Throughout the album, the listener is drawn into an intense, emotive listening experience. Nduka’s thoughtful and groovy piano play glitters all through; Egbuchiem’s countertenor is affecting, heady, and passionate.
By Chimezie Chika
Nigerian poet and concert pianist, Echezonachukwu Nduka, has for years, cut the figure of the rare artist who comfortably bestrides two art forms: poetry and music. Echezonachukwu Nduka’s career as a pianist complements his equally accomplished poetry. His interest as a pianist is primarily in African Pianism and African Art Music, a genre in which he has already produced two previous EPs, Choreowaves (2018) and Nine Encores (2019). His most recent offering is his debut full-length album, The African Serenades, released on the 21st of July 2023 by Centaur Records and produced by Vyacheslav Gryaznov.
The album offers a rendition of music by some of the most important composers of African Art Music, as well as younger ones. It ranges from well-known pieces by Fred Onovwerosuoke and J. H. Kwabena Nketia, to more recent compositions by Chijioke Ngobili and Alaba Akinselure. In nine of the fourteen pieces that make up the album, Nduka collaborates with countertenor, Andrew Chukwuka Egbuchiem. Soprano, Jasmine Thomas, also appears in the fifth piece, “Ije Uwa” by Innocent Okechukwu. In the rest of the album, Nduka appears as a solo pianist. The release of The African Serenades clearly affirms Nduka’s rising stock as a notable practitioner of African Pianism.
African Pianism and African Art Music (or what some people call African Classical Music) have flown under the radar in contemporary conversations around the resurgence of African music in the global music scene. The reason for this lies in the relative newness of the genre. Here is a niche genre of African music which, despite its formal elevated sounds and sonic accomplishments, is still trying to find its way in the world. One of its most recent close brushes with mainstream popularity — debatable as this is — came a couple of years ago when Laz Ekwueme’s 1980 choral composition, “Obi Dimkpa,” made the rounds in online videos of formal and informal performances around the world.
African Pianism, a term coined by Nigerian composer, Akin Euba, is a style of piano music that creates a syncretism of Western classical techniques and the idioms of African percussion music found in drums, xylophone, mbira, and other indigenous instruments. It incorporates folk songs and traditional melodies in the structure of its rhythmic motifs. According to Ghanaian musicologist and composer, J. H. Kwabena Nketia, “It is open-ended as far the use of tonal materials is concerned [and] draws on the modal and cadential characteristics of traditional music.” Structurally, “its harmonic idiom may be tonal, atonal, consonant, or dissonant in whole, in part, depending on the preferences of the composer, the mood or impressions he wishes to create or how he chooses to reinforce, heighten, or soften the jaggedness of successive percussive attacks.”
Much of the groundwork — the very basis of what is known today — in African Pianism and African Art Music was laid by West African composers and scholars, especially the likes of Ephraim Kwaku Amu, Fela Sowande, Euba, Nketia, Ayo Bankole, Joshua Uzoigwe, Christian Onyeji, Onovwerosuoke, and others. Sowande’s work, African Suite (1944), is perhaps the basis of all extant literature on African Art Music. Nketia’s The Music of Africa (1974) and African Pianism: Twelve Pedagogical Pieces (1994) are some of the other fundamental works on the subject. There are not many contemporary practitioners of African Art Music, but Nduka, alongside Romanian-Nigerian musician, Rebecca Omordia, represents two of the most consistent young pianists in the genre.
The African Serenades begins with a rendition of “Udala m Obe” by Alvan Ikoku O. Nwamara. The folkloric origin of the piece lends itself well to Egbuchiem’s crystalline crooning and the prosodic style of Nduka’s piano accompaniment. This same pattern is repeated in the second piece by Nwamara, “Kuoronu nwa ngwere aka.” Both pieces are renditions of traditional Igbo moonlight folk songs. In the sixth piece of the album, “Onye tiri Nwa na-ebe Akwa” originally composed by Ezenwafor and Nwamara, the pattern of folk idiom is found in the rendition of a popular Igbo lullaby of the same title. Again, what stands out here is Egbuchiem’s lofty voice.
