Nataal meets the new chanteuse of Lagos as she records her debut album. Her formidable spirit and husky voice will take her far in 2017
Falana scrolls through her phone, and pulls up a voice note. It’s unedited, coming from her phone speaker, yet still her voice is as it always is: full, jazzy and precise. “It’s a new day baby, so shine on, shine on…” She drags out the words, riffing in her signature syncopated scales. She is a percussionist and you hear it in her voice. “Leave those tears for yesterday, baby ride on, ride on…” She is moaning, she is talking to herself. “This is me, like, sitting on my bed… It’s a new day baby, so shine on, shine on…”
She puts her phone down and explains. “Shine On is the type of song I have to play in the morning at 7am when the sun is coming up and I feel like I don’t know what to do with my life, I don’t know what direction is happening, I don’t know what direction I’m going but you know what -“ she interrupts herself to sing -“It’s a new day baby, so shine on…” She switches back, “So just shine. Just having the capacity to heal people and do that with the music, even to heal my damn self, there’s so much value in that.”
She scrolls through her phone again, finding a second version, still a cappella but layered and looping, harmonising with herself. She sings along on top of the recording, three Falana’s riffing together. “So many voice notes,” she says, as she looks for the next song. Falana is writing an album, you see. And it’s hard. Her phone’s memory is full, of these riffs, these ideas, rehearsals, recordings. At rehearsal she records every run through for timing and to send to her manager, getting feedback in real time.
“Just having the capacity to heal people and do that with the music, even to heal my damn self, there’s so much value in that”
The 27-year-old singer moved to Lagos a year and a half ago. She brought her first EP, Things Fall Together (2014) and a determination to return to her roots and to grow herself, her music and her brand back at home. She was born in Toronto to Nigerian parents; as an adult she’s lived in Denmark, London and Havana. Since moving to Nigeria she has become a fixture in the Lagosian soundscape. Her Uncover’d concert series ballooned her popularity. She wanted to test her new songs, and introduce herself to Lagos on her own terms. She interspersed her old and new work with percussive renditions of classics by singers she cites as her primary influences: Fela Kuti’s Lady, Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, Lauryn Hill’s To Zion. I also hear Jill Scott in her unbridled force; I see Beyoncé in her meticulous self-construction.
The pop up concerts were not just musical ventures; she wanted to engage with the city, so she transformed iconic Lagosian landmarks into sets, complete with light, ambiance, and contemporary architectural seats. “The concerts were a 360 experience,” she says. She popped up at the I.Am.Isigo fashion boutique, the Center for Contemporary Art, the David Adjaye-designed Alara store, and Lagos City Hall. The first show had just under 100 guests, but the finale sold out at over 300. Soon after I overheard someone at a party: “Falana is everywhere these days.” Lately, though, she has her head down. She spends most of her time at home - a gorgeous sanctuary with gleaming white walls, adorned with art she’s collected in Cuba and Nigeria - writing her album, which she hopes to release in 2017.
The songs, she says are “just stories of love and perseverance.” Her work, as any serious album is, is a snapshot of her mental and emotional plane. There are themes and she’s ordering the songs now, teasing out the story. She wants the album to be layered and cohesive, but for the story to emerge from the pieces she is writing rather than the other ways around. For now, what she’s seen is uncertainty and drive, “perseverance in the context of chasing dreams and sacrifice and all that kind of stuff. And then long time emotional perseverance, so dealing with loves that don’t necessarily work. And chasing your dreams but it’s not a guaranteed return on investment and you also have this love that is not necessarily a return on an investment and just like how to persevere in all that context.” Much of her new work almost feels like a prayer.
To get to rehearsal Falana packs her guitar, and sometimes her cajon (a square drum originally from Peru) and waits at bustling bus stops, before clambering into a yellow danfo and riding across mainland Lagos. Then she treks through side streets until she gets to the studio. Upstairs, down a dimly lit hallway in a cramped room where shaggy maroon carpet covers the walls, she is the visionary, the conductor and the lead. She knows the sound she wants, and she directs her band to get there. “Listen,” she says, as the bass player struggles to hit a slide, “you must feel the rhythm within yourself. Don’t count, feel the rhythm,” she adds. “Bass is supposed to be married to the drum.” They run through it over and over until he gets it to her liking. She is assertive, but she’s down to earth. In person she is tiny, she describes herself as reserved, she has a petite demeanor, a shy face. But her voice is always husky and she commands when she needs to, whether leading her band or fighting her way through Lagos traffic.
On stage though, she comes alive. Performance is her great love, the time she feels most free. She talks about connecting to the creative source and serving as a vessel for her art to emerge. Her voice is disconcertingly big. She sounds natural, open, she straddles her cajon and as the beat builds it’s nearly erotic, climactic, pounding on the drum between her legs and masticating the words as she riffs. “My god, my god, here I am, here I am, work your magic again…”