Echezonachukwu Nduka: The Poet that wrote for Ghosts – The Question Marker
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Echezonachukwu Nduka: The Poet that wrote for Ghosts

The pianist and poet is a rising star. Emmanuel Iduma of Saraba magazine has described his debut collection as “delightful”. But how will he evolve?

“Eche’s lines are well crafted that everyone feels him. You find love, distress, hope and imagination. You find ballads for the dead.”

One evening last April, Echezonachukwu Nduka was promoting his debut published poetry collection, Chrysanthemums for Wide-Eyed Ghosts in New Jersey, at an April in Paris, an arts and social event hosted by The Somers Point Art Commission in cooperation with The Somers Point Business Association, a body that “promotes, protects, and supports the development of a strong business environment in Somers Point and the surrounding communities.” Nduka was the five-day event featured poet. He graced the platform to read from his book. He had on a black beret, a body-hugging top and a jacket embroidered with red flowers  and blue stripes. On a fleeting glance, you could mistake him for Okri. With his right hand resting on the microphone stand, he said that his “long name is not a burden anymore.” In 2017, a caucasian Master of Ceremony had had great difficulty pronouncing his name. She had asked him: “How do you say your first name? Can I say ‘E’?” His response was an apt “no.” She had to keep going at it until she got it right. 

As he recounted this experience to the audience in New Jersey, laughter erupted. 

But Nduka wasn’t joking. He has a thing for propriety. In March 2015, at the Anambra Book and Creativity Festival in Awka, he challenged a guest speaker on the factuality of certain aspects of a research paper on Nri art. The speaker got visibly discomfited. That year’s edition of ANBUKRAFT was held at King David Hotel, Awka, and organized by the renowned Arts scholar and critic, Professor Krydz Ikwuemesi. Among the special guests were Professor Ben Obumselu who gave an enthralling lecture on the life and work of his friend, the legendary Christopher Okigbo; and there was Professor Chimalum Nwankwo, popular for declaring Okigbo a plagiarist, who discussed his journey as a critic within the Nigerian literary society; Lasse Lau, the Danish filmmaker screened a short film he had recently made. The esteemed novelist, Professor Chukwuemeka Ike arrived late but, eyes filled with nostalgia, hooked the audience with the story of Okigbo’s death during the civil war.

It was at the intellectually powered event that Nduka, then in his mid-20s, wanted clarifications to be made on some misleading bits of the Nri art presentation. “I am from Nri,” Nduka had said, “so I need to be sure of what you’re saying.”

Nduka’s father, Venerable Eugene Ekwunife Nduka, was an influential Anglican clergyman in the diocese. Although he was born in Onitsha in July, 1989, the religious inclinations of his father saw to it that Nduka spent most of his childhood within the church premises in Awka. Now retired, his father was a strict disciplinarian. “He wasn’t the kind of person you’d want to mess with,” Nduka says. He read extensively and owned an impressive personal library which greatly influenced the young Nduka.

Nduka has an enduring mental picture of his mother. Rose Nwabugo Nduka, a primary school teacher and graduate of Religious Studies, was a lady with “a lot of friends. She made friends with the high and mighty and the low.” She was charismatic, the kind of woman “who would walk into a room and you’d want to know who she is.” When she died, the whole place was filled with people from every sphere of society, a testament to how widely she was adored. She held leadership positions in women’s ministries and she was remarkably “sensitive in interpersonal relationships.” Intolerant of the slightest sign of laziness, she was a “near perfectionist.” She wanted everything to be in its place, a fan of compartmentalization. “She had a very good handwriting, loved music and sang and danced a lot. She had a charming smile.”

The first time Nduka witnessed someone play the piano in church the melody lured him to revel in fantasies. He wanted to become a pianist.  Driven by this new numbing desire, he wandered through the market after school, looking up prices of toy keyboards. “When I eventually saw the piano I wanted, I realized I didn’t have enough money to make the purchase, so I made an advance payment.”  When he returned home and confided in his father of his intentions to become Mozart, the clergyman and his wife instantly threw in their support. “My mother gave me the money with which I completed the payment.”

