By John “June Sometimes” Eni-ibukun || Introduction by Teju Adeleye
Edward Wakili-Hick and NOK Cultural Ensemble
Edward Wakili-Hick is a Nigerian-British musician of Atyap origins. He got his foot into the music world through the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme and has since then been a part of several music collectives which include Sons of Kemet, Steam Down, Kokoroko. Along with some of his friends and frequent collaborators, he has recently just created a collective named the NOK Cultural Ensemble. This collective features an impressive line up of Onome Edgeworth (Kokoroko), Joseph Deenmamode (Mo Kolours), Dwayne Kilvington (Wonky Logic), Nubya Garcia, Theon Cross, Sulyiman(Afrorack), Watusi87 (RU1 Fam), Zarak (Blue Alchemy), Niyabja aka Simeline Jean-Baptiste(DJ Noss), David Wehinm (Omah Lay, Ezra Collective) and Angel Bat Dawid. NCE are set to release new album Njhyi due out October 14th via SA Recordings.
On Njhyi, the Nok Cultural Ensemble centres diverse Afro-diasporic percussive traditions. Glitching beats unfold on African timelines, expressed through free jazz sensibilities which extend the futuristic pulse of dub technologies.
The collective craft a visionary rhythmic continuum that tunes into living traditions stretching back to the ancient NOK civilisation, and reaches towards liberated futures. NCE foregrounds the diversity of black percussive music styles – from agbaja and apala, soca to bélé, sega, broken beat and beyond.
In Wakili-Hick’s own words, they ‘celebrate percussion as a complete music’. Drawing on their own collective heritage – from Nigeria and Mauritius to St Kitt and the UK, the record platforms percussion ensembles as a vehicle for music making whilst centring afro-diasporic knowledge systems and cultures.
The Nok Cultural Ensemble builds on the legacy of cultural ensemble bands from 1960’s West Africa. Inspired by Pan- African liberation movements, these groups symbolised self determination and black pride. Over the coming years, acts like the resounding highlife group Wulomei, founded by the celebrated percussionist Nii Tei Ashitey, would encourage intercultural solidarity by playing indigenous instruments and wearing indigenous clothes. These drummer-led cultural ensembles would bring members and sounds together from different ethnic groups across Africa and the diaspora, encouraging young people to not to forget their roots and the knowledge systems repressed and disrespected by colonialism. These include ensembles founded by the likes of master drummer Mustapha Tetteh Ade and the afro-jazz innovator, Kofu Ghanaba, known also as Guy Warren.
Situating themselves in this lineage, the Nok Cultural Ensemble trace drum beats from further afield, from the free jazz formations of Clifford Jarvis’s east London based Afro-block, to the invocations of Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, and the improvisational impulses of Milford Graves and Max Roach’s M’boom group. “We’re looking to those groups and concerts for inspiration, but doing it from our time and experience – interpreting that through 808’s, electronics, drum machines and more”, Wakili-Hick shared.
Digging deep into his own Nigerian Atyap roots, Wakili-Hick finds an ancestral location for his contemporary Pan-Africanist visions in the Nok people – an ancient civilisation dating back to at least 1500 BCE in what is now modern day Kaduna State, in the Middle Belt of Nigeria. Whilst there are many mysteries surrounding the civilisation, they left behind artefacts including their celebrated terracotta statues and innovations in metalworks. In making the album, he meditated on these relics – many of the loot of European museums and private collections, filling in the blanks with books and speaking to his elders about indigenous practices and philosophies.
NCE venerates these and other ancestors by imagining them as ‘people of the stars’. Part science fiction, and part ritualistic acknowledgement of their innovations, he connects with them as living energies with scientific, spiritual and sonic wisdom for our present day challenges on earth. Learning from older community members in Nigeria, he learned about the role of music in traditional rituals. ‘The sounds emulate the elements in nature – wind in the leaves and the trickle of streams, to communicate to the natural spirits we’re all connected to’, shared Wakili-Hick in reflecting on the soundworlds he created on the record.
The desire to centre African music and cultural practices led to Waklil-Hick reading the work of the great African ethnomusicologist Professor Kofi Agawu. In his seminal text, Representing African Music, Agawu excavates the cultural and musical knowledge in African musical practices – in particular the notion of playing to African timelines and signatures. He also writes about the way western aesthetics, theory and ideas about equal temperament have been used as vehicles for colonialism and cultural violence. The choice of a percussive group is even more stark given that many forms of percussion were outlawed by colonial powers around the world.
