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A Quietus Interview

Let's Dance: Eno Williams Of Ibibio Sound Machine Interviewed
Clyde Macfarlane , March 28th, 2017 10:11

Clyde Macfarlane talks to the singer of the Anglo-Nigerian highlife funk group

Eno Williams, who fronts highlife/ electronica/ funk outfit Ibibio Sound Machine, has a reputation to uphold. She is Ibibio - it’s her language, her ancestral folk stories; she owns the vocals. On their blisteringly hot live shows all lights focus on her (not to mention her often broad-shouldered, wide-hipped, brightly coloured outfits) while members of her eight-piece ‘machine’ occasionally step in with a volley of keyboard bleeps, soaring guitar lick or the like. It’s a formula that looks and sounds great live and their recorded output has already been proven by ISM’s much praised eponymous debut - a reputation that will only be strengthened by the release of follow-up Uyai earlier this month on Merge.

But Eno is of course indebted to her brilliant instrumentalists for more than just support. They are a fusion group in its true sense, her Nigerian heritage being one element in a unique and original cultural mix. And in veteran guitarist Alfred Kari Bannerman ISM have a piece of Ghanaian highlife’s golden era, his CV boasting collaborations with legends such as Thomas Frimpong and Pat Thomas. Perhaps, as highlife becomes as universally familiar a genre as the one-time "exotics" jazz and reggae, ISM should simply be considered a musical outfit from London. To answer all questions Ibibio related, I caught up with Eno in just after the release of Uyai.

What’s the message behind Uyai?

Eno Williams: The message is all positive. It continues from our previous album by using storytelling, African highlife and a whole load of other musical influences mixed together. Empowering women is a key theme hence the name of the album, Uyai, which means ‘beauty’. In the Ibibio language, this also relates to nature and the beauty of making music.

Is this a new direction for Ibibio Sound Machine?

EW: The last album wasn’t just about women specifically; it was more about retelling stories I got told as a kid. And the writing of our debut was a bit more organic. The band got together in the studio and played ideas that later developed into the album. Ibibio Sound Machine has always been a combination of stories and morals with a present day context.

Tell me about your band’s diversity.

EW: I was born in London and grew up in Nigeria, the guitarist is Ghanaian, Jose [drums] is from Trinidad, we also have an Australian... but in a physical sense we all come from London. We sometimes refer to ourselves as the United Colours Of Music. I think it says a lot that we can all come together and speak the same language through music.

How does the song writing process go?

EW: We still try to make our music organic. Just getting together and jamming until the sound and vibe is right. But then on this album there are songs like ‘Quiet’, which began as a jam but became stripped down into what you hear on the record. It ended up just a mandolin and vocals. Or other songs began in that classic way of sitting in a room and playing, just mixing everything together.

Can you translate a few Ibibio lyrics?

EW: When we were writing - in the middle of touring, actually - I remember the news story about the school girls who got taken in Northern Nigeria [Boko Haram]. It begged questions as to why some girls don’t have access to education, and women’s freedom on a larger scale. It gave me the hook for ‘Give Me A Reason Why’. It shed a light for me on freedom generally, empowerment of people in the state of the world at the moment.

Folk stories are still big; On 'Power Of 3' off the new album, for example, the opening lines tell of my grandfather’s fist introduction to missionaries and the holy trinity. It admires the old Ibibio traditions as well as the new Christian faith; the two seemed interwoven somehow.

Do you have any plans to play in Africa?

EW: We’re playing at Mawazine Festival in Morocco in May, which will be our first time as a band playing live in Africa. And we’re looking forward to going to Nigeria soon - we’ve been trying for a while now! It’s a great place despite what you hear from the media.

There’s a project we’re involved with called Beating Heart. They take music that has been archived by locals in Malawi, and then contemporary musicians mix and adapt [it]: the profits help rebuild communities. We used an old track, put additional vocals on and remixed it for a song called ‘Amai Ndilwulule’, which I’m really proud of. The lady on the original has a really cool ancient vocal technique.

