, and kora player Tunde Jegede who has since formed his own NOK Orchestra (2015) and earlier, the African Classical Music Ensemble with his sister Sona Jobarteh, a Gambian British kora virtuoso, guitarist, composer, and staunch Anti-Colonial activist.

African Classical Music Ensemble

In 2014, the year of Nana Danso Abiam’s death, the Ha Orchestra performed the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. Ghanian Scottish Gameli Tordzro says the Ha Orchestrastems from Nana Danso Abiam’s practice of integrating regional music of Africa into a new classical synthesis thereby creating a symphonic system which is different from established western classical repertoire in Africa and the African Diaspora.”4

Ha Orchestra performing Gameli Tordzro’s “Azorli Blewuu” at Victoria Park in Glasgow, Scotland.

A recent twitter thread I started features one orchestra in every tweet. Each group is not only a different orchestra, but also a different type of orchestra. Nana Danso Abiam’s Pan African Orchestra and Tunde Jegende’s NOK Orchestra are included in it. In the classical music world, when we think of different types of orchestras what comes to mind are things like a string orchestra versus a full symphony orchestra, or a pit orchestra versus a baroque orchestra. However, the orchestras in the thread are all variants of a class of ensembles that emerged in contrast, or even direct opposition, to European orchestras.5

This isn’t simply a late twentieth and early twenty-first century cultural response to Western Imperialism and Cultural Colonialism. In the middle of the nineteenth century we have an early example of what may be the first Anti Colonial ensemble: Pajo Kolarić’s Tamburitza Orchestra in 1847. This group was formed during what is know as the Ilirski Pokret (Illyrian Movement), a South Slav (i.e. Croatian and Slovenian) Nationalist Movement. After more than a 170 years of history and development, groups like the 100 piece Zagreb based Hrvatski Tamburaški Orkestar (Croatian Tamburitza Orchestra) are found throughout the world where Croatians have emigrated.6

Hrvatski tamburaški orkestar performing Domagoj Vukadin’s “Makedonski Ples” for Tamburitza Orchestra.

In a recent piece by The Telegraph, Daniel Barenboim plays the apologist for classical music cultural colonialism which is decidedly at odds with the colonialist things he’s said in the past. What’s problematic about these related views, and how we engage with them, is that they play the unspoken backdrop for the narratives in the Western Art Music (WAM) ecosystem. This is intimately related to the timeworn questions raised by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s 1983 essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” and how the erasure of colonized voices and experiences in the history of WAM plays no part in the narratives centering the Great White Male Musical Canon.

With the current push for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in classical music this dynamic of focusing on the Eurocentric colonial view at the expense of the subaltern voices is replaying a logic that the formerly colonized have experienced for centuries. They’ve historically had their own things to say about the cultural colonialism and in many of those cases, the responses emerged in the form of creating Anti-Colonial Orchestras like the Pan African Orchestra, Nok Orchestra, and Croatian Tamburitza Orchestra. In other cases, the local histories of classical music in formerly colonized countries includes an understanding of the role of the existence of slave orchestras and ensembles which have long disrupted local music ecosystems directly and indirectly.7

A recent provocative statement8 making this even more explicit may be found in Franki Raden’s vision for the Indonesian National Orchestra:

However, the era of European symphony orchestra has come to an end. The development of 20th century orchestral music has turned into a dead end. The music became highly elitist and has alienated ordinary people, especially those who live outside of European high culture circle. Music has ceased to be a communication tool, cultural interaction and spiritual endeavor. It is no longer part of human civilization.

Today is the time to rethink how we could communicate better globally through music. It is crucial for us to find the most suitable musical language that can fulfill the aforementioned sacred mission. Fortunately, by the beginning of this 21st century we witnessed the emergence of interesting musical phenomenon i.e., musicians across the globe simultaneously began to approach musical expression from their own cultural perspectives. Therefore, it is not just coincident that at the beginning of the 21st century many musicians simultaneously engaged in indigenizing and contextualizing music within their own cultures. For this reason, world music can be treated as an ideal starting point for approaching the most fundamental musical challenge of our 21st century i.e., seeking a musical language that can function best to connect various societies and cultures in the world. First and foremost, we should start by laying the new foundation for a global indigenous music education.

Raden 2013
Franki Raden’s Concerto for Indonesian National Orchestra (2010) performed by INO at Balairung Sapta Pesona, Jakarta.

With all of these orchestras come the composers who write for them, thus creating their own canons which don’t necessarily overlap indigenous large ensemble rep or indigenous folk and art music rep (though they often do). The musicians and directors that make up these groups, the audiences and communities they serve, and the individuals they inspire due to representation all converge in ways that can’t happen by simply adding colored and ethnic bodies to a European orchestra can never do.

At the same time, many of these groups were directly inspired by, or formed in reaction to, European orchestras so can be considered a part of the history of classical music as an unintentionally inclusive institution. We do a great disservice to Western music and sound studies by not including their histories in our music curricula.