The fourth piece of the album, “Jesu wa ja Funmi” composed by Paul Ogunboye, is the first of many fantastic renditions that distinguish the sonic landscape of this album. Marked by the measured consistency of Egbuchiem’s lustrous voice and Nduka’s gentle piano play, the minimalist beauty of this piece harkens to broad ecclesiastical sensibilities. Nduka and Egbuchiem’s collaboration finds its most complete expression here. Egbuchiem explores his vocal range in an incremental progression, which satisfactorily climaxes into a truly ethereal listening experience.
“Echezonachukwu,” an eponymous piece composed by Chijioke Ngobili in honour of Nduka, is less foreboding than the preceding piece. Its note of celebration and optimism is evident in the percussive panic of the racing sounds that merge and reemerge, amidst short pauses, in a detailed show of virtuosic gravitas by Nduka. The next piece, “Ije Uwa,” is a contrapuntal duet of sorts, featuring Egbuchiem and Thomas. The contrast between the countertenor and the delicate soprano has a thrilling melodic effect.
There is a subtle correspondence in the organising aesthetic underlying “Ije Uwa” and the ninth piece of the album, “Muraisise Oremi,” which is the first of Alaba Akinselure’s three compositions that appear in the album. In both, accompanied by exuberant chords, Egbuchiem’s emotive pitch gives the music an operatic essence. There is a prosodic pattern that undergirds the pieces; it takes on a dramatic stance in the repetition of the central phrases, “ije uwa” and “murasise oremi.”
“Okoye” and “Udje,” two pieces from Fred Onovwerosuoke’s 24 Studies in African Rhythms, occupy the middle point of the album. Nduka gives a propulsive performance of the two pieces. His handling of the more sonically satisfying “Udje” is energetic, filled with an abundance of fierce, discordant rhythms that still manage to coalesce into congruent harmonic scales. The final effect is not that of a piano but a xylophone. Perforce, what we have here is a structural fusion of the different iterations of the Udje music of the Urhobo people of southern Nigeria.
Two monumental pieces by Nketia also feature in The African Serenades — pieces that are marked by the unremitting intensity of their beautiful melodies. The dominant optimism of “Play Time” makes for an airy listening experience. One is forced to replay the music in a continuous loop while absorbing the pleasurable onslaught of sensuous sounds. This is a quality that the best of this album promises: good replay value. Generally, art music tends to yield visceral responses with each repeated listen; with each replay, the music begins to exert its inner language on the listener. “Play Time” evokes the music of West African village squares and traditional festivals.
The highlight of this album is Nketia’s masterpiece, “Volta Fantasy,” a composition so complete in its musicality that it stands as the rhythmic colossus against which I measure many African piano pieces. In his rendition, Nduka plays the piano to dazzling effect. The entrainment of the composition’s rhythm, resonating with lusty tonalities and atonalities, awakens the nostalgic imagination. The sympathetic resonance of the deep rumble in the opening chords gives the music a reverberation that seems to reach back into a mythical essence. The music delineates a sonic range that segues between multiple percussions of African sounds and folk musical influences across the African Diaspora.
The last two pieces in the album are the remnants of the featured compositions by Alaba Akinselure. The penultimate piece, “The Bright and Beautiful Continent,” is a heartfelt expression of love, beauty and belief. Egbuchiem’s peculiar gifts again shine through here, as one is drawn into that earnest musical vision of hope and renaissance. There is emotional heft in the rendition, in the baroque quality of Egbuchiem’s delicate vocalisation, and in the assuredness of Nduka’s piano.
(Read also: Echezonachukwu Nduka and the Music of Poetry)
“Ta lo banmi r’omo mi,” one of the album’s best offerings, is characterised by its progression in sound and feel. Egbuchiem’s soulful singing in the last two pieces of the album, closely following Nduka’s vivid piano play, is worthy of the full range of an orchestral performance; they highlight the best of this winning collaboration by Nduka and Egbuchiem and, together, form a worthy closing act for the album.
The African Serenades, true to its title, weaves seductive melodies for the soul. Throughout the album, the listener is drawn into an intense, emotive listening experience. Nduka’s thoughtful and groovy piano play glitters all through; Egbuchiem’s countertenor is affecting, heady, and passionate. This wholesome album sets the pace in the rising African Art Music repertoire.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Iskanchi, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1