An Impromptu Classical Music Session with Cobhams Asuquo
“We can redream this world and make the dream come real. Human beings are gods hidden from themselves.” — Ben Okri
Shortly after I relocated to Texas, my friend UG informed me that Cobhams Asuquo would be visiting Houston. Not only would he be in the same city with myself, my friend would be hosting him. On January 10, UG texted,“Eche, can you come over this evening? Cobhams is here!” I sprang up from my bed and dashed for the wardrobe.
Days leading up to that moment, I spent some time playing selected piano pieces by Schumann, Chopin, Onyeji, and Onovwerosuoke. I had to ensure that I got my hands on the keys. I was going to meet Cobhams, and it was part of my preparation. What was the point of having a moment with the star without the prospect of sharing a classical music fellowship with him?
Chinese virtuoso pianist Lang Lang said music is in the hands. Since I had not been practising, I knew what my fingers would say should I ask them about those pages of memorized music. Even if the mind and heart remembers, the fingers must remember too.
Muscle memory is a phenomenon that keeps the hands of professional pianists constantly on the keys. I dressed up, grabbed my keyboard, and headed off to Richmond.
“Sight sometimes is a distraction,” Cobham said in his TEDx Euston talk titled The Gift of Blindness. He continued,“Sight is a precious gift. But on your way to your destination, what you see can also be a big distraction from your goal. So, I have learned that you have to be blind in order to be focused. Focus is blindness in a sense.” Cobhams was born blind. I had been following his work for about 10 years. I found the prospect of a pianist and record producer exhilarating. In 2014, on a cold lonely night in Kingston campus London, I found his TEDx Euston talk on YouTube.
My admiration for him grew after I watched the video of his classic single Ordinary People. Cobhams Asuquowrote songs like a poet. His lyrics seemed to work harder than his melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and other critical elements of his music. And, he sang from his soul. We walked into UG’s house and Cobhams Asuquo was sitting at the dining table doing justice to pounded yam and egusi soup. His response to my greeting was warm, it felt as though we had known for many years. I began to set up the keyboard. In my haste to meet Cobhams, I had forgotten my sustain pedal. Cobhams said he wondered how I was going to play classical music or any music at all, on a keyboard without the pedal. Here was no chance of getting a pedal at that moment, the music had to go on regardless. I announced the first piece: selections from Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15 (Scenes from Childhood). I began to play. The first few pieces were calm and melancholic, and it was easy to feel the quiet concentration in the room.
Besides Cobhams and UG, members of UG’s family appeared, perhaps in response to the music.When I began to play Number 6 (Wichtige Begebenheit) from the same selection, Cobhams sat up. It had a different feeling of fanfare and grandiosity, that tune. The mood soon reverted to nostalgia when I switched to Schumann’s Arabesque Op. 18.
Afterwards, Chopin’s brisk and animated prelude Op. 28 No. 22 followed. Every time I played or listened to that prelude, it became clearer while it is often informally called “Impatience”. An applause followed my performance of Chopin’s prelude and I paused in acknowledgement, beaming and nodding to my audience of five. “This is simply amazing”, Cobhams said. “Even though you are playing without any sustain pedal, the music still flows beautifully and I could still sense your use of dynamics and all.” I mentioned that I still had a few more pieces to play, but they were classical piano music by Nigerian composers. “Nigerian composers?” he asked. “Yes, Nigerian composers.”
I began with Christian Onyeji’s Oga, a rhythmically intense piece which mimics a game played by girls in Southern Nigeria. Parts of the piece had a distinctive drum pattern similar the drums of the Igbo people. It was the sort of piano music one could nod or dance to. Thereafter, I began to my final piece from Fred Onovwerosuoke’s 24 Studies in African Rhythms. When I played the final notes, there was applause. Cobhams had a lot to say about my technique, and was curious about the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. “Too many people I know who are excellent in their careers have something to do with Nsukka,” he said. His tone was reflective and measured, he continued, “What is it about Nsukka that breeds excellence?” I said what I now consider an unsatisfactory response about healthy competition among students, top quality academics, a rich library, and the calm ambience of the university town devoid of distractions associated with cities.
The conversation led to his love and appreciation for many genres beyond classical music and jazz, and how as he heard me play, he could sense that I was deeply immersed in the music. “I love people who are into their thing, you know. I’m a bit of an old soul. I grew up on old Nigerian music,” he said. Cobhams revealed that he was a record collector and owned over a thousand records including albums by notable Highlife bands and figures such as Ramblers Dance Band, Rex Lawson, Eddy Okonta, Bobby Benson, Bongos Ikwue, Sir Warrior & The Oriental Brothers, Ikenga Superstars of Africa, Roy Chicago, Stephen Osita Osadebe, Oliver De Coque, Celestine Ukwu, Victor Uwaifo, to name a few.
If I thought the meeting would end at my friend’s residence, I was wrong. The night was young. We posed for photos and headed off to Pastor M’s residence in UG’s SUV. Earlier, while I was posing for photos, Cobhams was on the phone, speaking to Pastor M, asking if he had a sustain pedal in his mini studio, if he was ready for an impromptu concert. No sooner had we arrived at Pastor M’s that I was on his keyboard, playing the first few bars of the overture to Handel’s Messiah. Before I got to the fifth bar, Cobhams turned sharply towards me, cutting short his conversation with Pastor M and UG. He led them to the mini studio where I was seated, and the requests started pouring in: from Arthur Sullivan’s The Lost Chord, to Holy City by Stephen Adams, to Handel’s tenor aria Every Valley Shall Be Exalted. Pastor M’s wife joined us at the studio, singing intermittently with Cobhams who sang as though we had practised many times. When I began to play Handel’s famous chorus, Hallelujah from the Messiah, the excitement was palpable. Together, we all sang the chorus, missing many notes and parts along the way until we hit the last notes in a thunderous climax. The atmosphere was charged.
When I stood up from the piano seat, Cobhams sat down, and began to play a worship song. Everyone sang and lifted their hands in worship. I was overwhelmed. What began as an impromptu classical music session ended with an elevating spiritual encounter that left us transmuted. By the time I was set to go home, it was almost midnight. As we exchanged goodbyes and I held Cobhams in a parting embrace, I thanked him for the time we shared.
“Thank you, Eche,” he said.“I will always remember you.”
Echezonachukwu Nduka, poet and pianist, is the author of Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts (Griots Lounge: 2018), and Waterman (Griots Lounge: 2020). He hold degrees in Music from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Kingston University London, UK. Recipient of The Benjamin Franklin PhD Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, his writing has appeared in Transition, Isele Magazine,e Indianapolis Review, Saraba Magazine, Jalada Africa, Bakwa Magazine, 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, among others. He can be found online at www.artnduka.com