Event Review: Nok Cultural Ensemble @ Village Underground (London; Sunday, 28th April 2024)

Words and Photos by Sian Rees

Tucked away in the vibrant heart of East London, hidden under the festival energy of the Brick Lane Jazz Festival, the audience awaits Nok Cultural Ensemble, a band that takes its name from the ancient Nok culture, which flourished in Nigeria around 1500 BCE. Their name reflects their sound and also their deep appreciation for Africa’s rich cultural heritage and their desire to pay homage to the continent’s diverse traditions.

Village Underground seems like the perfect space to host their set; a cultural hub housed within a converted Victorian warehouse that blends industrial grit with artistic innovation. The space matches the band, with its sense of history, profound nature, intimacy, and eeriness.

Anticipation hung thick as the group came on – 10 artists, bringing an impressive range of traditional African instruments alongside classic jazz instruments. As the performance commenced, percussion and sound began to move through the audience. Slowly, a stronger structure and cohesion crept in, allowing the audience to grip onto the eagerly anticipated rhythmic structures. “We don’t have much time, so we’re going to take our time…make some noise for yourselves, I know we are modest sometimes, but don’t be so modest—make some noise for yourselves,” said Edward Wakili-Hick, notorious on the London jazz scene (Sons of Kemet, Steam Down, Kokoroko).

We jolted out of focus, clapped, and then fell back into a hushed silence, poised to catch the next rhythm. The atmosphere felt serious, yet amidst the intensity, smiles exchanged between performers hinted at the shared joy of musical expression and granted the audience permission to surrender to the infectious, building groove and dance.

Thirty minutes into the set, the music settled into its first strong beat under the guidance of a commanding drum kit. Against the backdrop of high ceilings and smoky ambiance, illuminated by soft yellow spotlights, the word “elevate” began to be repeated and continued throughout like a mantra. Bird calls, rain sounds, and gentle rhythms intertwined, creating layers of sonic landscape. Then, at the 37-minute mark, a new song emerged, signaling another shift in intensity that captivated the senses. Broadening the realm of jazz spontaneity, this was more than a musical journey of discovery.

The performance then took on a ritualistic quality as wind instruments joined the ensemble. “Preachers in the mountains agreed there was something about them. Our souls, with lessons to learn, these ancestors returned. Medicine to the masses, singing our songs for peace. We resurface with expressions of service. Elevate.”


Photos by Sian Rees