How do you associate with purer forms of highlife and Afrobeat?

EW: It’s strange how Fela Kuti is getting more famous. People forget the impact he’s long had in England... he even played Glastonbury back in 1984. We are actually supporting Seun Kuti in Paris on April 1. His sons have a big role in increasing the spread of Fela’s music.

I actually had school friends growing up who used to go to The Shrine [Fela Kuti’s club]. They used to go in secret without their parents knowing. If my parents heard I had gone to The Shrine, I would have been in serious trouble. They considered his music too political, too outspoken... so I didn’t get introduced to Afrobeat until much later. I began to realise that although he was a trouble maker, he had a lot of truth in his music.

Who was the biggest musical influence in your family?

EW: It’s between my grandmother and my mother. My mother encouraged me to sing with my younger sisters, and my grandmother would always say: “Sing like your voices are going to Heaven.” My grandmother would tease my about singing in English, and say: “When are you going to sing in Ibibio?” So I dedicate this album to her memory - she’d be pleased if she could hear it. My whole family would tell me folk stories, and they would always be in Ibibio.

Photograph by Dan Wilton

Who were your other musical influences growing up?

EW: I remember William Onyeabor. One song I used to hear a lot on the streets and in the markets was ‘When The Going Is Smooth And Good’. The lyric “many many people will be your friend” used to stick in my head. I didn’t make the connection until much later, when there was that hype in England trying to discover who William Onyeabor was. I actually heard his music when it first came out, and it was my first exposure to electronic sounds.

I heard him alongside singers like Miriam Makeba and Manu Dibango, plus Western singers like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Whitney Houston. The Beatles, even- we listened to everything growing up at home. The guys in our horn section are very influenced by punk and Talking Heads. Always with a highlife pulse, of course.

How do you think a female fronted highlife band would go down in Nigeria?

EW: People in West Africa are turning towards the idea, so I think we’d go down well. Check out Aby Ngana Diop from Senegal. Traditionally there’s a cultural resistance to females fronting bands, but now I don’t think there would be a problem for us. The response from Nigeria on social media seems to be very positive towards the way we’ve brought the Ibibio language into the mainstream. Female singer/songwriters are well established now... look at Rokia Traoré and Fatou Diawara from Mali.

Does it surprise you how Ibibio has caught on?

EW: The initial album was more of a bedroom project. We just said, “Let’s create something” - we didn’t think about outcomes, we just did it. But we felt a bit of pressure to make this second record. How do we recapture that freedom? So in many ways we tried to follow the same formula. The way we mixed electronica, storytelling and the Ibibio language had more to offer than just one album. We have been really grateful to fans who have heard our music and spread the word. A reaction I always love is, “What is this? I’ve never heard it before.” And a big benefit of a second album is having the media presence to push things along. We’re thrilled about the reviews so far - It’s a big thumbs up and it’s great to know people are still interested and appreciating our work.

How do live audiences react to Ibibio Sound Machine?

EW: One thing I always find impossible to predict is how an audience will take our music. I often have this initial impression of a chilled, sit-down kind of vibe where we can just deliver the show. But when we start playing, people tend to let themselves go and have a good time. And then the response is often, “Wow! This is the best party we’ve had in ages!” We never really push too hard for a dance; if it happens, it happens. I just love seeing people get out and have a good time. Being in an African country [at Mawazine], hopefully it will be the same situation and people will be able to identify even more with the music.

How do you capture that energy?

EW: We try to make our albums sound like a live gig. But as with any live gig, people come to hear what they’ve heard on your record so we also have a duty to recreate that. A live audience with real people creates an energy; in a recording studio every sound has to be clean without losing the essence of the music itself. For us in particular, I think we succeed in carrying the same energy both live and on record.

Uyai is out now on Merge. Ibibio Sound Machine are playing live in England now, starting in Manchester tonight