For the inaugural episode of the Isele Writer Series, our editorial intern, Uchenna Emelife, had a virtual chat with the US-based Nigerian poet and pianist, Echezonachukwu Nduka. Their conversation was centered on Nduka’s poetry, African pianism, and much more.
You’ve spoken extensively about your music background as well as your literary background. Which were you exposed to first and at what point in your life did you decide you’d be doing both?
Both worlds were there from the beginning, but music influenced my imagination first as a listener, long before I became a curious reader. Whatever I wrote as a child, considered at the time as one of my playful activities, were attempts to recreate what I read and imagined. It wasn’t anything serious at all. Music was always there, diverse genres, some of which I heard against my will. But classical music enveloped my being. That was the genre that made me want to be a musician. I wanted to play the piano and the organ, and often imagined myself conducting an orchestra. I have written here about how G.F. Handel’s music converted me as a child. The sound was grand, nothing like what I had heard before. And so, I knew it was only a matter of time before I started mounting stages as a solo classical musician, while sharing performance spaces with other musicians as well. My journey as a pianist began in 2001. A few years later, I would go on to become one of the prominent piano/organ accompanists of choral music in Southeastern Nigeria. After my first online publication in 2012 as a writer, it filled me with an entirely different sense of accomplishment. There was no going back. I couldn’t sacrifice music, my first love, either. That was when I took the decision to immerse myself in the artistic world of music and writing. Thankfully, I have been active since then.
When you decided to start playing and studying African classical pianism, did it come from a place of responsibility? Did you feel like since you’re African and a classical pianist, you should therefore play African piano music?
It started from a place of wonder and gratitude. First off, it was never registered in my mind at the time that there were solo piano works by African composers. Yes, I knew quite a lot of choral and even operatic works by some African composers, particularly those of Nigerian origin. But I never thought about them composing works for piano the same way we had piano music by Western composers like Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, and others in the classical canon. So imagine my joyful surprise when I was introduced to African classical piano music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I learned piano music by Joshua Uzoigwe and Christian Onyeji, and then I found out about Dr. William Chapman Nyaho, who had started performing, recording, and publishing such works. I was elated. I have to agree that there is a sense of responsibility in my decision to study and perform classical piano music by African composers, considering the fact that the performers of the genre are few, it is not the mainstream even within the classical music tradition (does it really need to be?). In addition, I connect to the music deeply from a cultural and personal level and would want the world to feel what I feel by performing the music to the best of my ability.
Interesting. Still, on your choice to perform African compositions, most of your performances are on stages in the US, the UK, and you play to an audience mostly alien to the African sound, particularly the classical African piano music that isn’t well known even in Africa. Isn’t this burdening sometimes? That when you sit with your piano, you’ve become somewhat representative of Africa and African music? How do you deal with that pressure?
I deal with the pressure by concentrating on the music, studying, practicing, and giving my best in every concert. I don’t spare thoughts anymore about those who choose to see me through their lenses of African artistic expectations. And quite frankly, why should I bother? Such thoughts alone could cause immense distraction and get in the way of the music. In any case, I’m happy to mention that even among those who hear this music for the first time, there’s a genuine curiosity to learn and hear more of such works in concert. The troubling part in all of this, as you rightly mentioned, is that the music isn’t well known even in Africa. It is true, and the reason is not far-fetched. As I stated earlier, pianists who perform the music are few, and the music is not frequently heard in live concerts, on radios, and streaming platforms. Are they available on streaming platforms? Yes, they are. But a lot of people aren’t listening because they don’t know about the genre. And there’s the axiom that listening to classical music is learned. In other words, to appreciate the music, it requires active and thoughtful listening. It is not party music. That alone alienates the genre from the crowd of music enthusiasts who simply want to dance. I would argue that even works in the Western classical piano music canon are not all that popular in Africa. How many major concert and recital halls are there on the continent? What established opportunities are there for classical musicians in Africa? The issue here is complex and it’ll be unfair to examine it from a simplistic perspective. The point has to be made, however, about lack of adequate publicity in the media, near absence of classical music criticism and reportage, and the seemingly sole performances of African classical piano music only in academic institutions without plans to go public, which I have argued against in several interviews.
