I knew I wanted to play the piano: A conversation with Echezonachukwu Nduka

Echezonachukwu Nduka is a poet, concert Pianist, and musicologist. Born and raised in Nigeria, he earned degrees in Music from University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Kingston University London, UK. His poems have appeared in several publications including Saraba, Jalada, Bakwa, River River, Bombay Review, Brittle Paper, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, African Writer, Sentinel Nigeria, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, among others. He specializes in piano music by composers from Africa and the African Diaspora. His debut EP, Choreowaves, which has been featured on BBC, African Composers, Radio Nacional Clasica de Argentina, and Classical Journey Ep. 134, includes selected pieces by Fred Onovwerosuoke, Christian Onyeji, Peter Sylvanus, and Chijioke Ngobili.

I recall you saying that your musical journey began at twelve. Let us into your genesis, into your influences even at that age. 

I was a junior in High School and had joined the chapel choir as a boy soprano. Fortunately, we had a music teacher who directed our choir and taught us mostly choral works by G.F. Handel, J.S. Bach, Sam Ojukwu, and a few other composers of African descent whose works we performed at special occasions. I found out, however, that I was more fascinated by the pianist who accompanied our choir. Considering the fact that he alone played the piano while the rest of us sang, I thought he was doing something really special and I wanted to do that as well. My fascination led to curiosity which in turn led to an action that changed my life. During a vacation, I went to a music store with my little savings and made a down payment for a small keyboard which was more or less a toy. If I recall, the keyboard had only an octave and a half, but I didn’t mind anyway. I gave the storekeeper all the money I had and went home. That same day, I told my mum what I had done and she gave me the balance and encouraged me to buy the keyboard. 

I started as a self-taught musician. It was as a result of my curiosity, passion, and obsession even. I didn’t wait for any teacher at that stage. I simply practiced and kept discovering some of the rudiments myself. Being a preacher’s kid and one heavily influenced by orthodox church music, I started learning popular hymns and songs for worship. By the time my school resumed in September, I had mastered a few hymns and could accompany our choir. The first day I played in the chapel, my contemporaries couldn’t believe what was happening. That was how I transitioned from being a chorister to an accompanist for our chapel choir. I also played in my Dad’s church during vacations. Of course, I did listen to lots of baroque music and learnt to play by ear. That continued until our music teacher, Ms. Amaka Igwe, who would go on to convince me to study music instead of law and prepared me to sit for music at all O level exams for which I was the only candidate, took me and introduced me to staff notation. We had lessons for a few weeks and I continued on my own. I was also influenced by Moses Okafor, one of the best keyboardists in South-Eastern Nigeria with whom I performed occasionally at the time. At that early stage, I learned the discipline of sitting at the piano for hours and I have not stopped.

This is incredible; you’ve come a long way, really. Let me be a little silly, does sitting at the piano burn the butt? (Laughs).

(Laughs). Not at all. I don’t know if other pianists have experienced that at some point, but I don’t think it happens because professional pianists spend hours of practice on the piano.

That said, I believe that intermissions during practice sessions or performances will surely avert that should that be the case with any pianist.

Your saving money to buy a toy keyboard deeply resonates with me. I remember saving my pocket money to buy my first harmonica in secondary school, and when my mother gave me money to buy a guitar at 17. I also remember the American songwriter and guitarist, Lenny LeBlanc, saying that he took a job washing dishes to earn money to buy his first bass guitar. It’s the same story with many other creatives; I mean, isn’t it interesting to know how little beginnings and tenacity lead into great careers and historic accomplishments? Did it ever cross your mind that you’d someday play the piano outside your family and church circle?

I certainly share your views on little beginnings. I think it’s the law of nature that one has to pay a price or make some sort of sacrifice to fulfill a dream. In other words, nature has placed a price-tag on everything worthy of note. It could be monetary, time, or a radical action that makes no sense to the pessimist. When I first saw Lang Lang, the man who has now become one of my favorite concert pianists, I was so blown away by his performances and showmanship that I followed him everywhere online, read and watched his interviews. I wanted to know his story. I bought and read his memoir and couldn’t help but appreciate his journey. His parents bought him his first piano with half of their yearly income when he was aged a year and half. He started learning the piano when he was only two years old. His feet weren’t even reaching the pedals yet. Aged nine, his father quit his job, followed him to Beijing to study and supervised his practice sessions very strictly, leaving his mother back home in Shenyang to work and send money for their upkeep. In this case, both parents made sacrifices too. The poor boy was under pressure all through those formative years, but it yielded a great result. When I took the decision to study music instead of law, I must have been the most foolish person to some of my contemporaries at the time. It made no sense that one of the brightest art students in the school would opt for music, something that easily could have just remained a hobby, according to them. But of course, I followed my convictions and here we are.  I knew I wanted to play the piano, but it never crossed my mind that I would be playing concerts outside my home country. Environment has a way of shaping one’s vision and prospects, you know. I tried to escape the limitations of being in a place where my art was likely to suffer.

Talking about environment: you’ve lived and worked in Nigeria, in the UK, and currently in the US, which would you say has been most generous to your music? And in what unique ways have they influenced your rise?

