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Vital Music: Eno Williams Of Ibibio Sound Machine Interviewed
Tristan Bath , April 14th, 2014 06:38

With Ibibio Sound Machine's formidable debut album released last month, Tristan Bath meets frontwoman Eno Williams to discuss storytelling through music, the Ibibio language, peacocks and talking fish

Sometimes it can be intimidating to meet musicians who've just blown your socks off with a face-melting show, but it's tough to feel like that when meeting Eno Williams. A few minutes prior to our interview I was downstairs at Camden's Forge, being treated with front row seats to a soundcheck from the British/Nigerian vocalist's band, Ibibio Sound Machine - named after the southeast Nigerian language in which Eno Williams sings. The performance was phenomenal - legendary Ghanaian guitarist Alfred Bannerman grinned from ear-to-ear while unleashing bouncy signature highlife licks, while the group's killer rhythm section steered the groove effortlessly through the Headhunters-meets-Funkadelic bombast of 'The Talking Fish' and an explosive run through of the group's debut single, 'Let's Dance (Yak Inek Unek)'. Nonetheless, Williams remained the focal point, beaming attitude and smiles in all directions. I've never seen a band provoke such universal joy in such a short space of time.

Since signing to London's unstoppable Soundway records at the end of last year, Ibibio Sound Machine have received a heap of praise for their self-titled debut album, which has been all over the radio in recent weeks. Its success is just the beginning of a well-deserved meteoric rise trod by countless before, but this project's more than a straight-up afrobeat/funk revival project - it's a project to set to music Williams' under-represented Ibibio heritage, and also to combine the disparate musical lineages of the eight strong group.

With Ibibio Sound Machine released last month, The Quietus caught up with Eno Williams before the album launch gig at the Forge to talk gospel, Fela Kuti and talking fish.

How did everybody in Ibibio Sound Machine first get together? Quite a few were originally involved in Konkoma…

Eno Williams: Yeah, that's another project on Soundway, and two of the musicians that are in Ibibio are also in the group. Max Grunhard – who's one of the sax players and also one of the producers, as well as Alfred Bannerman, who is the guitarist in Konkoma. Myself and Max had actually been talking about doing something with the Ibibio language, because of the fact that it hadn't been documented much musically, and also he heard it and thought was really quite rhythmic. On the other hand, the other producers - Leon Brichard [bass] and Benji Bouton [drummer] – had been working on grooves in their studio unbeknownst to us, and Max told me [about this], and when we heard it we thought 'this is really really cool'. So we got together, and started piecing stuff together. I started with the lyrics, and they would work out the grooves, and then slowly, Alfred came in with his guitar element, and highlife influence, and Anselmo Netto added his own Brazilian flair with his percussion, and so slowly we started putting things together. Everybody was adding their colour – that's pretty much how it started.

Considering Ibibio language is so central to the whole thing, what actually is traditional Ibibio music like?

EW: There's a lot of highlife. Well, I remember growing up in Nigeria with my grandparents; they would listen to a lot of highlife, people like Inyang Henshaw – a lot of male singers with lots of harmonies. That would've been the traditional music for me. I actually hadn't listened to it for years until we started working on Ibibio, and I thought I'd need to reference some of that music, so I listened to it again. There's a lot of folk tales, a lot of storytelling. Most of the songs are based around stories and children's riddles and rhymes and stuff like that, which is where a lot of the concept for my songwriting came into play.

Yeah, lots of the songs on the album are based on folk tales. Is that an intrinsically Ibibio thing that's always in the music?

EW: Yeah, pretty much. [The stories on the album] are traditional stories that were told to me by my grandparents, my uncles, my aunties, little elderly people back in the day.

And what about the melodies? Are they entirely new?

EW: The melodies are entirely new. There's not much of a folk base, they're something that I sort of just put together in my head and sculpted around the music. On some of them the lyrics were formed first and the grooves built around that, and others the groove came first. It was a case of mix and match.

How did you start doing music when you were a kid?

EW: We were in a group with my younger sisters. My mother sort of formed this quintet, and we sang hymns and songs and gospel tunes here and there. I remember we always sat around and tried to create music from nothing, just came up with melodies and harmonies and vocals and lyrics… that stayed with me for a while, so I just honed back into that during the writing process. My sister is very creative also, so we talked about ideas over time. It wasn't until I decided to do the Ibibio project that I thought okay, you know what, this could be a completely different angle. I wanted to try something new, and hone into the gift that's already there and take it to another level. For me it was a whole new process and a challenge as well, but I'm glad that it helped me to tap into my culture, my history, my background and everything.

On the final track on the album, you can hear it's quite clearly referencing 'Amazing Grace'. Firstly, how religious are you? And what role did gospel music play for you growing up, and what is the general role for it in modern day UK and Nigeria?

EW: 'Amazing Grace', is a song that was sung a lot during the slave era, in Calabar [in Nigeria], which is where a lot of the slave trade happened. It's not something a lot of people know. Calabar is the neighbour of Akwa Ibom, which is where the language Ibibio is from, so that was actually the song that the Ibibio and Eket people used to sing. It was actually re-written as 'Amazing Grace'. The reference you hear on the album is actually me singing about the song, 'Amazing Grace' – but using the melody.

