Introducing… Ibibio Sound Machine

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #99 (April/May 2014) p24. Download a pdf here.

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The British-Nigerian singer Eno Williams talks to Alexandra Petropoulos about her role as a storyteller

There’s nothing like a bit of good old-fashioned storytelling. If the stories are set to some of the funkiest beats this side of disco’s heyday, even better. And that’s exactly what London’s Ibibio Sound Machine deliver – tales full of colourful characters, like the cunning tortoise or proud peacock, that weave themselves around Afrobeat grooves, highlife guitar lines, a funky horn section and electronic dance beats for a fresh take on West African folk tales.

Two years ago, singer Eno Williams and saxophonist and producer Max Grunhard had decided to start a project using Williams’ mother’s language, Ibibio, from south-east Nigeria. They teamed up with producers Leon Brichard and Benji Bouton, and Ibibio Sound Machine was born.

Using the language as a starting point it was only natural that Williams was led to the art of storytelling. “It was a culture I grew up with,” Williams explains, “my grandmother especially; if she had something to tell you, she’d say it in a story.” When Williams started experimenting with different stories, and folk tales, she found that Ibibio lent itself to being sung. “It sounded quite rhythmic and musical… there’s quite a melodic sound to the language.”

Some of the stories Ibibio Sound Machine explore on their self-titled debut album include the cunning tortoise who, despite his craftiness, ends up with a cracked back. Or there’s the story of the girl Atim in the album’s hit single ‘Let’s Dance’ who, while going through her rite of passage, just wants to dance. Williams says that while the song is a feel-good dance tune, there’s a deeper meaning under the surface. “The community really doesn’t allow [Atim to dance] but she’s like, ‘I’m going to dance regardless.’ It’s like a liberation, throwing away all your woes, cares and troubles and just dancing.”

Williams doesn’t take her role as a storyteller lightly. “The way storytelling happens in [Ibibio] culture it is like passing down history and messages, so it feels like that baton has been passed to me and I’m now putting those stories to song.” And telling these stories to a new, modern audience required a fresh musical approach, mixing old and new into something that nods to past sounds but is always looking forward. Grunhard stresses that to help tell these stories, “you have to do something that captures people’s imagination. We’ve thought about it in terms of capturing the sounds from the past that were really great, but while trying to translate that into something that sounds fresh.”

Appropriately, you’ll find classic Afrobeat, vintage highlife, retro electronic, or even gospel on their debut. Yet among all the throwback sounds, there’s a modern sensibility in the mix – what Williams calls the “new sound of the future.” And an exciting future it is, if their debut is anything to go by.


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