A self-taught keyboardist, Nduka’s first audience was his family as he played during morning devotions. And he impressed his father with his musical skills so much that the elderly man was compelled to purchase a standard piano for the teenager. With this act of fatherly support, Nduka became irrevocably  bound to a life enormously sharpened by an unflinching love for the piano. 

As a member of the church’s Boys Brigade, Nduka participated actively in the group’s functions, resulting in his early contact with Death. Striking the band and escorting the ringing ambulance, Nduka and his team would partake in funeral processions and become spectators of graveside theatrics. “As a cadet in the Boys’ Brigade, it was our routine at the time to play at funerals, and that included going to the morgue, and also seeing the bodies while we played at viewing sessions,” he told Uche Peter Umezurike in an interview.  And it was his familiarity with corpses that helped him sustain composure as he played the organ and sang Stephen Adams’s Holy City during the Commendation service of his mother, who he lost to cancer on November 30, 2005, when he was only 16. 

At  Bishop Crowther Seminary, Awka, Nduka flourished academically. In his Senior Class, he found himself in a situation that made embracing poetry an inevitability. He had found a girl irresistible and, thanks to the exciting Literature classes he had had, poetry came to him as the perfect medium of romantic expression. He wrote the expository piece, his first creative attempt, and nervously sent it across. “She read it and said she loved me, but that God loves me more,” Nduka recalls. “She used a lot of big words that made me consult the dictionary. She’s married now, with kids.”

An Arts student, he was accorded the position of the school’s Social and Library Prefect, and simultaneously performed as the school’s chapel keyboardist. His literary inclinations made it easy for many to believe in his childhood dream of being a lawyer. However, as the West African Examination Council examinations drew near, Nduka made an announcement that astounded his friends: he was jilting Law for Music.  

“When I said I was going to study music at the university, you can imagine the disappointment. A lot of people said ‘Oh, you can still be a lawyer and be doing music at the side.’” But despite the unsolicited suggestions from well-wishers and concerns that he was “taking the music thing too far”, Nduka’s decision was unfaltering. “I was determined to see the end of this piano I was playing.”

Nduka’s father, “liberal in academics”, assured his dreamy-eyed son of his support.  “Even if he was disappointed, he never showed it.” In the end, Nduka, as the only student to write Music at the final examinations in the school in 2006, had the entire empty hall to himself, the bored external examiner hovering over him.

When I asked if his mother would have endorsed his desire to study Music had she been alive, Nduka drew a sigh and allowed some contemplative silence, as though digging through his mother’s mind, trading perspectives with her. Then he said, his tone quite sceptical, “She probably would have loved me to be a lawyer and still play music, but if she had seen how badly I wanted this, I think she would have let me. She wasn’t imposing.” More than a decade later, he would dedicate his debut poetry collection to her memory.

On being admitted to study Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nduka began to perform in musical concerts, acts through which he was financially sustained. “I didn’t really do much with the money, spent almost all on drinks,” he recalls, almost amused at his own adventures. On performance, he believes that “the musician does bring newness and an effective emotional energy on stage as well. For instance, no two stage performances of the same work, even by the same pianist, are the same. Every performance is a new work of art.”

If Nduka harboured anxieties as an undergraduate studying an “unknown” course, the visit of the highly successful actor and distinguished professor of music and Igwe of Oko, Laz Ekwueme, to his home one fateful Sunday was a most inspiring experience. Ekwueme had learned that Nduka had majored in Music, and that had prompted the old gentleman to pay homage, bringing books as gifts. This was the definitive validation of the young musicologist’s passion. 

On graduation, Nduka was retained at Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri, as a lecturer after his National Youth Service programme at the institution. He was 23, arguably the youngest staff in the school. 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.

