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Nok Cultural Ensemble is a new project from Atyap

Nok Cultural Ensemble is a new project from Atyap

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Nok Cultural Ensemble is a new project from Atyap (Nigerian-British) musician Edward Wakili-Hick (Sons of Kemet, Steam Down, Kokoroko), a fluid and evolving collective, which features an impressive lineup of Edward’s collaborators including; 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 civilization, 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 Ghanaian Atenteben flute. 

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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 collaborations, 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.


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