If he’s not writing fiction or crafting words into riveting poetry lines, Echezonachukwu Nduka can almost always be seen showing an engrossed audience the magic he does with the grand piano. The pace at which his fingers maneuver piano keys to evoke surreal melody evidences his virtuosity.
The classical pianist has worked with musicians and performed at major concert halls from Europe to America.
His bowtie knot at its tightest sometimes around the collar of his suit shirt; his body draped in traditional Nigerian fabric other times, he treats concertgoers to masterpieces of western composers like Piotr Tchaikovsky and Giacino Rossini just as easily as he percussively pounds the keys to perform the works of many West African composers.
Now hailed as one of the most listened to classical pianists of Nigerian origin, Eche’, as he is fondly called, attended several mission schools as a result of his parents’ vocation as ministers who were transferred to various stations.
An alumnus of the Bishop Crowther Seminary, Awka, he gained admission into the University of Nigeria (UNN) in 2006 to study Music and graduated magna cum laude in 2010. Thereafter, he proceeded to Kingston University London, United Kingdom, where he studied as a postgraduate student in the same field. He has since performed across venues in New Jersey, Missouri, and New York — poised to record solo piano music by African composers.
In this interview with ThaCable Lifestyle, Eche discusses his role in knocking the African tradition into mainstream classical pianism.
Many would ask if there’s really any need to conceptually distinguish between the African approach to pianism and what is obtainable in the western world. In the end, isn’t pianism just pianism?
Of course, it is, if you look at it from a generic perspective. But a closer look would reveal some distinguishing factors which are mostly influenced by diverse cultures. Even in the western world, European classical piano music has the Russian school, German school, Polish school, French school, and the list goes on.
African pianism is the conceptual approach to the ‘School of African Art Music’ just like you have it in the western world, characterized by cultural influences. Of course, the language of music is universal, but this universality does not erase the distinctions which also include diverse performance practices.
It suggests to performers how best to approach pieces. For pieces by African composers, the idea for performers is to make the piano and music to be very percussive like you’re playing drums. For instance, I can’t play works by Christian Onyeji the same way I would play a Chopin piece. The Chopin piece has its own distinct way of performance to reflect its own tradition. Even the music by Debussy and Ravel.
They have this light touch on the piano; impressionistic compositions that paint a picture. That’s not the same with much African music where you literally have to make the piano sound like drums. Understanding these differences will help not just performers but analysts who study and teach it.
Your specialty is Nigerian classical pianism. Why African, given your broader skillset & repertoire?
It speaks to me culturally and I can understand it better. I can study it; I know exactly where it’s coming from. I have more connection to those compositions compared to those of the western world. That is not to say that I don’t play the classical canon. I still play western piano works, even in recitals. My specialization is also to highlight the works of African composers because they’re not mainstream. Classical music is not considered mainstream but, even within that tradition, music by African composers is nowhere near what is considered the classical canon. In other words, they’re almost non-existent.
I feel like, being from this same culture, I would like to give it more attention. I can study western composition and try to follow them the way I was taught but it might not be as convincing because I’m not native to the culture that influenced that music. Also, being a Nigerian and an Igbo man, I feel I should be the one playing this music before it gets the global attention we hope it would. Imagine I’m playing Mozart and, one day, a Chinese pianist pulls up and starts giving workshops about music by Nigerian composers. It would be a shame. We’re on the fringes. I should be at the forefront of those championing this music. The idea is to play African compositions so much so that it encourages them to write more.
You leverage the work of African composers. Have you had to compose yourself? What’s the line between those two extremes and how have you navigated it.
I have composed a few pieces but I do not consider myself a composer. The first piece I composed was when I was an undergraduate student at UNN’s department of music. It must have been during my third year, sometime around 2008/2009. I composed and gave it to my colleagues to play as a part of our performance exams. Also, I’ve composed a few pieces for voice, the recent one being ‘Munachimso’, an Igbo folk piece that is being performed here in the US. Composing is not an art form that I’m so disciplined to explore. I’d rather play the works of others. As for the line between composition and playing, what I do is improvise which is like composing in real-time. It’s not something you can get back unless it’s transcribed. But I don’t sit and devote time to scoring music. Maybe in the future, I’ll consider composing for piano, because I have it in me. But for now, I’m not ready to explore it.
You had a church background. How did you start out on this journey to become a pianist?
