Record of the Week: Ibibio Sound Machine’s ‘Electricity’

We forget what a loaded concept electricity is — that it’s transmitted through fragile and decaying power grids; that it’s produced in many different ways, some of them environmentally destructive; and that it’s the energy on which modernity has turned, with access coming much more slowly to certain places and peoples than others. Musically, too, electrification changed everything, made it possible to hear a singer’s subtle embellishments through a microphone, to amplify guitar playing into a pumped-up squall, to conceive of such cyborgian devices as drum machines and synthesizers.

Electricity is also the title of the fourth album from Ibibio Sound Machine, whose members found each other in London, that former seat of empire, but whose far-flung roots extend to once-colonized nations including Nigeria, Ghana and Australia. They’ve made music from a global perspective from the start, listening both within and well beyond their communities. And now more than ever, they’ve reimagined where power resides in the world, and what ways of knowing and creating and communicating deserve our most rapturous, undivided attention.

The group takes its name not only from Miami dance-pop outfit out of which Gloria Estefan emerged in the ‘80s, but also the native language of the South Nigerian people from which singing, songwriting front woman Eno William descends, and from whom she absorbed sly, enduring tales of moral wisdom. Over the course of these 12 new tracks, she puts to use the vast vocabulary she’s developed, flowing between Ibibio and English within the same song, and sometimes moving beyond known human language altogether, sharpening her words and cadences to minimalist, meaningful points.

With Williams’ ecstatic command and dramatic finesse, she’s a dance diva, a pop force, an incantatory, electronic visionary by turns, working in concert with her seven horn-, percussion-, guitar- and synth-playing band mates. They share an interest in maximizing the dynamic tension between rhythmically complex, regionally identified sounds — like Highlife guitar figures, Afro-Latin grooves, the Nigerian funk stylings of William Onyeabor — and mechanistic, electronic pulses that seem to point to no particular place except for the future. After self-producing previous projects, led by their sax and synth specialist Max Grunhard, they welcomed outside assistance for the first time; instead of enlisting an individual producer, they collaborated closely with an entire band, the English synth-pop outfit Hot Chip.

The result is an album that pushes Ibibio Sound Machine’s liberatory innovations even closer to the cutting edge of culturally knowledgeable and thoroughly cosmopolitan expression. Williams made the water drumming of the rural Baka women, who wade into rivers in small groups and slap and scoop the water at varying depths to generate polyrhythmic patterns, the percussive inspiration for the gospelly electro number “Freedom,” which feels like a futuristic meditation on foundational, handed-down insights. There is, after all, nothing the least bit nostalgic about the band’s engagement with the past. 

Over the taut dance-pop beat and Afrobeat horns of “Truth No Lie,” Williams conveys accessibly big ideas through her lean, staccato vocal lines. Her sumptuous repetition during the house music “Wanna See Your Face Again” draws together the profoundly different experiences of pining in isolation and escaping into the communal pleasure and physicality of the dance floor.

It’s during the title track that Williams brings hierarchical thinking down to earth with her unbounded ability to communicate. Over a relentlessly churning, Giorgio Moroder-esque synth pattern, in dynamic contrast with the slippery syncopation of the drum kit groove, she emphatically enunciates a list of concepts, nearly rhyming “electricity,” “emergency,” “equality” and “fiddle diddle diddle dee.” Then comes her knowingly delivered summation: “All these words/big, big English/big, big, grammar/All these words/mean so much to some people/To me, it’s all the same.” That’s her way of deftly differentiating between attempts at domination and truly life-giving power.  

On the Record: A Q&A with Eno Williams of Ibibio Sound Machine

Jewly Hight: Ibibio Sound Machine is such a rich embodiment of patterns of migration, the migration of people and of music. I know that you and your bandmates found each other in London and you each brought with you different knowledge, different musical knowledge, cultural knowledge, different traditions from Nigeria, Ghana, Australia, Brazil, the UK, other places. How did you find a collective identity as a group without losing the distinctness of those elements that you were bringing together?

Eno Williams: I mean, we’re all like based in London, but then we’ve got all different backgrounds and heritage and everything. And I mean, London being pretty much a melting pot, so much culture, so much music and just so much happening musically in London. So it was kind of almost true to form to be able to come together with all these different identities and different influences and different cultures and make music and still staying true to each other [with all of our individuality.

JH: You work with musical styles that are rooted in culture and place and with electronic elements that seem like they’re more of a time the future than they are of a specific place. Those could seem like disparate worlds. What kinds of possibilities for expression and for creativity and for ideas have you found between them?

