Maiduguri, for Chandos Anthem No. 9
“Find what you love and let it kill you.”
“So this is how you wish to die?”
I could not get the question out of my mind. Each time I tried, the voice increased in resonance and followed me everywhere until I found a way to drown it in distractions – albeit temporarily. It made zero sense that I accepted an invite for which I had to travel to a place considered by many as a war zone. Here was a situation, to my mind, where the passion for music trumped the fear of death. Who would live on this planet forever anyway? If I was going to die, I had imagined my death would at the very least be musical and grand, like a symphony blasting live on stage in a concert hall while the audience holds their breath, journeying with the music to its climax – waiting for the last note, after which they erupt in thunderous applause that would go on for minutes. In a different scenario, the applause would be tears for a young musician and poet lost at war in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria. And by what would it be? Bomb blasts or bullets from insurgents? A token from a Boko Haram suicide bomber who would show up in concert, listen to the chapel choir’s rendition of G.F. Handel’s ‘Chandos Anthem no. 9’, and proceed to blow us all up? Or would it possibly be from the bullets of soldiers and JTFs, who could decide, for whatever reason, that I shared an uncanny resemblance with a target? And what if I died, would it, by any chance, make the headlines anyway? Newsworthiness and actual news are not the same. Who would care so much about the life of an obscure classical musician and young writer who, driven by personal convictions, flew to Maiduguri for a music concert and ended up losing his life? What about the lives of others? In many news reports, victims were often reduced to numbers. No names.
When in December 2012, I received a phone call from Maiduguri – I knew it was time to embrace my fears again. The year before, I had travelled by road with a colleague and musician from Gusau to Maiduguri. We were posted to serve in the northwestern state of Zamfara as part of the compulsory requirements for the national service year. There, I was active as a director of music and organist at the cathedral church in Tashan Magami, in addition to my primary assignment as an ad hoc teacher in a private school near the capital city. It was then that I came in contact with my colleague nicknamed Acapella. A tall lanky young man who smiled often, whose eyes came alive at the instance of stories – he was, like me, a classical musician and enthusiast who gave himself wholly to the whims of music. He loved Handel as much as I did. Acapella had directed a choir in Kano and featured in concerts around the region. The day he informed me about an invitation to perform at the University of Maiduguri, my mien deflated his excitement. He had recommended me to his colleagues, with assurances of excellent organ accompaniments to their choral performances. They would pay my honorarium, he insisted. And they knew quite well how to take care of their guests. His affirmations were the least of my concerns. I did not want to make that long road trip, nor was I interested in committing myself to test the possibility of entering a danger zone and coming out unscathed. My hesitation was not unfounded. Nigerians and all who cared enough knew about the war on insurgency in the region, the constant horrifying news that inundated nearly everyone up to the point of numbness. Sometimes, after each news report, I would imagine the dead wondering if their deaths meant anything, if they would accept to return to earth as Nigerians, assuming reincarnation was true and humans had choices at that level. I would imagine the level of betrayal the dead and their bereaved suffer for existing in a country and in a milieu where human existence was roundly threatened.
The government, over time, mastered the art of releasing statements after each horror until their assurances became less assuring, bland – and sometimes, downright annoying. They were on top of the situation, the statements always read. They were not. Everyone could see, including those who paid less attention, how the situation was clearly on top of the Government, hitting hard, drawing blood, and daring them to raise a finger. Sometimes, videos of the terrorists executing victims would circulate on social media, often accompanied by speeches from the terrorists’ commander.
Acapella shared a different perspective. After all, he argued, people lived their lives and went about their businesses like everyone else. Surely, the situation was not as bad as the news would have us believe. After much ado, I yielded.
The journey from Gusau to Maiduguri was long yet illuminating. The plains of northern Nigeria, covering many kilometres and large open acres of land, were laid bare before me. For a region notorious for its security challenges, there were fewer police and military checkpoints than I had expected. Intermittent stops were made at gas stations, and when that happened at certain hours, most of the passengers would disembark and head towards the mosque for prayers, leaving behind those of us who professed a different faith.
