On Rituals, Transcendence And The Otherworldly: A Dialogue With Echezonachukwu Nduka
Echezonachukwu Nduka, writer, classical pianist, and musicologist, is the author of Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts (Griots Lounge, 2018). Recipient of the 2016 Korea-Nigeria Poetry Feast Prize, his works have appeared in Transition, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Saraba, Jalada Africa, Ake Review, Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, Bakwa Magazine, River River, Expound, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, Bombay Review, among others. A member of South Jersey Poets Collective, he lives in New Jersey where he writes, teaches, and performs regularly as a solo and collaborative pianist. He can be found online at www.artnduka.com.
BY GAAMANGWE JOY MOGAMI
This conversation took place between a green bedroom in Gaborone, Botswana, and a tranquil office in Mays Landing, New Jersey, USA via Zoom.
Gaamangwe: Eche, you begin Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts with an initiation. An initiation filled with beautiful imagery and a powerful ending-
You opened your eyes and the requiem
Resumed; nothing remained the same.
In the midst of those who formed that arc,
Your new self came on a tray of books and pens.
You became a slave to every written word.
When you left the room, tales hung over your head
And followed you everywhere.
You must be a writer.
Let’s start here with this initiation (assuming that the speaker here is you), how did the words start to haunt you?
Echezonachukwu: Let me start by thanking you Gaamangwe, for inviting me to have this conversation. To your question: A few years ago, I read a literary journal that featured short interviews with selected writers who were asked the same set of questions. One of the questions was about engaging in rituals to stimulate their creativity, to which they gave distinctive responses. There is a presupposition that writing is a post-ritual act, or ritual in itself. I thought about that question for a long time, and when I couldn’t get it off my mind, I decided to write a poem that affirms the idea of writing as a post-ritual act. In the poem titled “Initiation”, a person invited to the rite of initiation appears willingly, goes through the rite, and ends up a writer haunted by words.
Words started to haunt me after I went through the rite of reading, learning, re-learning, solitude, music, aspirations, communal bonding, and everything in-between. These and many more have, to a large extent, become ritual for some writers. In any case, there is no ritual more effective for me than reading. It activates voices in my mind that goes on to the point of distraction. Consequently, I am forced to sit down and write. The poem itself, although a bit eerie, suggests the significance of a community in the whole process of writing, or what becomes of a writer, as it were. That is why we have editors, literary clubs, societies, festivals, and workshops where writers share ideas and have honest conversations. I like to think that engaging in all of these counts as ritual too.
Gaamangwe: I love the idea of ritual and creation. I am now thinking of multiplicity of rituals. I am thinking of this because I am speaking to Dami about the multiplicity of Ancestors. It comes to me that what we practice in the act of writing and reading is the unfolding of multiple rituals. Simultaneous and continuous. Many acts. Many invocations. Many processes. Many selves in performance with each other, for each other.
It makes sense that the writer will go through a rite of passage for them to meet the self within them that is the writer. Because in this sense, that self must have already existed. It is the rituals that awaken the writer self. It’s the constant reading and the wine and the solitude and conversations (this one?) that awaken the writer.
In many ways, I think life is a performance of ritual. What we call the tradition of poetry writing is really ritual memory. It is merely: here are the steps to invoke the writer self. The beauty of it all is that the writer uses rituals to make and unmake histories and futures. I love it.
Now, what histories and futures did you find yourself making and unmaking in your book?
Echezonachukwu: I like the idea of poetry writing as ritual memory which, for me, is an offshoot of observations, introspection and meditations unfolding in time, claiming and re-claiming spaces with the sheer sublimity that language affords. You would agree with me that it is not often clear from the outset what one intends to do with a poem. This is because certain poems tend to take over from the poet midway, asserting their voices and intentions while steering in an entirely different direction. And in that instance, the poet becomes a messenger of the poem.
I find that some of my poems are re-assertions of histories. There are references to displacement, self denial, loss, sour romance, identity, and so on. For instance, the poem “Oremus” written after Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival” takes on self denial and identity crises which has a historical background deeply rooted in colonialism. You would find that when some young Africans travel to Europe or America, they tend to crave acceptance in many ways. While some acquire new accents overnight, others go as far as changing their names to suit the tongues of their hosts. What makes such people feel that they are not enough? That their identity is something to be apologetic about? You see, Gaamangwe, some of these experiences cannot be critically analyzed without mentioning the ripple effects of colonialism on the continent, and how some of these effects have been transferred from one generation to the next. Why do we still talk about “White Saviours” who must validate our systems? And is there anyone in the world whose skin is white or black anyway? How well have we moved on since our nations started gaining independence? Well, that remains a never ending discourse in post-colonial studies, I suppose. And so, we continue to look in the mirror hoping to see an alien face instead of ours. What about cross-cultural influences that have continued to wax stronger even in the wake of the new millennium? There is nothing wrong with certain cultural influences, but if I have to give what I own a bad name, discard it in its entirety, only to go ahead and pick yours as a replacement, then there is a problem. Even now, on the continent, there is a growing trend of young people who take pride in the fact that they cannot speak their native languages. Some have no regard for names in their own languages. What is this self-debasement? Where do we go from here?
