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A Nigerian Pianist, Poet and Writer Fuses Words and Sound to Great Effect

A Nigerian Pianist, Poet and Writer Fuses Words and Sound to Great Effect

A Nigerian Pianist, Poet and Writer Fuses Words and Sound to Great Effect
IMI Recital in Missouri (August, 2018) Source: Echezonachukwu Nduka

Echezonachukwu Nduka started playing the piano at twelve.

He fell in love with the musical instrument at church where he was in the choir. That day, Nduka, lost in the melodies emanating from the piano, stared at the pianist who accompanied the choir. Something about the pianist sitting alone in a corner, something about the way he tapped at the keys appealed to Nduka. The young boy reached a verdict: he was going to be a pianist, too.

With his mother’s help, Nduka purchased a small keyboard. At home, he practiced, playing church hymns and worship songs. Nduka’s parents encouraged him and, with time, he was playing for the church, where both of his parents were religious ministers.

“Growing up in an intense religious setting, I often heard all kinds of music. But it was classical music that caught my attention and made a resonating impression,” Nduka says. “Perhaps it was the beauty and grandeur of Handel’s music, the chanting of canticles, or the dexterity of musicians performing live on stage. I was absolutely fascinated by musicians, particularly pianists and organists.”

A few years later, Nduka caught a new fascination. His parents owned a library and, in there, Nduka discovered the world of books: the words, stories, and poems they harboured. He started writing, too, creating his own worlds.

When the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) examinations arrived, Nduka held on to his first love: music. Speaking with The Guardian, Nduka narrated his experience. “When I filled my application form, I chose music as my choice in all the schools I applied to. I was so resolved in my decision that I didn’t consider any other course. I must admit, however, that my decision caused a measure of consternation to some of my teachers and friends. My parents were very supportive and gave me everything I needed for a successful study and career.”

A Nigerian Pianist, Poet and Writer Fuses Words and Sound to Great Effect
Recital in New York 2019

At 17, Nduka attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he performed at musical concerts. After earning his BA, he was employed as a lecturer at Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri. According to The Question Marker, he “taught Theory of Music, Introduction to Popular Music, Elementary Keyboard Harmony, Popular Music in Nigeria, History and Appreciation of Western Music, Criticism and Musical Scholarship amongst others.” In 2014, Nduka attended Kingston University, London where he also studied music as a postgraduate student.

For Nduka, music had a vice-like grip on him and, even now, the fascination has not waned. “When I started, it became clear that it was hard work, that playing music gave me a sense of purpose and fulfillment – an assurance that I was doing something remarkable.”

A Nigerian Pianist, Poet and Writer Fuses Words and Sound to Great Effect
Gateway Playhouse Concert in New Jersey (Nov, 2019) II

Echezonachukwu Nduka now lives in New Jersey, United States. On 16 July 2017, he had his first solo recital as a pianist outside Nigeria. It was at First United Methodist Church in Mays Landing, New Jersey. He performed piano music by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Robert Schumann, Christian Onyeji, Peter Sylvanus, and Isaac Albéniz.

“It was well-received, and became [the] talk of the town for a while,” he says. “I was relatively new to the city, having arrived from Nigeria only less than one year before the concert. I was nervous and didn’t fully trust my memory, so I had scores with me on stage. A few minutes into the performance, I relaxed and swept through with a flourish. In subsequent recitals, I did away with scores and performed by heart.”

The year 2012 saw Nduka start to take his writing seriously. A poem of his was published on the blog of Griots Lounge Publishing, a publishing company founded by Bibi Ukonu and Jide Aluka.

“It was my first publication,” he says. “Afterwards, I began submitting to literary journals and published more poems in 2013. When my first short story was edited and published in October 2013, I decided to write more fiction as well.”

A Nigerian Pianist, Poet and Writer Fuses Words and Sound to Great Effect
IMI Chamber Music Performance in Missouri (August, 2018)

Nduka’s hard work paid off and, in 2016, he won the sixth Korea-Nigeria Poetry Feast Prize for his poem ‘Listen’. That year, he wrote and featured in the short film Console Me; he also featured in Where the Road Leads, a poetry film. In 2015, he released the poetry film We Wear Purple Robes and translated the poems of Vladimir Vysotsky into the Igbo language for an international poetry anthology. His fiction wasn’t left behind: he published works in Ake Review, Afridiaspora and African Writer. Currently, he is represented by the South Africa-based World Arts Agency.

In 1970, the late Nigerian composer, musicologist, and pianist Professor Olatunji Akin Euba published an academic essay titled ‘Traditional Elements as the Basis of New African Art Music’ in African Urban Notes, Issue 5 no. 4. In the essay, Prof. Euba coined a term: ‘African Pianism’.

In an interview with BBC World Service, Nduka described the term as “an approach that takes some sort of instrumental styles of traditional music played in most African cultures, and then these are written for the piano.”

“The term has been in use in academic circles,” Nduka says, “and there are several music scholars and composers who have worked, and are currently producing works following the theoretical, compositional, and performance framework of African Pianism.”