Wakili-Hick applied his learning from Agawu’s texts to technology, too: “Over lockdown I was learning more music tech, and realised that even on a digital level, there are so many European frameworks in terms of how we think about sound. It’s important to remember that dub is one of the original electronic musics.
The project is the result of compositions, extended group improvisations where collaborators would reason about history and culture whilst experimenting with frequency and time. The relationships at the heart of NCE have been built over the years, coming up through the Tomorrow’s Warriors organisation, Sons of Kemet, Steam Down, Kokoroko and London’s jazz adjacent producer scenes.
After playing sold out a London Jazz Festival Jazz::Refreshed shows back in 2017, the formative line up – Edward Wakili-Hick, Joseph Deenmamode (Mo Kolours), Onome Edgeworth (Kokoroko), and Dwayne Kilvington (Wonky Logic) – recorded a studio session the next day. Later Wakili-Hick revisited the recordings, layering up overdubs, and editing sections of group improvisations, call and responses, free improv and cyclical rhythms, that had originally been guided by graphic scores he had drawn up at the first studio session. Edward later brought in engineer and producer David Wehinm in for further editing, and to mix the record alongside himself, adding Dub and Electronic Music effects, sensibilities and aesthetics to the record in real-time analogue-digital hybrid mix downs.
On Sang Awun (meaning fearless), and the mbira-laced clarion call in Communal Healing, the collective bring an electric charge to the earthy groundswell of apala music. During their travels together in Martinique, Wakili-Hick and his Sons of Kemet collaborator Theon Cross would jam together on the beach, where Cross swapped his tuba for a conch shell, whilst Wakili-Hick played on a small sakara drum. On Awakening, their shared connection to Rastafari comes alive with elements of Martinican bélé rhythms and the earthy resonances of Count Ossie’s Grounation.
Broken beat – influenced by the likes of IG Culture, 2000 Black family and Kaidi and Dego – is also present on the record. On Ancestral Visions in particular, propulsive breaks meet fuji music, with Wakili-Hick bringing Atyap drum and flute traditions to life by playing on the Ghananian Atenteben flute.
Ethiopique microtones move elegantly through the collective’s driving triplet beats, tapping into signatures of devotional music, and the roots of swing on Enlightenment, where Angel Bat Dawid’s clarinet brings a virtuosic touch.
Lyet marks a point of transition in the album, with the quartet taking their explorations deeper into electronic planes. Dawid’s addition to the project opened up further collaboration
s, introducing Wakili-Hick to Sulyiman, who brought subaquatic, gqom style drones whilst Siméline Jean-Baptiste brought more Martinican flavours to the album with creole vocals on Kyangma. Nubya Garcia brings a meditative touch on the track Yesterday as Today, Tomorrow as Today (YTTT), a Kemetic saying taking a black quantum futurist vision of time. On Maroon Step we are taken to Mauritius via the ravanne drum and sega music – once outlawed by colonialists, and the soundtrack to marronage rebellion. In addition, Watusi87 brings words of affirmation, and elder Zarak, the sweet tones of the fulani bamboo flute.
Speculative visions of the NOK people emerge on Nietatangwat, meaning ‘people of the stars’. The album’s title, Njhyi, is a Nigerian Tyap word that translates roughly as repair: a call on personal, communal and global levels to attend to legacies of colonialism. ‘It’s a verb, a doing word’, Wakili Hick explains.
Repair is a complicated, non linear process: For Wakili-Hick, repair includes reconnecting to their heritage, freeing themselves of colonial logics through percussion, and practising worldbuilding their expansive collaborations and the invitations in their music. It’s also about attending to the material realities of the present. In Southern Kaduna today, where the NOK once lived, centuries of plunder from British colonialism and ethnic clashes have not only led to the present day refugee crisis and ongoing conflict in the region, but also the loss of languages and elements of culture for current generations (although there has been a recent shift back towards younger generations learning and speaking the Tyap language). The album attempts to draw attention to this situation, and others as a rally cry to the diaspora and beyond to remember the spirit of interconnectedness, urging us to make the world anew.
Alongside the release of the album, NCE have partnered with Spitfire Audio to release‘ Tape Percussion’, a
sample library made at the legendary Ariwa Studios.