We entered the city of Maiduguri at night.
I scanned through my inbox and there it was, my return ticket, staring back at me. My phone call with Balarabe, the director of the University of Maiduguri’s Chapel of Grace choir, had taken longer than we both envisaged. He noticed my initial hesitation. But Balarabe, true to his tenacious character, was not known to give up too soon. That week, news reports had confirmed the death of ten people as a result of Boko Haram attacks in the village of Chibok. There were also reports about the death of five police officers in Gamboru, Ngala. No thanks to the terrorists. In a bid to discourage Balarabe, I hiked my fee and asked for return flight tickets. He accepted.
The choir was set to perform G.F. Handel’s ‘Chandos Anthem no. 9’, a choral work comprising solos and choruses and adjudged by many as one of Handel’s finest. The live concert, which would be recorded, needed practised hands, Balarabe urged. “And you know,” he said, “Our choir members and the chapel really enjoyed your performance the last time you came. We’ll all be happy to have you again. You must come back to Maiduguri.” His tone had an air of finality.
When the call dropped, I reached for my copy of ‘Chandos Anthem no. 9’, flipped through the pages, and made note of which numbers I needed to prioritise during my practice sessions. Before then, I had performed with different choirs and a baritone – only four works from the collection, namely: ‘O Praise the Lord with One Consent’, ‘With Cheerful Notes’, ‘Your Voices Raised’, and the bass aria ‘That God is Great’. The other works in the collection were fairly unknown to me.
I return now and again to three photographs taken within a short time frame during my first visit to Maiduguri. In the first photo, I am leaning on a tree nearest to the entrance of the university chapel – both arms clasped together and resting on my stomach, revealing a black leather watch on my left wrist. My face is dull, eyes gazing down at an undisclosed object away from the camera. My eyes look distant and heavy with longing, giving off an image of one craving familiar warmth. With a full head of hair and a short-sleeved long shirt imprinted with elaborate artistic designs, the headshot could pass for a portrait of an artist in contemplation. Or perhaps, the stereotypical image of an artist as a sad person. My inclination here is to look at the photo through Josh Peck’s proposition that real artists translate the misery and sadness of life into art. While I would conveniently bypass the self-assessment of whether as a classical musician and poet I am a real artist, I choose to dwell on boundaries between translating the sadness of life into art and becoming sad as an artist. Since in this case, the artist serves as a sort of conduit, at what point does the artist begin to absorb the elements involved in the creative process? Does the artist need to be sad to make great art? Or does making great art set the artist on the eternal path of sadness? Georges Braque, with his famous saying, “Art is meant to disturb.” agrees with Josh Peck. I am wondering what the music of Handel, for instance, and the sort of political protest poems I wrote at the time, mean to the version of me in the photograph. I suspect that there is a clear consciousness that I have arrived to make music in a city where bombs could go off at any time. And in the event that it happens, Handel’s ‘Chandos Anthem no. 9’, or any music at all, would likely be the last thing on my mind.
In the second photo, I am still leaning on the same tree, gesticulating with my left hand while pointing at something away from the camera lens. I am looking in that direction too. Above me, green leaves from a tree form a shade. At first glance, it would appear as if the leaves were touching my hair. A closer look reveals the slight distance. As I look at the first two photographs, considering the position of my body frame, what comes to mind is the line from Christopher Okigbo’s ‘The Passage’: Leaning on an oil bean/Lost in your legend.
In the third photo, Balarabe and I are walking beside each other to the chapel for a rehearsal session with the choir. He is holding two spiral-bound books in his right hand, while his swinging left hand is caught mid-air. His stride and poise, save for his gaze directed downwards as though he is measuring his steps, give off an air of one marching to martial music. This imagery is buoyed by trees lining up on both sides like soldiers on parade, erect, mounting. From a different perspective, the trees could pass for devotees processing into the chapel for worship. Meanwhile, I am on the phone facing downwards, serious-faced as though I am trying hard to make a point to the person on the other end of the line, and my eyes appear to be shut.