An adherent of ‘African Pianism’, Nduka gave a public lecture on the term while citing the piano music of Nigerian and Ghanaian composers. These composers—Christian Onyeji, Ayo Bankole, Joshua Uzoigwe, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Peter Sylvanus, J.H. Kwabena Nketia, Gyimah Labi—have inspired Nduka, thereby setting him on the path of performing, recording and promoting the piano music of African composers.

In 2018, Nduka released Choreowaves: African Classical Piano, a collection of short piano pieces by Nigerian composers such as Fred Onovwerosuoke, Chijioke Ngobili, Peter Sylvanus, and Christian Onyeji. For Nduka, selecting the pieces was easy.

“Since it was going to be my first recording, I selected short pieces from my repertoire,” he says. “The only new pieces I had to learn were works by Fred Onovwerosuoke taken from two of his publications which I had just received only a few weeks before the scheduled date for recording.”

Funding, though, affected the quality of the recording. “The project was self-funded and I wish I had access to a grant, a better piano, and adequate post-production on the recorded works. When I recorded Choreowaves, I wasn’t ready. In any case, I felt that if I waited, I would never be ready. I needed to make an artistic statement, to have something to build on. I simply did what I could at the time. I have no regrets.”

In 2019, Nduka released his second musical body of work Nine Encores. It combined works of African and Western composers – Frédéric Chopin, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Joshua Uzoigwe, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Christian Onyeji and Sergei Prokofiev.

“The main idea was to record a few known favorite encores of concertgoers, in addition to selected short pieces by Nigerian composers,” Nduka says. “I wanted to show the universality of classical music.”

Nduka admits that African composers are not widely known, and explains that there are many layers to the challenge. “First, African composers who enjoy a certain degree of visibility in the classical music world are mostly those whose music [has] been recorded, published, and performed internationally,” he says. “There are lots of gifted composers whose music are unpublished, even though their works are often performed in certain spaces.

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Ngozi-Omeje Ezema with her Works. Credit: Ngozi-Omeje Ezema.

“In addition, classical music on the African continent, particularly Nigeria, appears to be limited to certain spaces like schools and churches. There is, of course, a historical perspective to it. However, if composers, and by extension, their works, must be well known then there has to be deliberate efforts to constantly perform their music in secular spaces outside conventional institutions. The question of accessibility is pertinent as well. Musical works should be published and distributed. Where are the scores? Do performers have the required expertise to perform them?”

Nduka also addresses the problematic nature of measuring the importance of African composers by how much they are known in the Western world. “While it is true that the Western world appears to be the ‘center of classical music’ in the world, there are other forms of classical music outside of what has come to be known and perceived as classical music,” he says. “How many contemporary Russian composers, for instance, are known and performed in Nigeria today? What is important here is that works of composers are accessible, taught, recorded, and performed from time to time.”

Nduka is a lover of the works of Nigerian and African composers. He is inspired by the quality of their works, the brilliance and expertise expressed in the variety and range of their compositions.

“Whether they’re composing works after Western classical forms or works that reflect their African identities, it’s easy to see the ingenuity and endless possibilities,” he says. “That said, I want to see more compositions for chamber music, orchestra, piano concertos, and solo pieces for instruments.”

In 2018, Griots Lounge Publishing published Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts, Nduka’s debut collection of poetry. Praxis Magazine says “through the collection” Nduka builds “a bridge across the sea of grief,” and The Sun Nigeria says the book is “not a gift to any wide-eyed ghost anywhere but to lovers of vignettes and poetry.”

Two years later, the same publishing company published Nduka’s second collection of poetry Waterman (2020). Open Country Mag calls the book “a sobering stare at the world” that “takes readers on a spiraling, sobering journey, full of humility and restrained passion.” The New Black Magazine says Nduka’s collection “is a litany of artistic supplication affirming the reliability, durability, and longevity of his creative prowess.”

“The similarities and differences [between music and poetry] are infinitesimal,” says Nduka. “Both art forms aspire to the primacy of rhythm, expression, imagery, form, and flow. The way cadences work in classical music is almost how it works in poetry. In poetry, cadences can be actualized with rhythmic structures and proper enjambment. Both art forms aspire to the functionality of sound.”

In 2018, Music in Africa revealed that Nduka planned to release a full-length album after Nine Encores. I asked Nduka when he would release the album but he said he had resolved not to disclose that information until he was ready.

“However, let me mention that I recorded a collaborative album with a colleague last year, in the middle of the pandemic,” he says. “The album contains solo piano and voice pieces by African composers, only. The official date of release has not been scheduled yet.”

As one who wears different hats—music, poetry and fiction—how does Nduka find a way to juggle all and not let one art form suffer because of the others? “I divide my time between them, sometimes depending on my inclination or schedule,” he answers.

“When I have submission deadlines, I focus more on my writing. In the same way, when a concert or recording date is approaching, I find myself on the piano more often. It is sometimes overwhelming, but not confusing at all. I have come to full acceptance of my life as a creative, knowing that I oscillate between music and writing. So, I am deliberate about maintaining balance, and so far, it works. Mine is a life of solitude, with very little in-person social engagements. I rarely attend parties and hangouts. I go when I can, but that only happens once in a long while. And when I do, I insist on dancing out all the accumulated shadows of solitude.”

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