Growing up, gospel music played a key role. We went to church all the time, so we heard all this music in church, and at home, so it was always there at the back of our minds. And then even the stories, funnily enough, were faith-based and moral-based – there was always a moral behind the story and a lesson to be learned from the story. For example, the story of the prodigal son - my grandma used to tell that to me when I was much much younger, and then when I heard it at school I realised, hang on, I know this story! And it turned out it was a Christian story. It was a case of the whole culture really - when you heard a story, it wasn't just for entertainment value. It was to learn about the culture and the values. So I would say gospel music played quite a key role, because as much as I like every other kind of music – disco and funk and rock and everything, which is a little bit referenced in the music in Ibibio – the gospel is still like that core.

It seems to me that terms such as 'highlife' and 'afrobeat' and 'afro-funk' get thrown around a lot, particularly now in reference to things. I was just wondering how much that reflects, in your experience, the music people actually listen to in Nigeria? Gospel music for example, is not normally seen as being quite so intrinsically African.

EW: Oh, it is! The missionaries brought all these interesting stories about the Bible, and then the hymns too – this was all added to the culture. So even though gospel's seen as being an American style of music, it's vital to places all over the world, in Africa, and even here in the UK as well. But I guess we don't tap into it as much.

It's not mainstream, I suppose.

EW: No, it's not mainstream. It could be though.

There's a weird divide, especially considering it's probably one of, if not the most performed music outside the mainstream.

EW: Yeah, exactly. There's a lot of gospel concerts here in London.

Yeah, I used to live in New Cross near the Christ Faith Tabernacle and places like that – you see these concerts happening, everybody dressed up, all the time… and it's this completely parallel thing.

EW: Exactly. In a way, there's a lot of people that try and get to mainstream, and try to make it relevant to do that. It's like with Ibibio Sound Machine, I also wanted to create something more relevant, and something new.

There's a track called 'Woman Of Substance'. What's this referring to?

EW: I grew up in a family of women, and this song's referencing the women in my life – my mum, my grandma, my aunties, my sisters – but then also on the flipside it's referencing a role I played a while ago. I played a girl who was sold into slavery, in a story done by Eve Ensler [best known for The Vagina Monologues], and her story just blew my mind, how she was able to come out of her trial and still hold her head up, triumphant. It was quite inspiring to hear stories like that… that is a woman of substance.

How do you feel the role of women in Nigerian music has developed? I suppose Fela Kuti's the most famous musician from the country – what about the role of women in his music?

EW: I would say there's a complexity to it. At that time, of course he was the frontman of that whole… force. That whole music and everything! The women were like his wives…

… his worshippers?

EW: I wouldn't say worshippers. Things were different back then – maybe they felt like they had to be there for their husband, so of course they would do as they're told, or pretty much conform because they wanted to please the man and the head of the house. But now it's a little bit different, because the men are also being open to the fact that, if the women is going to take centre stage, or take front lead, then of course let them, allow them! As long as you've got the talent, and got the goods and the know-how, then it's fine.

'Uwa the Peacock' is about peacock that ultimately displays its feathers despite being told to "put them away and be like everybody else" - what is 'The Talking Fish' about?

EW: [Laughs] Okay, so 'The Talking Fish' is a really funny story. A young girl is going to the stream to fetch water, and you know, they're singing along, all happy and everything, and then they arrive at the river, but at the river bank there's a fish that happens to be yapping away and talking. They all think, "what is this?" – it's like a moment of total amazement. They think, "well we normally eat fish, but this fish is talking – are you sure we can actually eat the fish, it'll probably start talking in our belly!" So they go all frantic, and there's chaos everywhere. They make big noises, and shout all over the village, and when everybody comes out thinking somebody's died or something, they see that "oh no – it's a talking fish!" And it becomes this famous fish, and everybody comes to see the fish. Hence, the song is written about a talking fish.

The initial single, 'Let's Dance', with its B-side, 'Chop Chop', was more aggressive, heavier, and synth-ier than the album ultimately turned out. Were the single tracks recorded at the same time as the album? Was the change a refinement?

EW: 'Let's Dance' was recorded at the same time as the album, and 'Chop Chop' was just something we made out of nowhere, looking to record something more aggressive, like you say. Well, more 'energetic' like that. And because it sounded so different, it seemed best to let it just sit with 'Let's Dance'. I wouldn't say it didn't have a place on the album, it just felt really special you know? And they kind of complement each other.

Being on Soundway sort of instantly catapults a group into a wider audience than most new bands and projects. How has it been conducting interviews, interacting with the media and reading reviews of the album?

EW: Soundway has been really good at helping us, they play quite an important role. They were doing reissues for a while, and have only recently started with new original projects like this and Konkoma, but they've really really helped us. I think also, because the project itself is quite unique, it almost does its work and speaks for itself. People have really warmed up to it so far. I'm really grateful for Soundway, and really grateful to God for the way everything's worked out, that it's going great!

How does it feel to talk about it?

EW: It feels like I'm bringing something to the forefront. Ibibio language wasn't sung for a while, and now all of a sudden a native African language is getting heard by people. I used to talk about it with my sisters when I was much younger, and we'd say be careful what you laugh about – these things may end up being really important. My grandma used to say – when are you going to sing in Ibibio anyway?

Ibibio Sound Machine's self-titled debut album is out now via Soundway