Besides being a performing artist, you study and at the same time discuss African pianism. What fascinating feature have you found out about it that sets it out from other kinds of classical piano music?
The first is its cultural and aesthetic resonance. The soundscape reassures me of the endless possibilities in classical music and the question of borderless identities. As a performer, it feels great to know that certain rhythmic patterns in a piece I’m performing are taken from a traditional repertoire performed by drums, gongs, rattles, xylophones, and indeed, all kinds of percussive and melorhythmic instruments. As a pianist, I can perform in collaboration with percussionists who would play an accompanying role while accentuating marked rhythmic patterns. The idea is not new. For instance, Akin Euba’s work titled ‘Igi Nla So,’ published in 1963, was composed for piano and Yoruba drums. The tonal languages of certain pieces I have performed were taken from African chants, some of them esoteric. Essentially, African pianism is the point where Western classical music and African indigenous music converge.
The last point about the convergence of Western classical music and African indigenous music is interesting to note. It is suggestive of a contact. So could you talk a bit about the colonial history of African classical music, particularly Nigeria where you’re from?
The colonial history of Nigerian classical music cannot be detached from the work of early European Christian missionaries who founded churches and schools modeled after Western practices. Many pre-colonial and post-colonial scholars have published extensively on the role of Christianity as one of the main justifications for the colonization and exploitation of Africa. With regards to music, in the early mission schools, for instance, the curriculum included the study of Western musical instruments such as the harmonium and piano, and songs such as hymns, canticles, and classical music; all learned with the aid of staff notation so as to fit in quickly within the church music tradition. African traditional instruments and songs were tactically excluded from the curriculum and religious settings. True, there were occasions when Nigerian languages, Igbo and Yoruba, for instance, served as texts in translation to European folk tunes fit for worship. But the traditional instruments and melodies were utterly demonized and considered unfit for use. Why? You see, there’s a lot to unpack here, but I would rather not digress. This trend continued until Nigerians, mostly those who had gained Western education, engaged the system and led the way to the inclusion of not only African traditional melodies and songs during worship, but also the use of African traditional instruments. Those of them who were talented and trained in the Western style of classical music started to compose their own songs, some of which prominently featured recognizable indigenous melodies, rhythmic structures, and harmonic idioms. The music had recognizable features of both Western classical and African traditional music. This birthed the genre which would later become known as African art music, and the School of African Art Music as an artistic movement. From then to date, composers and performers have continued exploring and redefining the genre, pushing back the frontiers of possibilities.
Would you say that what composers like Uzoigwe and Onyeji did by infusing our cultural sounds and rhythm to that western form is similar to what we did with Nigerian English and Pidgin?
Absolutely! This brings to mind the famous quote by Chinua Achebe where he writes: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” When I read Achebe, it is clear to me that while he wrote in the English language, he was in fact thinking and speaking the Igbo language. This is exemplified not only in his philosophy and world views, but also in the way he bent the English Language until it succumbed to his grip of Igboness. He knew exactly what he was doing. What an intentional man! And so, up to this day, a lot of Nigerian English speakers write and speak in translation. In other words, the English language is used to directly express what was originally thought in a Nigerian language. A typical Nigerian man for instance, would excuse himself by saying “I am coming!” while heading towards the exit. On social media spaces and indeed in everyday conversations, you hear people use such expressions as “Please, come and be going.” There are many examples. Today, we have Nigerian Standard English, with new words making it to notable dictionaries for inclusion. There’s also the Nigerian Pidgin with all its variations. This is akin to what composers and performers of African classical music are up to: speaking African musical languages through European instruments and compositional forms. It might interest you to know that this trend is not limited to African art music alone. In the Afro-pop world, there are rappers whose main lyrics are in their indigenous languages. When Zoro, a Nigerian Igbo rapper sings, “Anyi na asu fone [phonetics] na ogene, naa meeeaaan?” He is simply saying: “Now we’re rapping and playing ogene music at once. Do you understand?” Put differently, the musician is asking everyone to get used to the sound. That’s exactly the musicultural convergence I’m talking about. It’s an evolution, a sort of revolution. And what is more? We aren’t begging to be heard. The sound itself is compelling the world to pay attention.