On the question of futures, I think of both the present and the forthcoming. In my book, I refer to music and the dynamics of existential relationships. The fourth section is solely about music and its limitless possibilities. Music is in the here-and-now and in the kind of future we envisage. It is the pulse of the world. If the world were to end today, a song might be playing while the world is packing up. An apocalyptic soundtrack, that is. In addition, I was deliberate about my subtle reference to African pianism which I consider the future of classical piano music in Africa and on the world stage at large. The fourth section opens with “Where Music Lives”, a poem I wrote after an argument on one of the fundamental debates in the ontology of music, a topic in music philosophy which I took as a module while I was a graduate scholar. It is an affirmation of the transcendental nature of music. Music cannot be trapped on paper. It is everywhere, in the strangest of places, and most importantly, in poetry too.
“In my book, I refer to music and the dynamics of existential relationships. The fourth section is solely about music and its limitless possibilities. Music is in the here-and-now and in the kind of future we envisage. It is the pulse of the world.“
Gaamangwe: A lot of my questions arrive to me in the same way poetry comes through the poet. It comes through that conduit-ship contract that all creators have with the alchemic Gods that make native imagination and impulse manifest.
The speakers as ghosts or imaginings spring forth from the divine threshold of our minds and we are left with art. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
On the other hand, our histories as Africans, especially the haunting oppressive one is absolutely ugly and maddening. And the process of unraveling it is difficult because it rises from a primitive instinct of survival of the fittest, if we are to subscribe to Darwin’s theory.
Survival of the fittest asks someone in the room to be superior and in control of others. It is based on a sense of powerlessness in the midst of the mysteries that is our human experience. For sure, it is not rising from a natural expression. And so self-debasement is also not rising from a natural expression.
But if we are to return to natural time, where the flow of expression and endearment for each other across the earth is abundant, we are going to need to confront our cultural interpretations and frameworks (most of which are manufactured from fear) anew.
Your reflection on the power of music reminds me of an imagery in one of my favorite series, Fringe. Walter, the old mad man wakes to the end of the world, we watch him rummage through the debris, only to stop when he finds his disco player. For what feels like infinity, we watch him, seating in tattered car, shoeless, playing his music.
When the world ends, only music will be the most fitting thing to do in the world. For it has the ability to contain the intricacy of our inner emotional world.
So I hear you but I imagine you truly know about transcendental music. Let’s speak here about this love for music, and how the piano has been a source of arriving to the pilgrimage of transcendence.
I ask this often—tell me about a piece of work that has transcended or at least come close to your idea of transcendence?
Echezonachukwu: I subscribe to your proposition on the power of music to contain the intricacy of our emotional world. It is amazing how music (which sometimes could be songs in languages we do not understand) seeps into our consciousness and alters our emotions completely. While it is true that certain music psychologists have published extensively to provide academic framework and theories for this phenomenon, it is also true that music speaks to the otherworldly, and to animals even. Let us reflect on the use of music as a means of invocation in some religions to connect to God, saints, ancestors, martyrs, and so on. There, we find music serving as a bridge to different worlds. That is a form of transcendence. The axiom that music communicates beyond the realm of humans as we know it, affirms its transcendence on one hand.
On the other hand, we consider how music affirms our humanity, especially in dark times. I think of your reference to the character Walter, in the series “Fringe”, and it reminds me of one of the most popular photographs on the internet by an unknown photographer titled “Russian soldier playing an abandoned piano”. What does it mean for a soldier fighting a war to stop in the middle of nowhere at the sight of an upright piano, hang his rifle to play some notes? What does that moment mean to him, the photographer, and we who now see the photograph? I do not intend to start a discourse on that photograph. However, it is particularly striking that music can sometimes be the beauty we find in the midst of chaos, and it often reminds us that we are first human before anything else.
What piece of work comes close to my idea of transcendence? This is like asking a mother to choose her favorite child in public, or anywhere else at all. It’s a bit tricky, you know. I am a classical musician, even though I listen to, study, and play other genres. Classical music formed part of my childhood and I ended up choosing to get a formal training as a musicologist and pianist. So you can imagine that some of my favorite musicians are composers and concert pianists whose works have survived through the years. For instance, when I think of transcendence and its force, I think of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor (referred to in the first poem in my book) which was composed in 1791 and completed by two of his contemporaries. Yet, each time I hear the work, I feel my spirit levitating. What about Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos? Up until now, audiences all over the world still stand whenever Handel’s Hallelujah in Messiah comes alive on stage. These works were composed centuries ago, but they are still alive long after their composers have died. When we talk about transcendence, it cannot be divorced from the scheme of timelessness. To bring it closer home to our continent, Dr. Fred Onovwerosuoke’s piano etudes titled “Twenty-four Studies in African Rhythms” takes on diverse music traditions on the continent. Hearing his work is like witnessing different parts and cultures of Africa on stage in real time, and the sounds stay with you long after you have heard them. If that is not transcendence, I don’t know what else it means with regard to music.
