Ibibio Sound Machine Bring Nigerian Joys and Struggles Into the Club

Ibibio Sound Machine's infectious sophomore album, "Uyai," which means "beauty" in Ibibio, is a triumph.

Ibibio Sound Machine. Dan Wilton

The Statue of Liberty went dark last night. The National Park Service attributed it to a power failure; the rest of the world took it as an homage to National Women’s Day. Where can we find similar statements of subversion in the music that we listen to, and who’s helping us get there?

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Art and culture offer many avenues to share the stories of injustice or inequality, but seldom does the relatively young electronic music culture in America ever seek to leverage its oversaturation and ubiquity with a salient story or message of protest. You’ll find all of those things joyously alive in Ibibio Sound Machine, though, a London-based band focused on retelling the stories and traditions of Southeastern Nigeria’s Ibibio people through an intersection of London club beats with words and rhythms inspired by ’70s Nigerian Highlife jazz.

A syncopated line of horns and guitars that evolved from its initial aristocratic associations with colonial subservience to champion ideas of Pan Africanism, Highlife began in Ghana, but soon spread to Nigeria when legends like Sunny Adé’ and Fela Kuti came to champion the sound for their own people. Brought together by an emerging, empowering philosophy of unity, the music was a grand unifier.

Fronted by the brazen Eno Williams, Ibibio Sound Machine’s infectious sophomore album, Uyai, which means “beauty” in Ibibio, is a triumph.

Uyai finds Williams sharing stories she learned as a young girl, channeling the joys of coming together over a meal and recalling a meeting that her grandfather had with a colonial reverend into danceable affirmations of exuberance.

But Williams also sings of more modern trials that echo her larger concerns—lead single “Give Me a Reason” looks at Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 Chibok girls as an example of a larger question about the functions of society—“As the story goes, they got sent to a house of wisdom/To learn all that the world can offer/But on setting out, they got lost.”

I spoke to Williams recently about the power of storytelling and chanting, the umbilical cord between London and Africa, and her understanding of colonialism as it affected the life’s work of one of Nigeria’s most enigmatic musicians.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZO769KQ_skE]

You’ve described the sounds that you make as a blending of Nigerian Highlife music and London club music. There’s a stigma about club culture, the hedonism, the decadence. Are you injecting some morals or cultural lineage back into the London club scene with these fables and stories from Africa? What’s the intention of the merging?

The intention is just to bring more positive, joyous energy back into the music. The storytelling aspect of it has a morale to it over the years that comes from passing down stories and traditions. But the main backbone of the music is all about joy, positivity and beauty in everything that we do, in nature and the process of making music, as well. So I wouldn’t say we’re trying to associate with that kind of stigma.

But it’s hard to exist outside of that stigma, too, right? Highlife in its early years, I mean, Fela’s first band still had shades of being political. And Sunny Ade brought Pan Africanism out through song, music tied to a movement. But then I hear a Nigerian artist like William Onyeabor, who embraced colonized, Christian concepts of God and wonder, what do you make of that difference? How can you separate yourself from the politics? Isn’t joy a political statement in of itself right now?

Joy is the state of mind, I think, that our music is trying to get everyone uplifted despite all that is happening around us. I wouldn’t say it’s political so much as a place where we all aspire to be, and I hope our music carries that message across.

“The more you say something, the more you sing about it, the more you chant, inevitably it transcends, resonates and comes through.”—Eno Williams

Can you unpack the stories or lessons on this record through the stories that are handed down?

“One That Lights Up (Andi Domo Ikang Uwem Mi)” kind of talks about the person that lights up your world.

I tried to translate it and it gave me “weighing the fire of life.”

Yeah, then we’ve got “The Pot is on Fire,” this talks about a happy place. When the pot is on fire the food is being served and something is cooking, something is brewing, it will be ready soon. “Give Me A Reason” is about the girls who got taken a few years ago by Boko Haram. That lays out a moral question of why girls can’t be free to have an education. It kind of looks at the bigger picture of freedom, just laying that moral ground, the power of freedom and the power of dance, which gives us that freedom as well.

What was your take on that whole tragedy from across the pond? Do you think the Nigerian government could have done anything different? That’s the thing about terrorism, I guess, you can’t foresee it.

