By Jeremy Ray Jewell
Falle Nioke has evolved into a kind of cultural ambassador. In the English coastal town of Margate, Kent, he has been praised for his performances of original and traditional compositions on West African instruments.
When I spoke to Falle Nioke, I asked if he considers himself to be a folk musician. I wanted him to say he was a West African griot, a bluesman from the past. “No,” he replied, “I consider myself to be a singer.”
Fair enough. But I don’t think that’s all he is. He has evolved into a kind of cultural ambassador. In the English coastal town of Margate, Kent, Nioke has been praised for his original and traditional compositions on West African instruments.“I play the gongoma, the bolon, cassi, guitar, doundoun, and djembe,” he said. “Any instrument I hold I will make a groove on it and sing along!” My mind immediately thinks of the diddley bow and the banjo, North American descendants of West African strings, which are admired for both their simplicity and versatility. Immigrating to a town with a vibrant House scene, the Guinean musician drew on his mastery of African instruments, adapting their venerable sounds to the tastes in the UK, dovetailing the past with an electronic dance genre whose roots are in Black Chicago.
Nioke’s versatility is linguistic as well. Singing in a variety of local languages, he sees his role as serving as a bridge to the African diaspora and beyond: “to show them love and tell them about Africa, speak their language so they can hear it even if they don’t know it’s their ancestors’ language. Maybe they will feel it.” Nioke’s capacity to speak to so many stems, at least in part, from his childhood in a military camp. Growing up there provided him with the benefits of a secure environment as well as exposure to soldiers from all the 32 different tribes of Guinea and their different cultures. Ironically, given that the musician comes from a country marred by ethnic conflicts and a corrupt military, Nioke uses his experience living amid an ethnically diverse army camp to counteract divisions. He hopes to heal those near and far: “People who have not been home to their African country for a long time will be reminded of home. It is emotional. Some people can’t go home.”
Nioke’s first two releases, “Salia” and “Taimedy” were produced by Johan Hugo. Hugo, originally from Sweden, now resides in Margate, where he and the performer met. Along with Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya, Hugo forms part of The Very Best, a group which has collaborated with the likes of Vampire Weekend and M.I.A., singing in Chewa, a Bantu language. Nioke explained that “Salia” is an old West African proverb: “It’s about womanhood. It is sometimes sung at weddings or if a woman has a baby. I always loved singing that song and I met Hugo in Margate and we made this modern version of it.” Traditional versions can be found here and here. Nioke and Hugo’s ‘modern’ version is particularly striking because of how it evokes a sense of solitude and distance by way of the electronic approximations of the doundoun and djembe rhythms. A choral background is synthetically approximated as well. Nioke seems to be singing across digital and physical oceans. The new musical implements are promising, but the tune’s feeling is unmistakably nostalgic and deeply personal. His second Hugo collaboration comes off as more of an anthem. “Taimedy,” means ‘girl’ in Susu, a language spoken in the coastal region around Guinea’s capital, Conakry. About this original composition, Nioke notes that he “made it up jamming on the harbour arm and we laid it down in Johan’s studio in Margate around the same time.” It is a cautionary tale directed to his compatriots back home: “It’s a warning to girls not to sell themselves to help their families.” This is my favorite Nioke release so far, an upbeat banger that demonstrates his impressive vocal breadth.
Nioke’s most recent release and first EP is Youkounkoun, produced by another Margate resident, James Greenwood (a.k.a. Ghost Culture). The album (released by PRAH Recordings) takes its title from Nioke’s village near the Senegalese border, home to the Wamey/Konyagi/Coniagui people. The community’s language is under threat: it is spoken today by only around 30,000 people. The EP’s two previously released tracks, “Barké” (in Susu, Malinke, and Fulani) and “Loneliness” (in Malinke and Coniagui) make dynamic use of the local Guinean languages Noike learned as a child. They are also expressions of his commitment to the endangered language of ancestors. Still, while Coniagui may be a language in decline, the influence of Susu and Fulani are spreading, to the point of dominating other indigenous languages. Indeed, Coniagui is endangered by the expansion of Pulaar and Wolof, along with the growing power of French and English. Nioke isn’t interested in adjudicating among these tongues; he holds them in equal veneration. If we can “feel” a language in decline communicate to us, then there is hope. The political point of Nioke’s approach is clear: a musical repertoire that commands equal respect for all languages strives for what folklorist Alan Lomax termed “cultural equity.”