Gaamangwe: That is transcendence. This makes me wonder about the subtle differences that exist between the poet and musician within you. For me, I am both writer and healer, and in thinking about where the two separate I notice the subtle difference of the stream of consciousness I embody when I am each aspect. As a writer, it feels like I am reaching but I have to trust in the creative Gods to give me what I have to write, with tons of nervous and mistrust energy, and as a healer, although I am tapping into the same divine intelligence, I am deeply grounded. It feels like I just have to sit down and it just pours out like a river and then it stops when it wants to. I feel that separation mostly in my body and how I exist when I am one or the other.
Can you speak to how the poet within separates from the musician within, in terms of process and embodiment and texture?
Echezonachukwu: I think it’s quite tricky because the two meet more than they separate.
Although music is a performance art and poetry is in the literary arts, they both deal with language and exist on page and stage. But of course, one of the fundamental aspects to look at is the process of honing and birthing the craft. The training, the canons that you engage with, and the traditions—say rituals as we discussed above, are different.
Focusing on the process of making and performance, as a pianist, I get to practice for several hours whether I am preparing for a concert or not. I have to build up the techniques I need for performances. During such moments, I don’t necessarily need to be inspired or to be in the mood. On stage, I am like the middleman between the audience and the composer, and at that point—I am trying to communicate what I have processed and practiced overtime.
As a poet, inspiration plays a huge role in the process of making and writing, sometimes you have to wake up in the middle of the night to write because if you don’t get it at that time you will lose it and it might never come back. I am not a routine writer. So, I admire writers who can get up every morning and immediately start writing.
I engage with the period of waiting and thinking about the work because that’s when everything comes together to form a whole. In fact, such moments are as important to me as the act of writing.
While as a musician I can sit down, study the works and engage in technical exercises as a poet, I deal with what I can immediately access in terms of language and emotions. Both art forms really draw strength from embodied emotions, degrees of inspiration, soul, and discipline.
Gaamangwe: So the poet works with this sense of newness and flow while the musician works with tons of practice, such that when we see you on stage it’s not a new thing. I never thought of it that way. Do you remember the moment you wanted to be a musician? And as the poet, the moment you knew you wanted to create your poetry collection?
Echezonachukwu: Music came to me naturally because it was part of my upbringing.
I grew up in a religious setting where there were many church activities that included music. Moreover, I was a choirboy in high school, and it was there and then that I started playing the piano. I loved it and decided that I was going to study and take it as a professional career. That said; let me quickly add 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.
As for poetry, I knew I was ready for a collection after some years of writing, learning the craft, evolving, and publishing in several journals.
Gaamangwe: The otherworldly is one of the themes that come up a lot in your poems. What are your thoughts on the otherworldly?
Echezonachukwu: I think 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. A quick juxtaposition would reveal that this belief in the other realm is also manifest in the Christian denominations where there is belief in saints, angels, and so on. So, it’s a phenomenon that’s very much alive and old.
Gaamangwe: I want to believe that we are all aware of something much bigger going on here, we might not see it but there is something here that defies logic such that it’s almost impossible not to be engaged with the otherworldly in some way.
I think the human being is trapped between wanting their lives to be absolute, which we never really find, and there is a part of us seeking the mystical as if hoping for new stories, where imagination exists, and all of it is just an elusive dance. So what did your poems teach you about the otherworldly?
Echezonachukwu: My thoughts on this question redirects back to our world of humanity. There is no perfection here. The perfection we aspire to is elusive because when we transcend to the other plane, we tend to see things differently. We begin to see the holes and gaps in our choices as humans. In my poems, my imagination took me to the activities and thoughts of the dead, and their feedback on the imperfection of humanity. Because being human is akin to being in constant struggle while defining and redefining perfection. We attain certain heights only to discover that it is not the end. And so we keep grinding and grinding endlessly. When we transition to the other plane, we begin to see that actually, some of the things we ignored were important—and vice versa.
I am interested in that revelation of perfection and imperfection, our aspirations and priorities as humans, and the irremovable question mark that constantly attaches itself to humanity. This is what I explore, and still choose to explore in my poetry.
Gaamangwe: I love that. Lastly, what you are doing now?
Echezonachukwu: I am touring and promoting my book at bookstores, public and city libraries, and reading events. But also, I have been reading lots of nonfiction, reading other poets, and writing new poems. In addition, I have been concentrating on my music, teaching, exploring compositions by composers of African origin because in classical music— what is often referred to as standard repertoire has been music composed by Western composers whose works constitute the canon of classical music.
I am particularly interested in exploring and performing piano works of classical music composers from Africa.
Gaamangwe: Wonderful! Thank you for your beautiful reflections Eche.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a multi-passionate storyteller, literary interviewer, editor and publisher, ancestral healer and sacred gatherings curator. She is the founder of Rise the Warrior, a movement that fuses depth psychology, metaphysical sciences and African Spirituality to curate sacred gatherings, inner healing and transformation coaching for African individuals and organizations. She hosts The Joy Mogami Show, a Facebook Live stream show that holds conversations on healing and transformation with wellness experts. She is the founding editor of Africa in Dialogue.