Let’s talk about your poetry.
Your first poetry collection, Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts, just as the title suggests, featured poems that had dark themes ranging from loss to grief to life after death to questioning love. Your second, Waterman, is a sharp contrast. The poems are lighter themed. Was this deliberate? Were they reactions to certain times in your life?
In Waterman, I didn’t set out to write poems that spoke only to my experiences. I wanted to explore memory, religion, music, innocence, and the metaphysical dimension of philosophy, while looking both inwards and outwards. There’s a sense of history in the work as well, primarily because of memory. I like to think that history and memory are intertwined. I am a curious person, and the many unanswered questions in my mind sometimes find their way to the page. The questions I ask do not necessarily require absolute answers. When you say lighter-themed, are you referring to less death and ghosts, or any theme that could be less upsetting? In Waterman, religion took a blow, albeit usual—but there are concerns. During the official launch, I remember that a participant asked if I was not worried that readers could find some of the poems, particularly “A Middle-aged Drunk at the Confessional” and “At the Baptismal Font” upsetting? He was concerned that it could affect book sales. I promptly responded that it was absolutely my desire to upset. Certain poems should upset. Such poems don’t often do more than showing up with a mirror. Interestingly, when society sees itself in that mirror, it gets mad at the audacity of the poet. In the end, it depends on who is reading, and how they are processing the poems. When I was collecting the poems in Waterman, I found that beyond their diverse themes and stylistic features, they harmonized enough to form a cohesive poetry collection. Only a handful of poems in the collection have anything to do with my personal life.
You’ve quite the imagination and we see how you infuse that into your poetry. I read your poems and I wonder what exactly doesn’t go on in your head because it seems like you’ve imagined everything already. Haha.
What I find particularly interesting and would wish you talk about is your role-playing, if I can call it that. Your poetic personas assume different personalities and the poems are attempts to represent what they would say or how they would react to the situations the poems revolve around.
In Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts, we see this in the Bambari poems, in Waterman, we see it in such poems as “A Middle-aged Drunk at the Confessional,” “At The Baptismal Font,” and “The TV Show Host.’ Can you talk about the writing process and how you build and stay in character?
Thank you for the compliment. The practise of having specific characters in my poetry was deployed from the craft of play and fiction writing. When I set out to write such poems, I imagine the characters and ensure that their voices are steady to the extent that even if the poem is short, a decent level of clarity is attained. In the Bambari poems, for instance, I set out to write a short story idea I had, as poetry. Here was the fundamental question: How do I retell this story in poems so that nothing is lost? In response, I wrote a suite of eight poems with each succeeding poem developing the narrative up to the last poem, which is an elegy. In that elegy, there’s an undertone of mockery by the narrator, Derek’s brother. In “A Middle-aged Drunk at the Confessional,” shots were fired at one of the oldest religious institutions in the world. And who was a better fit for the job than a drunk who chose to show up at the confessional? He was fed up and needed to unburden. So, he said his mind and left. Was he really drunk? Did he confess his own sin or the sins of others? Perhaps one could argue, after reading the poem, that he was in fact not drunk with wine, but with poison from the sting of religion. Such confessors don’t wait for forgiveness or atonement. In fact, the character is such that shows up to say what a lot of people are thinking but are afraid to say. I believe there are layers to that character and more questions can be asked of him. The primary idea here is to be clear on characterization. I like to think it’s one of the beautiful methods of writing poetry, if pulled off successfully. For this reason and more, I venerate Ilya Kaminsky’s “Deaf Republic.”
You have two full-length poetry collections and two EPs. How do you manage to juggle both art forms? Either is already demanding, but you, you do two. How do you do it?