Yeah, you can’t foresee these things, but when it happens you have the opportunity to lend a voice, to beg a question, to shout about it so that something can be done. A lot of people did something about it, but even as we speak people are still trying to find answers and get this resolved. So it’s the kind of thing where you keep reminding and speaking about something until something happens, until something gets done. Which also goes back to being free. In the world today, society dictates how we should be or what we should be doing.

Eno Williams onstage with Ibibio Sound Machine. Renan Peron

Even asking that question in today’s political climate, where we have Trump and you have Brexit, is a subversive act. You put something in the air.

Yeah, I believe in the power of positive thinking. Psychologically, when you put something in the air or into the universe, as some people say, or pray to god, you believe that there will be change. It’s a very African concept, people being joyous regardless of what they’re going through, regardless of what life might put them through. They have to still be hopeful, still be happy, still be positive.

There’s two narratives around that positivity. The racist, reductive read suggests that such positivity is somehow passive or a remnant of colonized submission, you know? I think it ties into an American stereotype of freed slaves singing and being happy to transcend their circumstances.

Then there’s the other reality, which is that Gilberto Gil and and Tom Ze and several other Brazilians were channeling the music of the African diaspora through South America when they created some of the most lasting protest music of all time through Tropicália. And then of course Fela, but Witch in Zambia, too. How do we curb that other narrative and educate people who aren’t personally connected to certain cultures that prayer is not passive, that positivity is not an act of resignation? How do we change it?

We always have to believe in the power of the positive mind. Some people might believe in prayer and some might not, but every day we walk around we say positive things just to channel a good mindset. It’s like a mantra, the more we give ourselves that mantra the more we carry ourselves through. It might look as bleak and worrying, but we just have to keep the faith. The more you say something, the more you sing about it, the more you chant, inevitably it transcends, resonates and comes through.

“There’s also a strong colonial tie to West Africa, so there’s that umbilical cord.”

Why do you think that U.K. artists have been able to channel “world” music and indigenous music so much more faithfully than U.S. artists, then liberate it from the stigmas associated with global sounds? Even a white guy like Giles Peterson seems to sample tracks with so much more respect and so little appropriation.

We’re probably just closer to that side of the world and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s all about musically embracing everything that resonates a kind of power or vibe. There’s also a strong colonial tie to West Africa, so there’s that umbilical cord. We’ve been joined by the cord to colonialism, if I daresay, and that kind of gives it that backbone so we’re able to embrace that more than other parts of the world.

It’s a backbone and a cultural conversation, really tying into the idea of Pan Africanism as a movement. I asked Sinkane about going to visit William Onyeabor in Enugu, where everyone was walking around with Bibles, and was trying to understand how Onyeabor took his maybe more philosophical ideas of God and energies into such a religious, dogmatic interpretation later in life. Can you help me interpret that shift through the frame of colonialism, or is that unfair?

To be honest, it’s so funny. One of our songs reminds me of an anecdote I remember as a child, about a meeting between my grandfather and an English reverend. They’re sort of discussing their different spiritualities. Of course there’s the spiritual aspects of praying to deities, and then the whole Western concept of the father God, the son and the holy spirit.

The explanation between the two is, yes, there are all these deities in supernatural existence, and there’s nothing wrong with your deities, but if you were to add the father, son and holy spirit, these are more powers that are even stronger. So the marriage of that has become the path in Nigeria, where yes, everybody prays, everybody carries a Bible.

From William Onyeabor’s point of view, of course, someone having such talent with all that electronic mix so early on in his life when people weren’t introduced to that was a gift that was bestowed to him. So he kind of found a way before most other people found a way, and through the process, he possibly got a closer relationship with God.

But of course, he was very eccentric in character, and gave us something we look back to. Back then it was a sort of a futuristic thing, and laid a template for music that was going to come after. So I think he did create a futuristic sound from a spiritual point of view as well. The marriage of the fact that there’s the whole spiritual, deity aspect of African culture with the Western aspect mixed in to create what he created and left behind for us.

I’m also understanding this duality in the Ibibio religion between the God of heaven and the God of Earth as very profound, but also very thematically connected to Christian concepts that were introduced much later.

Very, very clearly, because I do remember the fact that the priests and a lot of people introduced Christianity to Africa. I wouldn’t think it was a mistake, and even though it had to do with colonialism, it ended up as an introduction to see us through. Now a lot of people have a lot of faith and hope for the future, even with all that’s going on now.

Ibibio Sound Machine Bring Nigerian Joys and Struggles Into the Club