“Barké,” meaning ‘blessing,’ implores us to respect and help our parents, to seek their blessing in our endeavors. The lyrics are direct: “My mother said, ‘My son, wherever you go in the world, without your parents’ blessing you cannot succeed. Money cannot buy you a blessing; it is only by helping your parents that you can get a blessing.” We know this carries special resonance for Nioke, given his relationship with his African home: “One of my friends told me he couldn’t understand why he was struggling, why he couldn’t succeed in business and why no opportunities were coming his way. There was an old man listening to us talking who asked, ‘Do you have parents?’ My friend said that he did. The man said to go and visit them and when you see them working you must help them. Give them a hand and once you do that you will get a blessing. That is the secret of this life.”
“Loneliness” laments the loss of a loved one. Initially, in Malinke, the singer cries: “I haven’t seen you. So many months I haven’t seen you. My love, where are you? Where are you hiding? I want to see you.” Then there is a refrain in Coniagui: “Day and night I think of you. If I don’t see you I can’t sleep.” So, those are the translations. But can we “feel” the meaning of the words, as Nioke suggests? I believe that we can, if only through Nioke’s singing. While the electronic accompaniment helps, it is only a piece of the puzzle. Ghost Culture, an accomplished and acclaimed producer in his own right, is billed by record label Moshi Moshi as being “inspired equally by Arthur Russell and Elliot Smith as much as LFO or Aphex Twin.” The sentimentality and experimental mixtures that Ghost Culture cultivated in his earlier work serves as an effective platform for Nioke’s use of the contemporary vernacular. Unlike the productions of Hugo, Ghost Culture’s treatment doesn’t search for echoes of Africa; the goal is to introduce Nioke to today’s young European audiences. Nioke embraces the musical flexibility: “It means music has no rules or barriers and we are free to make sound and bring our ideas together however we feel in the moment.” And what value does he find in multicultural collaboration? “It is liberating for black and white people here to shake off the narrative they have been given by the media about the roles of black and white people,” Nioke explained.
Recently, African music has been taking the independent and popular music world in the “global north” by storm. There is the growth of Awesome Tapes from Africa from a Brooklyn-based blog to a record label that releases under-exposed African artists. Then there are UK collaborations such as The Very Best and Africa Express, Malian singer Salif Keita featuring British rapper Roots Manuva, the Congolese/New England pastiche of Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, and Janet Jackson and Daddy Yankee’s Afrobeat-influenced “Made For Now”, just to name a few. In 2018 Beyoncé brought a rendition of Nigerian Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” to Coachella, while in a more rapid cross-continental exchange we have also witnessed Rihanna, Ciara and Childish Gambino all performing the gwara gwara, a South African dance popularized only within the last five years. In the midst of this fad for modernizing mixes, Nioke remains a traditionalist. He collaborates with electronic music producers, but his artistic contribution carries with it an unmistakable sense of a musician who is playing the gongoma on Margate’s harbour wall… or, rather, in the small, Coniagui-speaking town of Youkounkoun.
I respected his self-identification as a mere “singer” but I couldn’t resist the urge to tempt him on this point. “Do you have any desires to record any of your music the way in which you have performed it in the past?” I ask. “Yes, I’d be interested in doing an acoustic album,” Nioke responded. “We have recorded one of my live sessions at the Tom Thumb Theatre. I’d like to record with a live band using my African instruments and European instruments.” Frankly, the folklore aficionado in me wanted to see him perform raw and simple on the streets, as in the Nowness documentary. But though Nioke respects his progenitors, he is about bridging divides — not being a purist. Which takes me back to my adolescent discovery of Highlife, the Ghanian and Nigerian genre born from the use of traditional rhythms and melodies on ‘colonial’ instruments. I think of Malian Blues, Nigerian reggae, Ethiopian Jazz, and Kenyan Country. But let’s acknowledge that my dream of discovering African music has become frozen in time. It is a fantasy that the nostalgia and longing in Nioke’s voice awakened but cannot entirely satisfy. The past has vanished: as Nioke explained: “Maybe they will feel it… Some people can’t go home.”
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.