Growing up in Nigeria and learning the piano as a teenager had its challenges quite alright, but I like to think that so far, I have had more patronage and platforms in Nigeria basically because I have lived most of my life there. In addition, I have been privileged to work with some of the best classical musicians in Nigeria, featuring in chorale concerts, performing alongside brilliant chamber musicians, and travelling to many parts of the country. I remember now that towards the end of 2012, I was booked to perform with the Chapel of Grace Choir in the University of Maiduguri. They were to perform Handel’s Chandos 9 and I was the featured guest piano accompanist. I almost cancelled because of the pressure to reconsider the engagement as a result of the insurgency at the time. Well, I went and it became an exciting experience that opened doors to more opportunities. I think of it now and I am forced to consider my action a necessary risk for my music career. Should there be a limit to such radical actions? Probably yes. But of course, the love for music overcomes fear. One salient point to note, however, is that I performed mostly as an accompanist. I wanted to perform solo pieces and concerti. There was the challenge of not having easy access to acoustic pianos for practice sessions, performances, or recordings. I played electronic keyboards most of the time, and that could never be a substitute for an acoustic grand piano. No professional pianist plays a recital on an electronic keyboard, you know. 

I spent only one year in the UK studying as a graduate student of Music in Kingston University London. There, I spent more time writing poetry than performing music. I had only one booking to perform in Leicester. That was clearly because I did not identify as a performing musician at the time. I wanted to immerse myself in literature while studying music. And that was exactly what I did.

My career as a soloist started again when I moved to the United States in 2016. I played my debut recital in New Jersey in the summer of 2017 and the response was nothing short of amazing. That night, I knew there was no going back. I have performed in concerts since then and recently had my debut EP released. That too has opened doors to more performance opportunities here in the United States. In two years, I have benefited from resources and networks that steer towards a promising career.

I once read a piece by Langston Hughes where he said, “Jazz seeps into words”. Let’s talk about poetry and music: there is this question Henry Akubuiro asked Uche Nduka, and I’d love to ask you: how connected is songwriting and poetry? 

Songwriting and poetry are like two sides of a coin. I like to think that the basic interconnections they share are found in sound, rhythms, and thematic liberty. When we read sonnets, couplets, and even some contemporary poems with a strong sense of rhythm, scansion comes to mind. It’s a method used by both poets and songwriters to determine the rhythmic and structural flow of their writing by marking stresses to create defined meters. This explains why you can sing verses of a song with the same melody and a keyboardist can play the same harmonic progression. In fact, people who sing hymns in churches know that there are some hymns that can be sung with two or three different tunes. That is only possible because the hymns, which I consider poems too, share the same meter with the tunes. Some poems have rhyme schemes that underscore their musicality. And what about rap music? Most rappers rhyme all the time and that’s one of the points where music meets poetry. There’s a YouTube video of Jay Z talking about his book ‘Decoded’ where he argues that rap is poetry. If you take out music from some songs and read the lyrics only, you might as well be reading great poetry. Set the words to music again, and you have a song. That said, not all songwriters consider rhythm in a strict sense. In all, I’m more drawn to the idea of liberty. 

Songwriters and poets can write about anything at all.

“The mirrors in this household wear masks,” reads a line from your poem ‘We wear purple robes’. When I got to this particular line, I paused the video and went straight to a mirror to consider carefully the situation. The thought that crossed my mind was that popular saying that ”writers or intellectuals are mirrors of society”. I wouldn’t want to go into whether that saying is true or not; I’m rather interested in, first, the making of that metaphor (its visual suggestion with regard to the physical character of a mirror). 

A mirror, as we know, should be a true reflection of an image. But when mirrors begin to wear masks, then something is amiss. That could connote falsehood, inaction, or a blatant shift from an expected natural occurrence. That visual suggestion with regard to the physical character of a mirror was exactly what I had in mind when I wrote that. The next line in the poem unravels that metaphor.

…the mirrors “show shadows”

That’s right. It is questionable for mirrors to show shadows instead of images that appear before them. With reference to music, the next line still takes on the same metaphor.

What’s your idea of liberty? In music, in poetry, in the arts generally, and in living.

It is, for me, a state that transcends not putting one’s imagination in check for fear of possible restrictions put in place by society or gatekeepers. It is the absence of fear in a world manipulated by fear itself. It is also about defying and redefining labels. If I write and record a Christian Gospel song, does that necessarily make me a Christian? If a writer contributes to an anthology of queer fiction and poetry, does that make the writer queer? Do imaginations have labels? Or do creatives imagine only within the perimeters of their identity? It is only ideal that artists, and indeed people from all walks of life, should make certain choices according to their convictions. Whenever I think about liberty, diversity comes to mind as well.  The world thrives on diversity, which is in part, made possible by choices. With regard to poetry, Uche Nduka has argued, and rightly so, that we don’t need a poetic consensus. In the end, our world will be ruled by our preferences, and sometimes, by that of others which rubs off on us. What is salient, however, is that we cannot always escape the consequences of our choices. After all, liberty could also mean seeing those consequences at the outset and embracing them with open arms.