“Music is not a course you study because you like Davido. It is hard to find a student of Music that does not have a Music background; look at me, before I got admission, I was already playing the piano and all,” he says. “I tried to make my teaching as interesting as possible. If you weren’t told I was a lecturer or didn’t see my ID, you wouldn’t know.” He was often embarrassed when his students would see him on campus and start chanting their reverential greetings. “I would be in class, lecturing, and students from other departments would come and stand by the window, wondering where I came from. I was that young. 

"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." - Nduka
“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.”

“During staff meetings, I was the youngest, but I never let anyone look down on me because I stood my ground and I conducted myself in a respectable manner. Imagine a meeting where everyone is in their 40s and 50s and you’re there, in your early 20s,” he says, laughing. “I was forced to be an old man as a young guy and to have a high sense of responsibility. My beards were just coming out, some of my students were practically older than me. I had two different personalities: In the class, I meant business; if you misbehaved, I would discipline you there. Outside the classroom, I was everybody’s guy. We would hang out, go get drinks. They would come to my office and we would talk. One of them came and took my books and ran away. We were close.”

He wasn’t fated to stay long at his lecturing job. He got admitted to Kingston University, London, where he took on Music, again, as a Masters student.

In 2013, as Nduka was lecturing and impressing audiences at concerts, he discreetly began work on a collection of poems. He told  Umezurike that “my first draft was ready in 2013, so I would say the process took about five years.” He also admitted to an overpowering hunger to be a member of “the league of published poets.”

“I sent out poems to literary journals and got my fair share of rejections. But of course, the few publications I got spurred me. When I received the first editorial feedback on my first draft, it was so brutal and honest that I nearly questioned my artistry. I was limited in style, structure, and scope. I needed to read more than I wrote. I had to rewrite some poems and jettison those I thought were beyond redemption.”

In 2016, Nduka was awarded the Korea-Nigeria poetry prize for his poem, Listen. In May of that year, he was listed as one of the most promising Nigerian writers to watch out for. This was also the year he relocated to New Jersey, United States. Last year was a major one for Nduka’s artistic career: his short story appeared in Maple Tree Literary Supplement. And in April, he released his first Extended Play (EP) Choreowaves, which comprised of eight compositions that includes Obodom by Peter Sylvanus and Ufie III by Christian Onyeji. “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. African composers whose works I have performed are as brilliant as their counterparts anywhere in the world.”

By mid-2018, Griots Lounge publishers had picked interest in the manuscript he had been working. Nduka has an interesting history with the publishing company, an imprint of Yagazie Media Limited, which was established in 2012 by the trio of Bibi Ukonu, Jide Aluka and Jama Onwubuariri. A poem of Nduka’s had been published some years back on the company’s blog, and “I started admiring him from then,” Bibi Ukonu, the Managing Editor of Griots Lounge, told me during our interview via email. “We know what a good poem looks and sounds like. I had written a complete collection then. I knew Eche was up to something, and it didn’t take that long for him to prove himself. He started winning prizes and readership.” 

In June 2018, Ukonu asked Eche for a complete manuscript. “We were lucky he hadn’t published it yet. They were 75 poems. I immediately triggered a discussion with him, myself and Jide, who had made up his mind to return to Nigeria and try to grow Griots Lounge again. We then brought David Ishaya Osu into the project.” Osu, a fellow poet, worked fervently with Nduka to polish up the manuscript and make it ready for publication. “David edited the work. Eche’s poems read like music; classical music,” Ukonu said. “Eche’s lines are well crafted that everyone feels him. You find love, distress, hope and imagination. You find ballads for the dead.”

I was keen to know why Griots Lounge would take on the publication of a poetry collection. Book publishers are always quick to dismiss poetry as a non-viable commercial form. “For me, I saw it as a rare opportunity for the imprint,” Ukonu explained. “And within the imprint, we work as a family unit. We plan together. We judge our works together. We watch each other’s back, all the authors and photographer, with the GL team, even our editors too. We knew from the first day that Eche’s brand of poetry was good for the global market. And we were determined to push it. We haven’t pushed within Nigeria that much yet. We are having a huge event for poetry soon. But more copies would be found in more bookstores around the country this week. We will announce through our online platforms and website.”

