Charmed by the folklore of her native Nigeria, Eno Williams of IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE gives further credence to the marriage of African and Western music.
Words by Joe Clark
The band, fronted by London born Williams, is a vibrant melting pot of renowned world musicians including Ghanaian Highlife guitarist Alfred Bannerman and Brazilian percussionist Anselmo Netto, The offering is an arresting blend of 80’s and modern synth pop bound by the melodic Ibibio language of southern Nigeria.
Regarded as one of the most ancient of all ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Ibibio people’s expressive and mystical history is something William’s was keen to reflect in her evidently vibrant work.
The band released its eponymous debut album in early 2014 as one of the latest additions to independent London label Soundway Records, with a primary focus on African, Caribbean, Latin and Asian music. The album is a truly unique offering of West-African funk and disco that borrows from tradition alongside modern post-punk and electro.
Eno’s first significant musical exposure was as a child during her time in Nigeria as part of a quintet with her sisters. Enchanted by her mother’s retelling of Nigerian folklore, her interest in the old and new endured upon her return to England. It wasn’t until after her studies that she and her bandmates decided they wanted to create something entirely new and began experimenting with the Ibibio language.
“I started telling the other guys in the band and sang them a few lines, we decided that as a language it’s fairly unique, quite melodic and really rhythmic, one song led to another, and another, and then another!”
Her nans’ subtle chides seemingly rubbed off on the band with many of their songs exploring the African folklore etched on Eno’s memory during her formative years in Nigeria.
“Being around parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles I was very familiar with these stories, and every story has a moral with something to gain or learn. Those were the stories I sang about and they just became part of the tapestry of the album.”
Though much of the diversity of sound is down to Eno’s cross-continental ear, the sheer expansive of the music can be largely attributed to the band’s wide gene pool. “We’ve got Alfred who’s Ghanaian and he’s got the more African Highlife style, we’ve got Anselmo a Brazilian percussionist who’s brings the Afro-Cuban beat, the whole jazz mix of the horn section, Jose is from Trinidad with the African-Caribbean mix. There’s a whole clash going on with everyone together and then me with the African lyrics, it was just a case of everyone linking and us being in London with its cosmopolitan nature.
“It just seemed logical, with the lyrics being from Africa and us trying to do something out in the west it was kind of fun to marry something unique and something different and try to bring both worlds together, because music is very much a universal language.”
Though the lyrics were originally penned in the Ibibio language, the label have been keen to ensure that they cater to a Western audience with lyrics available in both English and Ibibio to listeners. Though Eno is pleased that many English speaking fans have taken the time to learn the original lyrics and sing along with the language.
Recently Ibibio Sound Machine had the pleasure of playing at the unlikely setting of Shakespeare’s Globe as part of their ‘Wonder Women’ line up this summer alongside other inspiring female performers such as Mercury Prize nominee Roisin Murphy. “Playing at the Globe was incredible, of course the space is nothing like a festival space or the crowd is nothing like a festival crowd, they were more of an intellectual London crowd and we thought about how we can bring what we have to that performance.
“The angle I came from is that music is a storytelling thing anyway, music is all about telling stories and what better place than to tell the Story of the West and Africa than in that space. I didn’t know what to expect but it all came together and the vibe was just incredible, it was probably my favourite show to date.”
By Eno’s own admission she finds it hard to think of any other comparable acts, which if anything is a testament to their unique and appealing quality rather than alienation.
Currently working on new material, Ibibio Sound Machine are toying with the same electronic vibe but sharpening their focus on English lyrics as they attempt to bridge the gap between Africa and the West even further. No doubt they will manage the task for as Eno says, “music is very much a universal language,” and they speak it very well.