Music Interview – Ibibio Sound Machine

I once had a music teacher who moved to Glasgow from Nigeria called Bryan. Bryan didn’t know anyone, so one year he came to our house for Christmas dinner. By 11pm that evening Bryan and my Uncle George (a musician in his own right) had established a bromance on astronomical levels: stuffed with turkey and high as two kites. George, a white, fat balding Plumber took the rhythm and Bryan, a skinny equally bald whippet of a man was the pidgin-English rhythm. I had never heard anything like it – until I heard Ibibio Sound Machine.

Of course, the two are totally different on many levels: there were no electronics or horns or signifiers of afro-funk in George and Bryan’s home-made musical musings, no production, no legible stories within. But the bare bones, the foundations, were of the same stuff –people coming from different sides of the world coming together to make something that sounds like happiness: uniting on the basis of a positive vibe and transcending limits of language, sound, energy; creating the sound of a good time.

When I told Ibibio Sound Machine’s front-lady Eno Williams this, she roared with laughter. ‘That’s amazing! That’s what it’s all about!’ she cries. ‘I would have loved to have been there!’

Ibibio Sound Machine have just released their third album, Doko Mien, a mere four years since their debut hit out ears. Fronted by Eno, the band has seven members: Alfred Kari Bannerman on guitar, Anselmo Netto on percussion, Jose Joyette on drums, Derrick McIntyre on bass, Tony Hayden and Scott Baylis on trumpet and synth and Max Grunhard on the sax. It’s a massive group whose origins are global in scale – from London to Nigeria to Ghana to Australia and Trinidad. Meshing together African, electronic, jazz and funk as a backdrop against Eno’s mix of Ibibio & English lyrics, ISM are an overwhelming sensual overload.

‘It sounds like a party’, Eno tells me. ‘it’s a collective effort: I write most of the lyrics, but every member adds their own style to it, whether its funk or afro. It’s totally flexible.’

‘The most important thing we try to put out is that positive vibe, giving people hope and a reason to dance and smile. The world is sombre as it is. Music has a way of lifting us up. It’s about keeping alive the positive message and putting that out there.’

Doko Mien is a record that even if you think you haven’t heard it, you recognise its sound when you sit to listen. Comprised of a mixed bag of tracks – huge fast paced belters, smaller and slower snippets of simple repeated lyrics, ever-expanding afro-jazz riffs – it would be a challenge not to dance along. I ask Eno if the constant dancing ever tires her out.

‘I do get tired. But the adrenaline gets you ready to go again. It’s fun but it is very intense, and sometimes I do get nervous. But once the adrenaline kicks in the nerves are good – our crowds are lovely.’

‘Live is so different from the record’ says Eno. ‘With Doko Mien we really wanted to touch on the live element: how do we keep the energy on the stage on the record? We’ve tried: obviously, we can’t capture all of it, but it’s deciding what works and what doesn’t.’

There are so many unique elements to ISM, from the mix of genres to the lyrics, which are largely in Ibibio or pidgin-English. ‘Music is a universal language, and I’ve found from listening to foreign language music where I don’t always understand what the song is about, there is a totally different draw.’

‘It felt more authentic to speak in Ibibio. I speak in Pidgin when I’m breaking things up, but the Ibibio language itself is so rhythmic. I keep English as a backdrop for what I’m singing about, when I want people to know. I want to write about the stories I knew as a child, it would be strange to do that in a language not Ibibio.’

Eno says that London has been a massive influence on the group. ‘The sound we have couldn’t have happened anywhere else than in London’ Eno says. ‘it’s such a cosmopolitan city, a melting pot of different cultures and people. I always say that we’re the united colours of music, being from all over, but London brought us together.’

Playing All Points East at the end of May, they’re heading to Edinburgh in July to play the Edinburgh Jazz Festival. ‘I just love it, I just love coming back’, Eno tells me. ‘Every time we play in Scotland…’ she trails off. ‘You guys love a party. It’s no holds barred, it’s just go for it. it’s so lovely to see that.’

Ibibio Sound Machine play Edinburgh Jazz Festival on 18th July.


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