The long writes and revisions saw that the working title of the collection had changed twice.  The eventual title, Chrysanthemums for Wide-Eyed Ghosts, was borne out of Nduka’s fascination “by the intersections of love and death, the paradoxical mix of sorrow and joy that we often experience as humans” and he further intimates that “chrysanthemums are being shared as an act of joy and love right in the midst of mournfulness” and in the act of scribblings texts on paper “the poet becomes a messenger of the poem.” Nduka perceives poetry writing to be “ritual memory which, for me, is an offshoot of observations, introspection and meditations unfolding in time, claiming and reclaiming spaces with the sheer sublimity that language affords.”

Speaking with  Gaamangwe Mogami , the founding Editor of Africa in Dialogue, Nduka, an unflinching Christian, offered his thoughts on the supernatural. “There are spiritual beings that exist on other planes that are connected to the human world in a way. If you consider certain African traditional religions where the worshipers look up to their ancestors and pray to them, then you can see the connection. When certain faithfuls talk about ancestors, there’s a belief that they have transcended to a higher plane, and by being in that place— they are able to offer guidance or protection, as it were.” 

Chrysanthemums for Wide-Eyed Ghosts was printed in the United States, where it has since “sold impressively”, Ukonu told me. The first public reading of the book by Nduka was on the invitation of the revered poet, Emari DiGiorgio, at her monthly event. She would liken the experience of reading the debut work as being present “to the mystery and mysticism of the moment.” While Griots Lounge is yet to disclose the number of copies released on initial publication, the arrival of Chrysanthemums for Wide-Eyed Ghosts on the literary scene was met by insightful reviews. Mandy Pannett described it as a body of “sensitive and beautifully crafted poems” and Emmanuel Iduma of Saraba magazine said it was a “delightful” collection. Brigitte Poirson summed it up as a sort of “poetic symphony.” After labelling it “hermetic poetry” the scholar, Daniel Chukwuemeka, noted that the debut is “sometimes obscure and difficult, in the highly symbolic mould of Soyinkanism, it is a site where subjective language and imagery intersect, with the sound of words as suggestive as the words’ deliberate ordering.” Writing for Praxis Magazine, Carl Terver suggests that Nduka’s poetry “aspires to fluidity” and “evokes the oral form of African traditional poetry.” But he accuses Nduka of letting his profession as a classical musician to interfere “in his creation of imageries in some places.” 

Nduka’s interests spread beyond the confines of the stage and the grey horizons of poetry and short story writing; he has produced some films in which he performed his poems. A slightly altered and improved transcript of the Where the Road Leads video, a poem of three sections, would appear on the last part of the book. On Valentine’s Day, 2015, he was in the United Kingdom, making Console Me, a two-cast short film. “I remember that day because it was the Day of Love and it snowed,” he told me. “I don’t like many of the videos I did, but I guess it is proof that even back then I was engaged in something productive and shows how far I’ve come.”

That evening at Somers Point, as Nduka read from his collection to a dominantly caucasian audience, it was easy to wonder if the poet understood the significance of his artistic struggles: from accompanying the brigade to morgues, to the sudden loss of his mother as a teenager, the numbing demise of  a close friend, (and a namesake, too); and, with an eye to the future, will Nduka’s poetry ever transcend the exploration of grief and ghosts to the expression of ballads of glee, of light? Or will he keep wondering, as he gloomily does in his prosaic fashion, “How do you erase stories etched in scars?” ✚

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Nduka’s mother as a secondary school teacher. She was a primary school teacher. Also, the April in Paris event was hosted by the Somers Point Arts Commission, not the Somers Point Unique Experiences Club, as previously stated.

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