Funky Folklore: An Interview with Eno Williams of Ibibio Soundmachine

What’s the first thing you think when you hear the music of Ibibio Soundmachine? Well, if you’re anything like us, it’s probably something along the lines of “Damn that’s funky,” followed in short order by “Took them long enough!” Delivering warm electronic grooves stuffed with interlocking rhythms and ridden hard by a bird-voiced vocalist, the band manages to combine the best parts of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads with the tonal palette of the Nigerian groups that blew Mr. Byrne’s rhythmic mind in the first place, not to mention a vision of disco that incorporates 12” fire from all corners of the Atlantic. The results–like the folk tales on which singer Eno Williams bases her lyrics–manage to be both timeless and utterly timely, fusing perfectly on the dance floor. Seeking a better sense of the sound, Afropop producer Sam Backer skyped with Eno from her apartment in London. 

Sam Backer:  Hello Eno! First off, I have to say–the album is really fantastic.

Eno Williams: Thank you so much! Glad you like it!

It’s really, really good…We’ve been playing it a lot in our offices.

That’s great! Hopefully we’ll be able to come out to New York soon and do a proper showcase. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that at some point.

That would be great. I bet you guys would kill here. 

[Laughs] It’s got great vibe to it–it’s really great energy, so we love it. It’s great live as well. I mean, we like the album. Hopefully you would like the live show as well.

On the liner notes to the album, or rather, in those two paragraphs that went out on the internet and get repeated over again, it says the project was started by producers. Can you flesh that out a bit for us? 

So basically the project was really started by myself, Max [Grunhard], Leon [Brichard] and Benji [Bouton]. Leon and Max are sort of the two main producers. Now myself and Max had been discussing the idea of trying to work on a record using my mother tongue, Ibibio, which is from the southeastern part of Nigeria. We had spoken about that fact that the language had been very little documented, musically, and that it would be interesting to try using that as a starting point.

Max was very keen on doing it, because he had just finished recording an album with Konkoma, which is also a Soundway project. So we started experimenting with some of the ideas I talked about, like folk tales and all. And then on the other hand, Leon and Benji had been working on some grooves. Max knows Leon from way back. Max heard the grooves and he thought, “Wow, this sounds really nice”–he just really liked it. And he played some stuff to me, and I really, really liked it too. So we all got together and decided to put something together! That’s how it started.

They basically put the rhythm section together, I came up with the vocals, referencing folk tales from my childhood in Nigeria. As I progressed with the lyrics, Anselmo Netto, who’s a percussionist, and Alfred “Kari” Bannerman, who’s the guitarist, their sounds became quite instrumental in finding the sound that we’re looking for. We wanted to find a sound that was not only retro, you know, looking back at the past of African music and Western rhythmic styles like funk and disco. So we wanted to find a sound that was more of today, and that’s where the electronic influence comes in. We’re surrounded by so many influences here in London, and most of the guys play keyboard, so on that level, different people contributed to the texture. We’ve got Tony Higgins on the Roland SH101 also becoming prevalent on the electronic side. It was a studio-conceived project, really.

And so, with so many influences in the band, you have lots of different cultures: Nigerian, Ghanaian, Brazilian, French, English and even Australian backgrounds. That’s the kind of mix you’d only find here in London, really. So that’s sort of how everything came together. The band is made of myself on vocals and we’ve got Alfred Bannerman on guitar, Anselmo Netto on percussion, Leon Brichard on bass and synth, and Benji Bouton on drums, and Jose sometimes on drums as well, and Max Grunhard on alto, Tony Hayden on trombone and synth, and Scott Bailies on trumpet. So that’s the full lineup.

Is the whole live-band lineup on the record?

Yes, pretty much. The whole lineup, except Jose, who subs for Benji, because Benji obviously played the drums on the record.

Can you talk more about the folk tales that influence your songs?

Yeah! It started first with one story that I heard. I think it was one of my late uncles that told it, every time we went to the countryside: It was the story of the tortoise actually, how the tortoise got its cracked back. How very cunning he was, inviting everyone to his father’s place for drinks and merriment and all, and then tortoise decides to tell everyone, all the other animals in the animal kingdom that they should all decide to change their names, and that he would also change his name to “Everyone,” which is the funny part. So they get to the palace, and every time they are offered something, he would be like, “Oh yes, I am Everyone,” so he ended up getting all the spoils, more or less. So the other animals got upset, and they decided to gang up and get back at him. So they stole the king’s prize jewelry and put it in the tortoise’s pouch. And the king came to look for it, and of course, the tortoise got beaten, and that’s how he got his cracked back. So that’s one of the folk tales.

And there was a another one about the prodigal son, that my grandmother told me a few times. And it was just the story of how a rich man had two sons, and one of them decided to take his inheritance and leave home, because he didn’t want to conform to the rules of the house. So he left home with his riches and wealth and went away and spent it all, and became penniless, and hoped that he could go back home, and hopefully his father would take him back. His father longed for him to come back one day, and then one day he returned, and his father was really happy, and so that was the moral of that. She was like, “Parents always forgive their children, even when they do silly things.” There’s so many of them, I could go on..

That’s interesting because the Prodigal Son, that’s a Christian story, right?

It is a Christian story, but funny enough, growing up, it was told to us before I actually realized it was a Christian story.

So you had all these stories that you knew. What made you decide to put them to music?