My flight from Enugu to Abuja was delayed for two hours. No explanations were offered. It was not unusual, so travelling passengers were expected to understand and bear with the airline. Those who went to make further inquiries from the airline staff returned wearing long faces in defeat. It was on a Wednesday evening, and I was scheduled to fly into Abuja, spend the night, and leave for Maiduguri on Thursday morning. The first rehearsal session with the choir was to be held on Thursday evening, with further sessions on Friday and Saturday, including a dress rehearsal before the concert on Sunday evening.
I sat in the lounge with my carry-on where I had kept my music scores and a few other personal effects, connected my earpiece to my phone, and slipped away into Handel’s world. In my estimation, it was the best way to spend the extra hours before boarding. I had since made up my mind, as a personal rule, that if I must be made to wait for anything against my wishes, I would wait with music. Music had a way of making certain situations bearable. It had a way of turning the effects of time in my favour. I am a firm believer in the axiom that there is a song for every condition. For every question, there is an answer in music. What do playlists do if not take us by the arm and lead us out of the dark when the curtains fall abruptly? In every dark room, music locates the window and throws it open to let in rays of sunlight. What was I to lose anyway? I was not going to miss a rehearsal session or the performance itself. As I listened to Handel’s ‘Chandos Anthem no. 9’, my hands were alive, fingers tapping on my knees to the rhythm. My body, as always, became an improvised piano. I had spent weeks practising the works over and over again, listening to them, memorising some parts so I could play on in the event that something happened on stage and I couldn’t rely on the score. When I began to hear works from ‘Chandos Anthem no. 9’ in my dreams, I knew I was ready for the performance.
We landed in Abuja, I called my friend Nonso, whose residence I had arranged to spend the night. He is, like me, a classical musician who loves his craft. As a multi-instrumentalist, Nonso plays the piano, organ, violin, and cello, and sings as well. Sometimes I would tease him for his voice which I would say was neither tenor, nor baritone, nor bass. He would laugh and sing some more without any care in the world.
That night, in his residence, I was overfed with food and stories until I begged to sleep. Which Handel’s oratorio did we not discuss? Listening to Nonso talk about music was a different kind of therapy. His intermittent laughter was musical.
In the morning, we woke up to another story session with me as the prime listener. I worried about my 9am flight and told Nonso about my intention to head off to the airport as early as possible. He insisted that he would drive me to the airport, yet his stories embraced me without letting go, stealing time until I began to panic that I could miss my flight. Less than an hour before the flight’s departure, Nonso was on the wheels, speeding as though he was auditioning for a role in Fast & Furious.
At the airport, the lady’s voice was resolute, her eyes piercing.
“Sir, I’m afraid you can no longer board this flight.”
“You’re late. The boarding has ended and the flight is about to depart.”
I felt thoroughly reprimanded. How could I let this happen? What would my hosts think of me? Worse still, Maiduguri was not considered a busy route, so the airline scheduled only one flight per day for the destination. The implication was that I had to pay an extra fee and reschedule for the next day. All around me, people were busy, moving in all directions with their luggage in tow. There was no time to wonder whether, in that crowd, there were people like me who, for any reason at all, showed up late for boarding and must now be forced to deal with the consequences. I picked up my phone and dialled Nonso.
“My guy, where are you? I missed my flight.” I dropped the call.
Nonso dialled back, apologising, cursing the airline, wondering why they didn’t just let me board since the flight had not departed. He made a U-turn and headed back to the airport to pick me up.
I dialled Balarabe. They were expecting me, and I had shared my flight schedule with those who were appointed to welcome me at the airport. It was my turn to apologise.
The next morning, I arrived at the airport two hours before departure time.
When the flight touched down in Maiduguri, the air was hot and dry. As I walked to the arrival lounge with other passengers, I rehearsed my apologies for those waiting to receive me. The night before, I had agonised about how my absence would affect their rehearsal session.