EW: Yeah. I mean, when we started the whole project, it was pretty much a bedroom project, to be honest, and it was just toying with the idea of singing in the language that I got told a lot of stories growing up, in Ibibio language, which the language spoken by the Southern people of Nigeria. And I remember singing a few stories to our producer at the time, Max, who started working on the projects with me and he was like, “Oh, the ideas are quite rhythmic and very, very musical as well.” And then at the time, we were trying to put together this whole idea of marrying African music, the lyrics, with electronic sounds. And it was just a case of trying out different ideas. And we were able to pair them together and they just fit in nicely, like a puzzle, because we had [guitarist] Alfred [Bannerman’s] Highlife influence and then we had [percussionist] Anselmo [Netto’s] Brazilian influence as well. And then on the electronic side, we had like Tony [Hayden] and Scott [Baylis], who is a trumpet player and also plays keys and synth as well. Max was quite keen on exploring more electronic style of music as well. So all of that together combined, and then it just turned out to, you know, sound a little bit more futuristic. We felt like no one else had done it before. So we wanted to sort of stay true to the heritage, the culture, but also brings a kind of a newness to something that, you know, other people would have tried in so many other different ways and we wanted try and do it a bit differently.

JH: One really important piece of the origin of the band was your exploration of the rhythmic and tonal sophistication of the Ibibio language. You write songs in Ibibio or English or both. I know for this album, you even wrote one in a language that that sort of transcends known language, in tongues. And you’re so sensitive to what you say with your vocal delivery, how you sing the words too. How would you describe your artistic relationship to language? What does language mean to you?

EW: To be honest, language transcends music, and I think music in itself is a language. I’ve listened to a lot of songs that were in song in English, and I’ve been moved in so many ways, because I think is the connection with the language. Even though you don’t understand what the singer or what the music is all about, there’s that connection, because that’s what language is. Language transcends barriers, you know; you don’t have to understand, but then you can still connect somehow with the music. And I feel like with the Ibibio language because it’s quite rhythmic and quite musical as well, I guess that kind of put my ear in that space to be able to just kind of grow with the rhythm and just go with the flow of the music and just find whatever works with the music and the speaking in tongues. Because I feel like this is more of a spiritual thing. So you play the music and then you just go with what comes to mind.

JH: Electricity is the group’s fourth album. It’s also the first time you have fully welcomed an outside producer in, and not just an individual, but an entire band, Hot Chip. They know dance music. They know pop. What difference did it make bringing them into the process? What did it offer you?

EW: I mean, we’ve always known about their music and we’ve always been fans of their work as well. We’ve seen them play a few times at festivals here in the UK, and their sound is just like incredible. They’ve got this big presence with their sound, with this synth, with all the modular sounds as well. So it was quite an honor having the privilege and opportunity to work with them. Max, who’s also helped produce the album, had kind of put a lot of the stuff together. A lot of the material had kind of gone a fair way. And then we took it to them. The opportunity came up, and then they were able to just really just beef up and just bring their own feeling and flair to the project without losing, you know, the identity of our sound as well.

JH: You’ve called this album darker than your previous albums. You’ve explained that it was shaped by the times we’ve been living in. How do you feel like that comes across in the music?

EW: I mean, it kind of started on the darker side, because we were at the start of the pandemic when we started writing and it was just a case of not knowing what was happening. There was just this dark cloud over over the world. And the kind of emotions that we’re having at the time was just that cloud over everyone and that cloud over us and sort of trying to find a way forward, trying to find some light at the end of the tunnel. It kind of gradually progressed from there to more of a lighter sound towards the end, the more hopeful sounds. Because that’s just what we’re all about, trying to be that was positive force and that voice of hope. We hope that we’ll find the light at the end of the tunnel, hope that we’ll be able to see our loved ones again. We hope that there’ll be some kind of a spark that would bring things back full circle to the way things used to be. That is kind of reflected in a lot of the songs that we wrote.

JH: Once you put music out into the world, it’s simply going to connect with people however it’s going to connect with people. But as the creator of this music, how do you envision it being experienced?

EW: We’re really a live band. We get the audience involved and we always want the audience to be able to experience the joy, the hope and the energy of the sound as well. So whether someone is listening to it on the headphones, we want them to just imagine for a second, maybe escape to a dance floor and just feel that energy, feel that vibe, just feel the party with us, feel like they’re in the room partying with us as well. And you know, whether it’s the live show, we want them to experience that energy, that joy and the hope that music does to your mind and to your soul as well, because we believe that music is a healer. Music is something that makes you cry, that makes you happy, that makes you laugh, that makes you want to get up and dance. So when we’re writing, we’re just trying to sort of bring that hope, bring that energy, bring that positivity, especially to a world that is somewhat bleak right now.