Finding the Way Back Home Through Sound:
We recently caught up with Edward Wakili-Hick to have conversations sorrounding the collective, its new project and his quest for understanding and interpreting African culture, and more specifically, NOK culture through sound. Follow the conversation below…
Hi Edward, Good evening and welcome
Hello June, it’s my pleasure to be here
Let’s dive straight into this conversation about the NOK Cultural Ensemble and Njhyi, your project with the collective.
I am inclined to believe that you are a Jazz performer or you used to perform Jazz before you started the NOK Cultural Ensemble along with some friends and I just want to understand, because I have a little background knowledge of you and your works, I want to know how it is that you describe yourself and the kind of music you create
Okay. I’m not so good at this but I can talk about, say, the most recent project I’ve worked on, The Sons of Kemet – it is what is labeled as Jazz coming from the main community of musicians in London of Caribbean and African descent. That’s the musical community that I’ve grown with, I can say, since I was maybe a teenager. And I’ve been involved in various projects with them.
I’ve also been given workshops through an organization called Tomorrow’s Warriors, which mentors young black musicians primarily in London. I came up through that organisation and I’ve been working with various musical groups, from big ones to smaller groups.
More recently there’s also the collective Steam Down, which started as Wick and I at Bradford, in London. And I was involved in that from the start. I can say that I was also playing in Kokoroko for a period of time as well. Amongst other things, it’s like a community of musicians. And we all know each other to a varying degree and often there’s a lot of crossover with who’s involved in different projects.
From what you’ve just said I believe that you function very properly within music collectives and music communities. And you created this Nok Cultural Ensemble with a few of your friends.
It caught my attention while I was learning about you that at the age of 16, you traveled to Ghana, and there in Ghana you purchased a Kpalongo drum. Which originates from the Ga people who sell local drums and through that instrument, you have begun to research more into African cultures.
You’ve been trying to find intricate ways to express yourself through African percussion. Could you describe that process? Why did you decide to travel to Ghana? And when you got the instrument, what inspired you to keep on checking out more African stuff?
Yeah. So, the first time I actually was blessed to be able to come to the continent was actually South Africa. When I was seven. I didn’t connect with the drum there but I connected with the Imbira. That’s the name, it’s called the Phone piano in English. And around that age as well, in the UK, I was fortunate to meet a musician from The Gambia, named Lamen Jassey. And he introduced me to the Djembe. So, I can say by the time I was fortunate to go to Ghana when I was 16, I was already involved to some extent with African drumming and culture in general.
But coming to Ghana, I felt a deep deep connection. I think maybe because of its closeness with Nigeria. And yeah, the kpanlogo drum I was so connected with. It was a feeling. And then, when I went back to the UK, I just held onto that feeling and those memories and went forward from there.
Okay. I’m also quite aware of the Nok Cultural Ensemble and how it’s building its legacy on tracing bands back to the 1960s in West Africa and also how it’s being influenced by the Pan-African liberation movement.
And it’s more like the group is trying to symbolize black culture, black pride, African culture to be precise and it’s kind of running on the template of past African music collectives who had been creating highlife music and all those kinds of rare – I don’t want to use the word “rare” – I want to use the phrase “more natural African music”.
Creating with friends and these friends also have various cultural backgrounds. I want to know why it’s this group of people that you have created this collective with? And what is the project about? The project that you’ve created together.
Yeah. The project I can say started naturally just through discussion and playing music together and at some point I knew that I wanted to form a group and there’s a big influence from my friends and groups that I’ve come before, especially looking at some other groups in the 1960s. Around that time they were referenced as the culture groups at least in Ghana.
And yeah, also looking into the traditions of the Apala music, musicians like Haruna Ishola and trying to do our own perspectives on this formation, this orchestration. I can say it’s also influenced by reading and listening to people like Professor Kofi Agawu and his analysis of African music and culture.
And why I chose these particular musicians to work with, it had to do with working with people who are open to my environmental approach to performing a traditional repertoire. We are coming from the influence of piano, and the influence of what we call ‘Free Jazz’ as well, and its improvised elements. Also bringing in electronic elements as well. Drum machines at some point. So we play the electronic and acoustic traditional elements and create transitions between the two. Does that answer your question?
