Exclusive Interview with African Pianist Echezonachukwu Nduka
In April 2018, African pianist Echezonachukwu Nduka released his first EP - Choreowaves - to wide acclaim. Choreowaves features piano compositions by some African Composers. African Composers interviewed Echezonachukwu to find out more about this passionate pianist who is making waves as a performer with an enviable repertoire of works of renowned composers from across the globe and as an unapologetic supporter and performer of African Composers.
(African Composers = AC; Echezonachukwu Nduka = EN)
AC: Tell us, who is Echezonachukwu Nduka?
EN: I like to think of him as a loner who spends more time on the piano or on YouTube watching his favorite concert pianists than he does trying to catch up with trends on social media. In addition, he writes poetry and fiction and thinks of himself as the Patron Saint of Loners, basically because he has evolved over the years and has discovered the benefits of creative aloneness. Echezonachukwu loves and values family; has a few friends who are pretty much older than he is, and takes seriously people who aren’t in a hurry to dismiss his first name for its length. There’s more about him, of course. But one gets to learn as one grows older on this journey of self-discovery.
AC: Can you tell us what or who inspired you to take up the piano as an instrument of choice?
EN: The choice of instrument came naturally when I resumed as an undergraduate of music in the University of Nigeria. Before then, I had learned to play the keyboard and was inspired by a friend named Moses Okafor who was well-known in Eastern Nigeria at the time for his dexterity and brilliance on the keys. I started playing in my church at the age of thirteen and learned mostly Handel’s Oratorios in addition to the usual hymns for worship. Based on this background, I was immediately listed to be a piano major student when I gained admission to study music.
AC: What are some of the challenges you faced when you decided to work on your skills as a pianist? Were there any discouraging factors: cost, training, society, performance opportunities? How did you overcome these?
EN: The first challenge was discovering that learning to play scales and practicing fingering exercises were not particularly interesting, as it were. But I soon realized that the art of piano playing has no shortcuts. As a piano student in the University, I had other departmental courses and electives, series of rehearsals and whatnots, so much so that there was little time left for sufficient practice sessions that a professional pianist requires. In addition, I was not taught to memorize pieces at that stage. It would have been of great benefit to me if I started exercising my memory early enough. I basically played everything at sight and always had page-turners. Sadly, after my graduation, I went on an involuntary six years hiatus before resuming again. During that long break from the piano, I felt there was no need to learn new sonatas or practice piano works because they were never going to be performed. After I resumed, it was even more difficult to play because I felt like I needed to start all over again. And I did. In Nigeria, piano recitals are not popular, or nearly non-existent. Each time one sees a flyer for a recital; it’s either a piano student of MUSON or elsewhere is performing in partial fulfillment for a certain degree or certificate. That’s it. But what happens afterwards? Where are all the pianists in Nigeria and where are they performing? Where are the recitals and concerts outside the walls of Universities and Conservatories? Would Nigerians buy tickets to listen to sonatas and concerti? I think so. But it depends on location, PR Management, and other logistics. Basically, many pianists end up as active piano teachers/accompanists and not solo classical performers because performance opportunities are mostly in church choirs or choral groups where we get booked to accompany oratorios and cantatas in concerts. I think that if I’ve overcome anything at all, it’s the fact that I returned to the piano regardless of all limitations.
AC: Many congratulations on the release of your EP in April 2018! The EP features works by African Composers including Obodom by Peter Sylvanus and Christian Onyeji’s Ufie III. You seem to have a particular need to promote African composers: any particular reason why?
EN: Thank you very much. The first is the need to have a comprehensive concert program that reflects diversity. I am not a fan of monotonous engagements. For far too long, what is often referred to as the standard classical piano repertoire has been without major composers of African descent, dead or alive. I feel the need to promote African composers because I believe their works not only deserve to be heard but really should be heard alongside works of other known composers. This is me saying, “Hey! I know you all love Beethoven and Brahms and Chopin and Mozart, but have you heard Onyeji and Uzoigwe? Do you know the works of Fred Onovwerosuoke and Peter Sylvanus?” I’m 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. In many cases, music students play some compositions by African composers (who are likely their teachers) during performance exams and it ends there. It should not be so. I think they should be heard live in concert halls as well. They should be heard on radio, seen on TV, and all other platforms. That way, composers and their works will receive well-deserved attention and responses.
AC: What do you particularly like about the pieces you have selected for your EP?
EN: I like that they are pieces by 21st Century African composers whose works portray our African heritage. The pieces have interesting rhythms, harmonies, and melodies that easily call one’s attention to African dances and vibes. And they do so in different ways.
AC: More widely, how do you choose which composers to perform?
EN: I simply choose composers whose works I find intriguing. If I connect to a composer’s work and strongly feel that my performance of the same work will connect and speak to my audience, then I’ll have it on my program. For me, it’s always about the work. If I don’t feel anything for the work, it’s always an uphill task having it on my program even if I learn and play it well. To be exact, if I don’t enjoy playing a piece, I always have a feeling that my audience will not enjoy it either. The performer is the intermediary between the composer and the audience. In this case, the pianist is the messenger, the medium, the spokesperson. If a messenger does not understand or connect to a message, how clear or effective would the delivery be? Will he even know what he is saying to the audience? For me, I always feel the need to connect to a piece first. Otherwise, I might just be another piano guy on stage hitting the keys and who knows, the audience will be waiting for it to be over so they can go home. That’s not the kind of performance I want to be associated with.
AC: Have you found that there is a dearth of compositions for piano by African composers?
EN: This is true. However, one must be careful to consider the fact that composers are mostly encouraged or inspired to compose more pieces when their existing compositions are often performed. This is to say that no composer likes to compose for the bookshelf. In fact, I like to think that the busiest of composers work mostly on commissioned pieces which are waiting to be performed even before the composer writes the last note. You might want to investigate how many pianists perform piano works by African composers. You would agree with me that African composers write more for voices and choir because choral compositions are performed more than instrumental compositions. Consequently, it goes without saying that if there’s a rise in the number of pianists performing compositions for piano by African composers, we will not only see more piano works by the same composers but even more enchanting piano works by new African composers.
AC: What is your impression of African Composers and are you excited about the potential that you see?
EN: Of course, I am. For instance, African composers whose works I have performed are as brilliant as their counterparts anywhere in the world. However, I strongly feel that African composers should consider writing more music for orchestra. Personally, I’d like to be on stage with an orchestra performing a piano concerto by an African composer.
AC: You are doing a lot to showcase African talents: what else do you think can be done by other African and non-African performers to present a true picture of the African Composer and, therefore, music according to Africa’s opinion?
EN: This is a bit tricky because it could easily be linked to the unending argument on the authenticity of music performance. How can a performer present a true picture of music according to Africa’s opinion? Does Africa have a single take on how a particular African composition should be performed? While I believe in subjectivity, it helps if the composer whose work is to be performed leaves performance notes on how the music should be performed. It saves the performer from guess work and puts everything into perspective. In addition, performers should consider participating in master-classes and lecture-recitals in order to share or get first-hand knowledge on the pieces and possible techniques required for effective performance.
AC: What next can we expect from Echezonachukwu?
EN: Expect more live performances, recordings, and collaborations. Keep your fingers crossed.
AC: We are excited to see what comes next! Thank you very much.
Find out more and listen to Echezonachukwu's Choreowaves on YouTube. Happy listening!