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Ibibio Sound Machine
Ibibio Sound Machine Tristan Bath , March 19th, 2014 11:13

While Soundway made its name with countless seminal reissues of long-forgotten nuggets of stellar African and Latin American music from last century, the label's also gradually garnered a roster of bands producing music that - while still entrenched in various disparate heritages - continually update and modernise these styles into a sort of new global pop music. Ibibio Sound Machine are the newest addition, bringing together Ghanaian highlife with disco, analogue synths, funky beats and occasional diversions into near-gospel territory. The album's artwork sums up the group's idiosyncratic mix, with lead vocalist and focal point - Nigerian-British vocalist Eno Williams - adorning in colourful full Afro-funk garb, synthesiser purposefully underarm, and a stern expression that makes it clear just how seriously this party's meant to be taken. 

While lead single, 'Let's Dance', released in January of this year, (and its more aggressive flipside 'Chop Chop') promised danceable, sparse, beat-driven arrangements with a dark edge, and Williams focusing more on spewing attitude than singing melodies, the album is bookended by a pair of gospel-infused prelude and epilogue spirituals. The Ibibio people of Southeastern Nigeria (Williams' mother was an Ibibio who emigrated to London) have been largely practicing Christianity since the arrival of missionaries in the 19th century, so the choral ambitions of opening 'Voice Of The Bird' and the closing a cappella 'Ibibio Spiritual' (which is in fact a reworking of 'Amazing Grace' in the Ibibio language) are perhaps to be expected, and furthermore act as a reminder of just how long Sub-Saharan African music has been under in conversation with Europeans. 'Voice Of The Bird' showcases Williams' gorgeous multitracked chops as she sings in both English and Ibibio over an organ-like bed of synths and sax. 'I'm Running' builds a decidedly upbeat and sunny groove on the now-familiar repetition of an mbira (thumb piano to plebs - heard in Konono Nº1's, and used similarly to Owiny Sigoma Band's neverending Kenyan nyatiti) while stabs of jazzy horns and busy electric guitar strums lifted straight from Ebo Taylor's definitive highlife records.

Williams' pipes swap centre stage with Alfred Bannerman's (legendary Ghanaian guitarist currently of Konkoma - also on Soundway) chiming guitar fills, while 8-bit synths litter the background with electronic detritus. It's an erratic mix to be sure - as is much of the album - but it holds together, in no small party due to the lovingly-crafted sparsity of the beat, allowing the production just enough space for each instrument to get heard. Bannerman's propulsive jangling guitar playing features heavily later on the very Juju 'Uwa The Peacock', while elsewhere on the record the more immediate African influences and instrumentation all but dissipate. 'The Talking Fish' is an outright 80s Italo disco track with semblances of Brazilian tropical funk a la Tim Maia (and courtesy of Brazilian percussionist Anselmo Netto), while 'The Tortoise' traces a blaxploitation Herbie Hancock groove replete with wailing synths, clavinet and a filthily complicated time signature.

The climactic pair of tunes before the closing spiritual - 'Prodigal Son' and 'Got To Move, Got To Get Out!' - see producer and multi-instrumentalist Benji Bouton's drumming settle into familiarly busy Tony Allen-influenced Afrobeat territory, while the group continue to unwind sparse varied arrangements of horns and spacey synths behind Williams' Ibibio storytelling. It's definitely the high-point of the album, with Williams' charisma and vocal muscle given full spaces to breathe, and 'Prodigal Son's addictive groove given a relatively generous six minutes to play out (the rest of the tracks are largely three or four minutes long). 

Ibibio Sound Machine present themselves as a band to party with, yet their finest moments are their subtlest, sparsest and most understated. It turns out 'Let's Dance' - for all its playful appeal and promise of funk to come - is actually the group's weakest offering to date. Rather than simply resting on the reliable universal appeal of the group's dance orientated origins, Ibibio Sound Machine are trying something new, and while it doesn't always astonish, the high points showcase some of the best and most hypnotic arrangements from any band playing anywhere in the world today. At under forty minutes, an album of groove-based music in a foreign language doesn't have much time to make an impact, but it certainly does leave you wanting more. It's clear this is just the very beginning, and that Ibibio Sound Machine have a hell of a lot more to give.