Image: Edward Wakili-Hick photographed by Javanie Stephens
Yeah. It does. There’s something I’m discovering through reading this template that you’ve created for this project. I understand that you are tracing your cultural heritage back to the Nok culture. I also understand that you are trying to express through African percussion, that’s your art. And at the end of the day you made mention of electronics, including electronics in the production process as well.
I think tracing history and looking back at the times when music was created in Africa, let’s trace it back to the sixties and pray Colonial times to be more precise. If we look at all of these things together and relate it to what is happening now, it’s kind of a blend of old tradition with contemporary ways of making music which is like you mentioned, The drone part and the electronic production and using computers to make the sound a little bit more advanced than it was then.
It’s not necessarily trying to bring the past back, it’s just trying to explore your old individual cultures. But it’s obvious that you’re living in the contemporary time. It’s obvious that you’re living in times like this where there are new devices to make music sound better.
How would you describe the process of bridging the past and the present without necessarily taking the intricate elements of the percussion or the other instruments you’re bringing into the process of trying to make the project without taking out the essence of the music?
So, it’s a very good question. And I’m not sure I have the answer. I have questions concerning it, but for me I feel the project, a lot of it was me following my intuition and then trying maybe to verify certain things along the way.
Listening to musicians like Milford Graves, a musician with his kind of perspective, I think, opened my mind up to certain approaches.
Yeah. My musical experience is obviously coming up. I’m playing a lot of Jazz music. Also playing Afrobeat, I’m playing with the musician, Bele Shosimi He’s based in London. He played in Fela Kuti’s band, Egypt 80. And then also being exposed to a lot of Caribbean music. Working with musicians of Caribbean heritage.
And I also wanted to express a type of sound that removed the western harmony. A lot of the musicals are using this harmony and I’m feeling a certain kind of freedom once that’s removed. I’ve been reading the works of Professor Kofi Akawu and also listening to lectures by him kind of gave me an understanding, and I can say an academic analysis of why that might make sense or that might be a better way to approach the project.
Image: Edward Wakili-Hick
Yeah. The next question I’m going to ask is about you coming to Nigeria at this point.
I know that the project would be out in less than a months’ time, how do you think that coming would influence your approach to – I don’t know if it’s going to influence your approach to creating new kinds of music or if your vision is to have a closer connection to your culture.
I just want to understand why you decided to be in the northern part of the country at this point in time and what your experience has been so far.
Okay. So, I have a family based primarily in Abuja-Kaduna and Zangonkata, southern Kaduna. That’s my origin, my homeland.
It made sense to come to Abuja because I have family here. And I’ve been here before. I came here in 2016. That was the third time I came to Nigeria.
And yeah, I can say from the perspective of coming back there are a lot of reasons why and there is a long journey to actually be able to come back. I’ve been planning to come back for a long time before then but I wasn’t able to come.
Yeah, even though I have been very disconnected in many ways, I can say I’ve always felt a connection. And I’m very grateful and happy to be here. I’m hoping to connect with more musicians here and just continue the journey forward.
Alright. This is my penultimate question and it’s basically the project, it’s going to be out soon. What plans or expectations do you have for it?
Okay. My plans and expectations are, I can say there would be the digital release and then there would also be a physical vinyl on a later date. And we would like to do some remixes. We’re also working on a few other things.
And my expectations would be… I don’t know if I have expectations. I would like people to take what they can from the music and hope everybody would engage from their own perspective. So, yeah. I’m interested to see what people’s reactions are – good or bad.
Image: Edward Wakili-Hick photographed by Adama Jalloh
And I can say it’s also… tying into your previous question regarding why I’m here. ‘Cause for one reason or another, the language of my people is being marginalised to an extent and it’s coming back now. So, I’m being in contact with younger people here in Abuja and we’re working to document the language and I’m hoping that the music creates some awareness and it brings some awareness and brings some attention to the NOK civilization. And also to the actual people. And other related peoples in Southern Kaduna. And other local regions that have been affected in recent times.
Okay. So, to my final question. What matters to you the most, not necessarily with music, it could be generally in life. What matters to you the most and why?
Yeah. I mean in general, I’d say coming from a strong and Pan-African perspective and looking at the history of where we are now and where we continue to go forward and back, I’ve come to learn and also contribute whatever way I can.
Yeah. I also believe in Joy and happiness and Inner peace.