I was first a choir boy but I was more interested in the piano and the person playing the music than the singing. I got my own instruments and started learning on my own. There was this pianist, Moses Okafor. I was looking up to him then as a junior in high school. During vacation, I got a small keyboard and started to teach myself, learning to play church hymns. Back in school, I started playing in our school chapel. From there, I met my music teacher who put me through how to read notes and play. Eventually, I decided to study music at the university. The church background definitely influenced me a lot.
I attended a seminary secondary school. But it’s not like it was cast in stone that all graduates of seminary schools would go on to become priests. It was just like any other secondary school but with strict church rules. At the seminary, I considered becoming a lawyer because I was in the arts and an active debater. But my love for music overtook that. My choice of music gave my friends some concern but my parents supported me.
Transitioning into UNN was similarly interesting. It inspired and challenged me to become better. In addition to learning and collaborating with other talented musicians, I had the opportunity to study the piano under Dr. Adebowale Adeogun & Professor Christian Onyeji. It was while studying there that I was introduced to the concept of African pianism. I performed as the departmental pianist, playing the role of accompanist for departmental productions like operas, oratorios, band concerts, etc. The ensemble rehearsal sessions were frequent & impactful.
What was the struggle like towards finding your feet in this niche?
Years of practice, listening to music and attending concerts. I worked with choirs, played in churches before I decided to start performing as a solo artist and concert pianist. It took years of networking and finding the right people. Christian Onyeji, my professor at UNN, was very helpful. Coming over to the US, I’ve been very lucky to be guided and mentored. That way, I’ve been able to get concerts and get featured in events. The struggle is ongoing. Classical music isn’t mainstream. It’s not pop. Better days are ahead and I look forward to what the future holds.
What are some of your high moments working with musicians and performing globally?
The first would be my performance of Handel’s Chandos 9 with the Chapel of Grace Choir in the University of Maiduguri (2012); the performance of Laz Ekwueme’s opera ‘A Night in Bethlehem’ with other musicians in Imo State Government House (2013); the IMI Concert with flutists Wendy Hymes & Sami Junnonen in Missouri (2018), Summer Concert with Andrew Egbuchiem & Jasmine Thomas in Brooklyn (2019); and the public lecture-recital in Sommers Point, New Jersey, in November 2019.
How has the experience thus far shaped your perception of the recording & performance-based industries, both in Nigeria and in the diaspora?
I perceive that there is a wide gap between the recording/performance-based industries in Nigeria when compared to the diaspora. In Nigeria for instance as a classical musician, it is quite difficult to get world-class recording facilities with the grand piano to record live, edit, and have your work produced. Even when it’s available, it’s limited. It’s much easier to record in the diaspora. My experience has been here in the US. You work with musicians who know the score. I recorded last year in the middle of the pandemic in New York. I had this studio engineer, a Russian concert pianist, who had the scores. I played my session and we went back and forth editing.
There’s also the business structure. Here, you work with art agencies that introduce your work to others, get you concerts. You only have to show up to perform. I don’t know if there are agencies for classical musicians in Nigeria but the gap is wide. We didn’t have any representation. But I believe we’ll catch up with time. In terms of recording, getting copyright permission from composers in Nigeria could be an uphill task especially when you’re dealing with unpublished works. Having an agency handle you would have taken care of the paperwork to make it easier.
In the US, copyright infringement is taken seriously. You could have lawsuits flying around within days of releasing your work. I don’t know how well we’re doing in this aspect in Nigeria. I believe our composers are looking at this.
You once touched on the prospects for you collaborating with more musicians, working with conductors & orchestras, and getting massive deals to record solo piano music. What’s been the nature of your endeavor towards this and the status quo? How is this working out for you?
It’s a long-term goal. I’m not in a hurry. I have a lot of work to do on my end with regard to techniques and expansion of repertoire. That said, I am currently in touch with some musicians on my list of prospective collaborators. When the time is right, we’ll schedule concerts and possibly, recording sessions as well. I have high hopes of working with Chineke! Orchestra in the near future, even though I haven’t made any moves in that regard yet. I’m in touch with my talent manager at World Arts Agency. Hopefully, concert dates for the new season will be announced.
You’re big on pianism, yet you’ve done remarkably well in poetry and fiction writing. Is there really ever a fine line distinguishing the three art forms? At what point would you say they all interact?
My schedule determines how I divide my time between the three art forms. If there’s a concert date I’m preparing for, I tend to spend more time on my piano practicing. That means I get to write less. But of course, when I have deadlines approaching for a journal or magazine publication, then I spend more time writing. Poetry doesn’t take as much time for me. Once I can think of something, poetry comes at the spur of the moment, like a spark.
