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Emeka Nwokedi: A Classical Music Conductor of International Repute

Emeka Nwokedi: A Classical Music Conductor of International Repute

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Nwokedi’s interest in music stems from his upbringing in the Anglican Church. In his early years in his hometown of Ichida in Anambra State, he was fascinated by the sonorous music of the choir in his local church, eventually joining while he was still very young.

By Chimezie Chika

One of the most magnificent auditory experiences is sitting in a theatre and listening to the full rhythmic range of an orchestral performance. But a performance of this kind is the conventional experience of a symphony orchestra, the likes of which are not always readily available in Nigeria. A slightly different version of that kind of music can still, however, be experienced in orthodox ecclesiastical institutions such as the Catholic Church or the major protestant denominations, the Church of Nigeria being one. The effect of choral music is no less impactful in these churches; where they are embraced, services become holistic sonic experiences. With a piece of music like George Frederick Handel’s “Sarabande”— with its measured opening chords, the booming organ, and its baroque maximalism — the effect is life-changing. But orchestral music is only the sum of its parts: the sonic combination of the vocalists, the organ, violins, cellos, double basses, trumpets, oboes, and all the other instruments. And holding all these together, directing the flow and the tenor of the music, are the sweeping, sinuous hands of the conductor. 

Enter Emeka Nwokedi, one of Nigeria’s foremost conductors and music directors. In a career spanning four decades, Nwokedi has established a unique reputation for conducting remarkable orchestras and leading choirs to international award podiums. His particular resourcefulness is in his interweaving of indigenous folk songs, Nigerian church hymns across major Nigerian languages, and the techniques of the classical orchestra. His choirs are marked by their impeccable choric unity and tempered musical organisation. His most representative group, the Lagos City Chorale and Orchestra, has consistently exercised these attributes in many of their award-winning performances. Through each performance, Nwokedi demonstrates a mastery of musical sounds and conduction. Going through different video footage of his performances, I noticed that his technique is variable, sometimes incorporating dance and mild-body movements into conduction that generally conforms to the Musin method. It is this willingness to incorporate indigenous Nigerian (and African) musical blueprints that I find most interesting. 

The great American music maestro and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, had that distinct (and notably pioneering) idiosyncrasy with his style of conducting. His description of his style is typically idiosyncratic, noting that “conducting is like making love to a hundred people at the same time”; his way of explaining that conducting is an intense emotional and bodily investment. Nwokedi’s conducting has these features; there is a certain luxuriance — or eccentricity, if you will — of gestures and signals in his movements, without cheapening the musical orchestration. An instance is the Lagos City Chorale performance of Sam Ojukwu’s composition, “Jehova Emewo”, at the Musica Sacra International 2016 in Germany. It is the sort of mastery that comes from experience, musical and otherwise. 

Nwokedi’s interest in music stems from his upbringing in the Anglican Church. In his early years in his hometown of Ichida in Anambra State, he was fascinated by the sonorous music of the choir in his local church, eventually joining while he was still very young. A music-dominated teen years led him to directly study music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he majored in Choral Conducting and Piano, graduating in 1981. As a student, he formed a choral group, Kedi Voices, which performed regularly on campus. The technical aspects of his musical expertise were developed at his first and second jobs as a music producer and director for Radio Nigeria and Voice of Nigeria (VoN). His pioneering acts in choral music in Nigeria began around this period in the late 1980s. The most significant of these music-related activities was his founding, with Senator Lere Adeshina, of the Lagos City Chorale in February 1988, a music group that would go on to represent Nigeria at major international events all over Europe, Africa, and Asia and win dozens of laurels in the process, including winning gold medals at the World Choir Olympics in Germany, South Africa, and Russia, and silver medals at Choir Games held in Austria, China and Spain. The group had its premiere at Eko Hotels and Suites in April that year.

Sir Nwokedi Gold Medal at 2018 World Choir Olympics jpg
Sir Nwokedi, Gold Medal at 2018 World Choir Olympics
Receiving Award from Ghana Musical Association
Receiving Award from Ghana Musical Association | Vanguard Newspaper

Having become a member of the Artiste Committee at the MUSON Centre (Musical Society of Nigeria) in 1992, he founded the MUSON Choir, which he still presently directs. He has taught music as the pioneer staff of the MTNF/MUSON Diploma School of Music and also at the Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, Lagos. Other positions he has held include: Member, the International Society of Music Education (ISME), and Member, World Choir Council, representing Nigeria at Interkultur, the body that oversees the largest choral competition in the world. In Nigeria, he is a Trustee of the Nigerian Guild of Organists. Perhaps somewhat narrowly, most of Nwokedi’s music is channelled through the agency of his Anglican faith. Over the years, he has attained different positions therein. He is the Diocesan Music Director and Organist at the Anglican Diocese of Lagos Mainland and, for many years, he has led the choir at All Saints Church, Surulere. Before that, in 1988, he was the choir leader at St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, Aguda, Lagos.

Obinna Maurice Ifediora, a Baritone who was Nwokedi’s former student, tells an interesting story about his master’s dominance in choral music: “Though I was just a child, I remember All Saints Anglican Church (Surulere) Choir was barred from competing at the Diocesan Choral Competition, after winning it for five years back to back in the late 90s . . . Funny as it seems, before he came to All Saints Surulere, he won several competitions with St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, Aguda, in 1988.” 

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This pattern of success in Nwokedi’s work, the almost uniform critical acclaim, is visible in the performances of the Lagos City Chorale. The consistency of the group’s successes makes for repetitive reading. Yet a look at a couple of the performances would suffice. The group’s rendition of “Jehova Emewo” at the European Choir Games in Magdeburg, Germany, has all the attributes of an exalting performance, perhaps the most harmonious of the videos of their performances on the Internet. Performances such as the group’s rendition of “Lord in Thee Have I Trusted”, the final chorus of Handel’s “Dettingen Te Deum” at the Wesley Chapel in Lekki, Lagos, in 2021 shows classical music at its most formal. 

When Nwokedi noted in an interview that any music can be classical if formalised, the realisation is that such a statement comes partly from his decades-long career in which, at various points, he successfully adapted Nigerian indigenous music into classical modes. “Our music is uncommon”, he said. “It’s choreographed and incorporates traditional musical instruments.” One such performance is the Lagos City Chorale’s rendition of Sam Ojukwu’s “Atula Egwu” at the Musica Sacra International 2016. Apart from the LCC’s focus on choral rendition, I do wish they could combine certain elements of that Nigerian music flavour with the full instrumentalisation they displayed at the Wesley Chapel performance. If such a fusion was successful, it is likely to come out as something similar to the MUSON Symphony Orchestra’s classical rendition of Fela’s “Water E No Get Enemy” — a winning performance, to say the least.

Though his impact on choral and classical Nigerian music has been remarkable, one typically expects more from  a man of Nwokedi’s accomplishments. Is it not rather unfortunate that we live in a country where certain forms of art — or certain genres of music — are ignored in favour of others? There is an urgent need for Nigeria to be more comprehensive in the recognition of what is music on the one hand and what is great music on the other. I am especially in earnest about the remarkable work available in the African classical music and African Art Music repertoire, and the further unexplored territory thereof. As Bernstein once said, “Music can name the unnameable, and communicate the unknowable.”

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Terrain.org, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture, history, to art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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