In an interview elsewhere you said you’re “interested in bringing works by African composers to the hearing of audiences who know very little or nothing about African classical piano music. In addition, I think it’s time to take these compositions outside music schools.” I’m glad you’re taking this route, ’cause I really enjoyed your playing ‘Obodom’ by Peter Sylvanus; which was actually my first time hearing Peter Sylvanus. 

Thank you, David. Peter Sylvanus is one of the many Nigerian composers whose works leave you enchanted long after you’ve heard them. It’s sad that works by brilliant Nigerian composers like him are yet to gain the attention they deserve. He composed ‘Obodom’ in 2003. It’s a brilliant and energetic work that should be performed live in concert and aired frequently. If you consider the fact that the work received its premiere recording and live performance fifteen years after its composition, then it’ll be clear why I’m determined to record and perform works by African composers. There’s a void and I think that while African classical musicians are performing works by Western and African composers alike, we should do more to perform and promote our composers. The reason is simple: the classical music world is being denied the pleasure of experiencing rich cultural emphasis found in music by African composers for piano. And of course, if we don’t play and record these works, how do we expect music enthusiasts to discover and appreciate them? Should we expect composers to write more for piano when the ones they wrote years ago haven’t been heard live or recorded? I have met some concertgoers who sincerely confessed to me that they had no idea we had classical composers in Africa. I’m motivated by a few concert pianists who have recorded works by composers of African descent, and the fact that since the release of Choreowaves, some pianists have been inspired to learn and perform pieces by African composers.

Let me ask a silly question: what musicians or musicologists don’t you listen to?

John Cage. I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to music for prepared piano.

What about John Cage? Or do not poems prepare pianos? (Laughs)

He was an American composer who took his experimentation on atonality a bit too far. A brilliant, artistic, and controversial figure he was, quite alright. But his music is not my cup of tea. I respect his courage and genius. Yet, each time I see someone fixing screws and stuff between piano strings, I find the nearest exit.

Poems prepare pianos? What a thought! (Laughs). Well, John Cage was a poet too. Of course, poems can prepare pianos, but certainly not according to Cage’s practice. Another way to look at it is the experimentation that goes into preparing pianos for performance. This entails fixing screws between strings, clipping strings with pegs, forks, and all kinds of objects to alter its tonality and overall sound. Only a maverick could have come up with such an idea, and John Cage was truly one. Consider the works of poets like Kwame Dawes, Uche Nduka, Kei Miller, Safia Elhillo, Peter Akinlabi, Umar Abubakar Sidi,  and others who experiment with language, pushing the limits and defying branding. Their poetry is like preparing the piano. They constantly stir the waters of poetry. The only difference here is that while I’m not such a great fan of John Cage’s experiments, I’m drawn to the works of experimental poets. And truth be told, you are on this list too! 

Oh, you mention Uche Nduka! I remember a portion where he said that “i do not fold the sky, / i widen it.” Isn’t the experimentation with language, with forms, expanding meanings and perspectives, wonderful? In a significant way it is also what you’re achieving with piano and sound, particularly translating African sounds to new sounds and to the body. Wait, what is African sound? 

The first thing that comes to mind is the music of Africa. And this is not limited to the more traditional genres made with indigenous instruments like drums, thumb pianos, rattles, gongs, xylophones, flutes, etc. It cuts across all genres influenced by other world cultures. I play piano music by African composers, but the piano itself is not an African instrument. Yet, it serves as a medium of expression the same way guitars, saxophones and trumpets are used in Highlife or Afrobeat, for instance. African sounds can be found in languages, quotidian banters and even the unspoken. A single definition will not suffice.

This even takes me to a behaviour I notice in instrumentalists: there’s a unique way you guys play and move the body simultaneously, to the extent of closing the eyes. I usually make a naïve statement about this phenomenon by saying, “Oh my, she is in the spirit!”. And with you, I’ve observed that you gracefully throw your head backward. Still in my willful naïveness I ask: what is the name of that spirit? I ask because my dancing gets a little awkward or shapeless when sound sinks deep into me. (Laughs)

I have no idea what that spirit is called, but I do know that it is real. In my experience, it’s a reaction to the music. I guess it happens because I try to be one with the music while performing it the best way that I can. However, with regards to classical music performances, I think body movements should be controlled to some extent. Otherwise it will appear to be pretentious and in turn become a distraction.

Who are your favorite poets? And what poetry books are you currently reading? 

I enjoy the poetry of Ladan Osman, Remi Raji, Audre Lorde, Uche Nduka, Chris Abani,  Peter Akinlabi, Richard Ali, Warsan Shire, Chimalum Nwankwo, Taylor Mali, Afam Akeh, Jumoke Verissimo, Kwame Dawes, Emari DiGiorgio, Ron Koertge, Simon Armitage, Clifton Gachagua, to mention a few. I am currently reading Diana Goetsch’s In America and re-reading Ladan Osman’s The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony.

What should we be expecting from you soon? A new book? 

More concerts and a new EP.

Any word for fellow creatives? 

There’s a key to every locked door. Strive to find that key. And if you can’t, locate another door, or make a new one. Try as much as possible to not be distracted by applause or criticisms. May our works outlive us.