FEATURED IMAGE: L’Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali. Established 1961 (after independence), disbanded in 2012 due to Malian military coup d’état. Photo on their Syllart Production SYL 8379, 1977 (LP).


  1. See Provencher (1997). For the OCR text of the Newspaper, visit this link:
  2. See Provencher (1997) and Sweeney (1994) for the circumstances surrounding Abiam’s departure from the National Symphony Orchestra of Ghana.
  3. See the National Theatre’s Black Play Archive entry for the production details.
  4. Tamakloe’s piece was an unexpected find. I really hadn’t considered lookin for African Orchestras outside of Africa other than in the US where I’m based.
  5. For the purposes of orchestra types I’m thinking along the lines of an “Organology of Orchestras.” In other words, different types of orchestras are like different types of instruments. Since one of the persistent metaphors we use is that the orchestra is the instrument of the composer. In this case, the orchestra is the instrument that we’re studying Organologically. Since the publication of Bessaraboff’s magnum opus (see Boyden, 1971), the field of organology has had an inconsistent trajectory as a field of study.
  6. See Laušević, 2007; March, 2013; Silpayamanant, 2020 for a snapshot of how Croatian and Eastern European immigrants adapted their musical cultures into US. For a sense of the breadth of resources for Tamburitzas and Tamburitza Orchestras, see the Tamburitza Publications website.
  7. See Silva (2009) for discussions of renting slave ensembles, often below market prices causing employment losses for local musicians.
  8. The Indonesian National Orchestra website is currently a deadline, though they have a Facebook Page. The quote can be found at the Festival Bunyi Fungi website (see Raden, 2013).


Bolly, Moussa. (2004). Ensemble Instrumental du Mali: Une authentique vitrine artistique. Mali Music. 26 January 2004.

Boyden, David D.. (1971). Classics of Musical Literature: Nicholas Bessaraboff’s Ancient European Musical Instruments. Notes, 28(1), 21-27, September 1971. DOI:10.2307/939313

Ha Orchestra. (n.d.). Homepage.

Jegede, Tunde. (n.d.) “African Classical Music Ensemble.” Tunde Jegede homepage.

Laušević, Mirjana. (2007). Balkan Fascination: Creating and Alternative Music Culture in America. Oxford University Press.

Lu, Tiffany, Kensho Watanabe, and William White (hosts); Jon Silpayamanant (guest). (2020). Episode 10: Slave Orchestras. [Audio Podcast]. The Classical Gabfest, 4 November 2020.

National Theatre. (n.d.). Yaa Asantewaa: Warrior Queen. Black Plays Archive.

Magnusson, Thor. (2017). Musical Organics: A Heterarchical Approach to Digital Organology. Journal of New Music Research, 46(3), 286-303, 6 September 2017. DOI:10.1080/09298215.2017.1353636

March, Richard. (2013). The Tamburitza Tradition: From the Balkans to the American Midwest. University of Wisconsin Press.

Oler, Wesley M., Jeremy P. S. Montagu, and Friedmann Hellwig. (1970). Definition of Organology. The Galpin Society Journal, 23, 170-174, August 1970. DOI:10.2307/842101

Owoo, John. (2016). “Nana Danso Abiam — A true musicial genius.” Graphic Online, 22 April 2016.

Provencher, Norman. (1997). “Roots of music revived: Classically trained African musician fulfils dream.” The Ottawa Citizen, 30. 23 October 1997.

Raden, Franki. (2013). “Franki Raden & Indonesia National Orchestra.” Festival Bunyi Bungi. Archived here:

Silpayamanant, Jon. (2020a). “Classical Music and its Slave Orchestras.” Mae Mai, 30 July 2020.

Silpayamanant, Jon. (2020b). Diversity, Inclusive Programming, and Music Education (part 4): Immigration. Mae Mai, 22 June 2020.

Silpayamanant, Jon. [@Silpayamanant]. (2020c). “The National Orchestra of Folk Instruments of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Established in 2001…” Twitter thread, 12 November 2020.

Silva, Claudia Felipe da. (2009). Bandas de musica, imigração italiana e educação musical : o corpo musicale “Umberto I” de Serra Negra, uma localidade interiorana com forte presença italiana. Dissertation.

Spivak, Ga. (1988). Can The Subaltern Speak? in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 66-111.

Sweeney, Philip. (1994). “Symphonies for a continent: The Pan African Orchestra uses native instruments to create a novel sound. Philip Sweeney met them in Ghana just before their first European tour.” The Independent, 9 August 1994.

Tamakloe, Alfred. (2014). “Ha Orchestra mesmerize fans at opening of Commonwealth Gamesby.” ArtsGhana. 24 July 2014.

Tamburitza Publications. (n.d.). Homepage.

Wood, Rachel. (2020). This world-renowned Gambian musician is building an academy so children can study their own culture — without leaving Africa. CNN Style, African Voices, September 2020.

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