The airport, smaller in size than I had expected, appeared to be scanty. Since they had a record of one arrival and departure only for each day, it made sense why it wasn’t busy. One could clearly see the entire space from any point.
The welcome team, two ladies and a gentleman – choristers themselves with whom I had made friends the first time I visited – were warm and happy to see me again. As we exchanged pleasantries, we hurried out of the airport and headed straight to the university campus. On our way to the campus, I lost count of the military checkpoints. There were too many soldiers, assisted by the Joint Task Force (JTF), all armed to the teeth and busy looking at passersby as though they were guilty of a crime yet to be committed. There were open stalls on either side of the road, but the streets were not as busy as one would expect of a city like Maiduguri, a state capital nonetheless. As we approached the campus gate, we drove straight to the university guest house where I was checked in.
Hours later, shortly before the rehearsals, the same ladies who had brought me from the airport, together with Balarabe, led me around the campus to breathe in the air of the environment once more. As we walked about slowly from one point to the next, taking in the architecture of the campus and the elegance of tall trees, particularly the Neem trees, I began to worry that the campus appeared too scanty for the kind of concert the choir was scheduled to host. Why spend all that time learning Handel’s Chandos Anthem no. 9 when the attendance was most likely to be poor? Why spend all that money? Was it simply for the love of music? Or perhaps, to mark the calendar and keep the choir alive? Were people afraid or advised to not gather in large numbers? Why schedule a concert then? Why? When I voiced my concern, I was greeted with roaring laughter. Apparently, they knew something I didn’t know.
“Don’t worry, Eche,” Balarabe said. “People will show up.” We walked back to the guest house.
All rehearsal sessions were largely successful. The Chapel of Grace Choir, students and non-students all, filled the large stage of the chapel in their numbers, choreographed to near perfection – their voices ascending in harmony as we swept through the anthems triumphantly.
On Sunday night, we were backstage, all dressed up, pumping with excitement – waiting for the hour. The choir had put in so much work, and now we were ready to share Handel’s music with the university community. Since we had stayed backstage for a couple of hours before commencement, and although I could hear people mildly in the main auditorium, I had no idea how many people had turned out.
As the host announced my name, I walked onto the stage to thunderous applause and ululations. There was excitement in the air. And much to my amazement, the hall had been filled, and some students were standing outside, heads peeking in through the window. I took a bow and sat down. Afterward, I began to play ‘March’ from Handel’s oratorio ‘Judas Maccabaeus’, and then proceeded to ‘See, the Conqu’ring Heroes’ in the same book while the choir filed in and arranged themselves neatly on the stage. By the time Balarabe walked onto the stage, took a bow, and turned to face the choir, the hall was glaringly expectant.
Silence. More silence.
Then, the conductor’s baton dropped and the night was enveloped in Handelian grandeur. As the tenors numbering twenty-five or more began the melodious entry to the last chorus of ‘Your Voices Raised’, my head swelled and my body was covered in goose pimples. If heaven was real, then we all in that hall, performers and audience alike, inhabited that space in uttermost solemnity. It was all surely sublime. The performance ended and the crowd rose with applause.
That night, alone in my room, I began to ponder on what had just happened. I had questions: Where did all those people come from? How come the campus looked scanty earlier in the day and people suddenly filled the chapel auditorium at night? Were the people at any point worried about their security, keeping in mind that something could go wrong? Was this normal, or did it happen only because of the concert? Were they so sure of the security situation on campus? Was the campus shielded in any way from terrorist attacks? There were so many questions and more. Surely, here was a situation, in my estimation, where music conquered the fear of dying.
I woke up the next morning to an epiphany: even in spaces ruled by fear and the possibility of sudden departures, music always found its way, and humanity thrived against all odds.
Echezonachukwu Nduka is a Nigerian poet and concert pianist. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Chrysanthemums for Wide-eyed Ghosts (2018) and Waterman (2020). A Centaur Records artist, his new collaborative album ‘The African Serenades’ is out on digital streaming platforms. He can be found online at https://www.artnduka.com/
*Image by Osman Rana on Unsplash