Fiction and music take more time. I try to keep the three going, taking notes that I get to flesh out during my spare time. The publishing process isn’t some stuff you rush. Being an author, a poet, and a pianist simultaneously has taught me patience. You take your time to refine the craft and make sure what you’re putting out is in top form. The imaginative essence cuts across. Writing poetry; a story, you imagine. I tend to do that as well when playing music. What story do I want to convey? Rage, love, melancholy, romance? Sounds tell stories. I haven’t written fiction in over six months now. What happens with managing the three art forms is that one could suffer. Preparing for music concerts, I don’t get to write much, which is natural. I have two books now and I’m working on the third.
As an instrumentalist, what would be your assessment of movie scores in Nollywood?
I’d like to think that it has come a long way with regard to movie scores. Now, we have the old Nollywood and the new. In today, we still have regional divides. We have the home videos and cinema movies. They’re not all the same but their film scores are one of the distinguishing features. For the home videos, you hear some sort of folk music for the epics. You hear traditional instruments where you have someone singing and telling almost the whole story of the movie like you have the Stanley Okories of this world. But even that has evolved. The product of Lagos or what they call the cinema movies improved, where they let the music tell its own story. But I think, generally, there’s still room for improvement. An orchestral music can create a mood, even as we can’t take out the impact of pop culture. Hopefully, in the near future, I want to see where they take it to.
Beyond the virtuosity in your artistry, there’s the pan-Africanism to it that sees you export certain stylistic attributes of traditional African music to classical pianism. What’s the reception been like?
I have been greeted with several kinds of reactions: curiosity, surprise, gratitude, and enthusiasm. Interestingly, I have met a few people who argue that some of the African piano works I play could as well have been composed by Prokofiev or a contemporary composer of classical music. I agree.
That idea is itself a corroboration of the axiom that music is a universal language that speaks to people across cultures. Fred Onovwerosuoke’s piano etudes, for instance, have been likened to the music of Béla Bartók. When I play some of them, it feels like I’m playing Prokofiev. But that’s the beauty of music!
I can attest to the fact that some younger composers have been inspired to start composing for the piano, following the African Pianism tradition and model. Earlier this year, I premiered a composition by Itunu Oyewale titled ‘Atewo: An African Dance for Piano’. He is still working on new pieces and there are other composers doing the same work.
There are people who know very little about such compositions, particularly work by older composers, and have yearned to hear them performed live. Imagine their joy and relief to hear such music in concert.
With the publication of graded compositions in five volumes by Dr. William Chapman Nyaho, and a couple of recordings by a few pianists who are currently championing the music of African composers, I believe it’s only a matter of time and this genre will take its prideful place in the classical music world.
You once touched what a burden your position in this context can be as a black artist performing before western audiences. It’s reminiscent of Mahershala Ali’s role in the movie ‘Green Book’.
It is what I refer to as the burden of representation, where an artist is, to a large extent, regarded as the window through which an entire musicultural world is seen and judged. This is problematic because, in this case, one part cannot represent a whole. And so, based on certain interactions and reactions, I have become aware that, while I am in concert before western audiences, there are some of them who are inclined to believe that I represent the standard of classical piano music performance in Nigeria.
There are people genuinely surprised that I—a Nigerian, born and raised in Nigeria— play classical piano music. Of course, to such people, not very much is known about classical music in Nigeria in comparison to the west, and it is not expected that a Nigerian would be playing classical music, particularly works in the Western canon. Perhaps one might even argue that this prejudice is fueled in part, by lack of knowledge. In their defense, however, they could argue they don’t know pianists of Nigerian origin competing at the highest level in global piano competitions.
But even that does not cancel the fact that the burden is real, and I am constantly in the space where I am challenged to outdo myself. This experience is similar to Mahershala Ali’s character because, as a black pianist, he wasn’t expected to play Western classical piano music. The only way he could have a career was to switch to jazz and collaborate with other musicians. You would recall the bar scene where he played a Chopin etude on an old upright piano and the people were in awe. Here was a black man, suited in a tail tuxedo, who found himself playing Chopin in a bar full of people. The truth is, his audience didn’t expect such mastery of that repertoire from him. It will be difficult to completely erase that burden of (mis)representation.
What are you working on currently? What’s next for Eche’?
Poetry; expanding my piano repertoire with works by Schumann, Uzoigwe, and Beethoven. In the coming months, hopefully, I’ll start selecting the poems to form what would become the first draft of my third poetry collection.
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