It is difficult. I try as much as possible to divide my time between both art forms in a way that enables me to follow up with the progress of each project I’m working on. As a writer, I am often relearning how to deal with expectations and deadlines I set for myself, and of course, other external deadlines relating to submissions and publishing. I set goals. Truth is, sometimes I fail. Things do not always go according to plan. But I keep working, regardless. As a musician, I know that my practice hours are sacrosanct, because what I do within those hours often determines how my performances or recording sessions will turn out. The long minutes I spend on stage during concerts, require weeks and months, or even years of disciplined preparation. And so, when I have to appear in concert, I focus more on piano practice sessions. Consequently, my writing suffers. But I’m able to pick up again when I’m done with concerts. I have mentioned elsewhere that when I read, meditate, research, take notes, and think critically about certain themes, it’s for me, part of the process of writing. Putting pen to paper, I believe, is the end of that process. A new chapter opens when the work is published and now out of my hands. I am very intentional and goal-driven. One of the implications of all this, is that I have very little or no time for inconsequential engagements. I unwind when I can, and get back to work. What I do as an artist is not entirely new, particularly when compared to my generation of Nigerian writers. There are writers who are also photographers, filmmakers, painters, lawyers, actors, graphic designers, singers, fashion designers, models, and so on. We have writers like Ike Anya, Niran Okewole, Dami Ajayi and others in the medical profession as well. Many creative people are able to multitask, and it’s always a joy to experience the diversity of talents and works in our creative spaces.
In many interviews, you’ve declined to say which is your favorite activity—writing poetry or playing the piano. But do you feel that sometimes you favour one over the other? Which among them? Or do you believe you give both equal attention?
I love both in equal measure. Why? I may not have a definitive answer now. Nonetheless, I will attempt some answers when I start writing my memoir in the future. What I can say, however, is that I play the piano more than I write poetry. This is not because I prefer it to poetry. Mastering the piano as a classical pianist requires many hours of practice to overcome technical difficulties and attain clarity, while demonstrating a holistic understanding of the repertoire. I do not intend to give up one for the other. Both art forms complement each other to the extent that I can choose to play a concert where I would read my poems as well.
Classical music isn’t well appreciated in Africa. Do you think that the genre would be better appreciated if more Africans composed piano music and more pianists performed the music, since it has become a familiar sound?
I would rather say that classical music is not the mainstream in Africa. But it is highly appreciated by those who love the genre, particularly because it’s a rare soundscape often heard mostly in religious and academic institutions. To thrive in Africa, classical music must break away from those walls. There are many notable chorales in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, but the same cannot be said about classical instrumental music. I believe it would be better appreciated if more composers and pianists explored the genre, while courting the support and reportage of the mainstream media. Music philosophers such as Theodor Adorno have argued, and rightly so, that playing the same recorded music constantly in the media can influence people to gradually warm up to the sound.
Are you working on anything at the moment? Another poetry collection? An EP? A recital, any project you don’t mind talking about?
In the last quarter of 2020, I recorded a collaborative album with the New York-based countertenor Andrew Egbuchiem. We’re still in the process of releasing the album and performing promotional concerts. I am currently studying works by Uzoigwe, Schumann, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff in preparation for recording sessions scheduled to hold later in the year. I am also in touch with my talent manager at World Arts Agency, who is working on new concert dates to be made public soon, hopefully. In addition, I am writing new poems and learning to deal with a deeper level of patience with myself and my poetry. If things work out favorably, in the coming months, I will start selecting poems that may appear in my third poetry collection.
About the Artist:
Echezonachukwu Nduka, poet and pianist, is the author of two poetry collections Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts (Griots Lounge, 2018), and Waterman (Griots Lounge, 2020). He holds degrees in Music from both the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Kingston University London, UK. In 2016, he was awarded the Korea-Nigeria Poetry Prize on World Poetry Day. Hailed by Guardian Life Magazine as Artist Extraordinaire, Nduka’s literary works have been published in The Indianapolis Review, Transition, Bombay Review, Kissing Dynamite, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry Vol. II, and A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, among others.
A specialist in piano music by African composers, Nduka has performed at the National Opera Centre in New York, Gateway Playhouse (New Jersey), IMI Concert (St. Louis, Missouri), as well as numerous other venues. His work has been featured on BBC Newsday, Radio France International, Classical Journey Ep. 134, and Radio Nacional Clasica de Argentina.
Official Website: www.artnduka.com