Well, to be honest, it was just a case of the whole melodic and rhythmic sound of the language. It just felt like the obvious thing to do, because music in itself is just storytelling a lot of times. So I figured I’d start from the point of stuff that meant a lot to me growing up. So all the stories I recalled, I felt like it would be nice to put them to music, just sharing what I heard as a child, and the morals of the stories and everything.

So are basically all the songs entire stories?

The majority of the songs are stories, and then some are just riddles, and sayings and advice. Saying of empowerment and things like that.

Did you grow up in Nigeria?

Yes, I was born in London, but I grew up in Nigeria.

So that back-and-forth has always been part of your life?

Exactly, yes.

I know you said that Ibibio culture hasn’t gotten much exposure, and there aren’t definitely aren’t many examples out there. Can you talk about the culture? About what it means to you?

The Ibibio culture, I mean growing up…. My grandparents and my mom, they spoke the English language, but culturally, they spoke the Ibibio language a lot, and when we were storytelling, that’s the language we were predominantly told stories in. Or, like being advised about something, it was always that. There was a lot of culture behind that. And growing up I remember going up to the countryside for the Christmas holiday, and it was very paramount at the time, because that’s when everyone would come home. If people were abroad, like, my uncles would come back home for the holidays. It was kind of a bonding time for everyone. The whole community would come together at that time, and everyone would share the stories of what they were doing in other parts of the world. And so it was of cultural significance and importance to get everybody together, to share their history and culture everything that makes them who they are really.

So they’d all come together and during that time everyone spoke Ibibio?

Yeah, they pretty much all spoke Ibibio, and they played, there was always a lot of highlife music, which was also recorded in Ibibio. Every dance, the women would come together and dance, and they would always dance to these songs. And [in preparation for the album]  I would listening to those songs again, to get some of the inflection, and make sure my rhythmic timing was right.

The phrasing is really interesting on the record.

It’s amazing because I spent a few months just listening, listening back to the language. Because there’s not a lot, also, not a lot of music documented anywhere in the language, but listening to those records, and going back and sort of reading the language again…. It made sense, because the language is kind of rhythmic. I remember a joke that I heard once, here in London. We’d gone out to a Chinese restaurant, and it was a bit funny how the language sounded a bit like Chinese, the musical tone of it.

Is it a tonal language?

I would say it’s quite a tonal language, the melody aspect of it, the lows and the highs.

I feel like it lets you ride the groove differently,

Yes, that’s exactly right. The music, the grooves came first, and it was kind of easy and pretty interesting how I was able to write the lyrics and fuse them to the groove. It almost fit like a puzzle, because the language allows you to do that really.

So, how much of the record, the vibe of the record, comes from the music you were listening to as a kid?

I would say, about, possibly 70%, and then of course the musical influences, the electronic stuff from the guys. Leon, for example, has a major influence from Talking Heads, and Max from Charles Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, doing the horn section and all that. And then, of course, you have Alfred, who was formerly with Osibisa, a Ghanaian and West African highlife vibe as well. And I remember, growing up, apart from the Ibibio language, there were people like Manu Dibango that we listened to a lot at home. Fela also, who we were not really allowed to listen to, because of the whole political vibe, but as I grew older, I came to appreciate the whole Afrobeat thing as well. And there were loads of people: Angelique Kidjo as well, Miriam Makeba, and then, of course, on the Western side, I was really drawn to funk and the disco. So that’s kind of where I leaned to get the more up-to-date and electronic influences.

It’s funny, I definitely heard Talking Heads on the record, which is cool, because they were listening to King Sunny Ade and…it just goes in circles! 

That’s right! King Sunny Ade and Shina Peters and everyone! It’s amazing. They say music is a universal language, and it’s so true, true to its form. You can imagine how the music of West Africa, and the music of America, and the music of Europe kind of, in a round circle, almost like a 360 degree cycle, come to almost influence each other.

I think it’s also interesting that you chose funk and disco for those other elements, because that was happening in Nigeria as well.

Exactly, at the time, yes. We had people like Odyssey. There’s a track by Odyssey that my uncles used to just kill. Every time there was a party they used to play it, and just wear it out, literally. “Going Back to My Roots” was one of them, and I listened to that, I thought, wow, this is interesting: the sound of back then, it’s become relevant now, pretty much.

That stuff is so well recorded.

Exactly. The tapestry, the way the music was written, arranged; the way the vocals tie together. Obviously it was done because people at that time had the passion and took the effort to do things right.

Before this, were you involved in other musical projects?

I did some stuff off the radar, just underground musical theater and different things. But this is the first major group that I’ve gotten involved in. I did a thing with Lionel Richie way back actually, when he came over. So I’ve just been doing different things behind the scenes. But like I said, this is the first real project.

How long has the band been playing live?

We’ve been playing live coming up on a year now.

And it’s been well received?

Yeah, it’s been really well received. We did our first show in France at Transmusicales in Rennes. There’s a video, you’ve probably seen online as well.

Yeah, I saw it. There’s a huge crowd!

It was really interesting how they received it. Obviously with the electronic side, it was clear that they were going to like it, but the fact that they really wandered to the language side of it as well. It’s quite intriguing, a lot of people have never heard it before. We are quite thankful and grateful that people are receiving it well.

And you think they’re really picking up on the language part of it?

They’re picking up on the language, and I try to get people to sing along on some little phrases, get them to get into the vibe of it.

And it worked?

Yeah, it worked! Everyone already knows “Let’s Dance,” so every time we play that, they get really excited. And the album hasn’t even come out yet! I mean the single’s out, but the album doesn’t even come out until the 17th of March.

You said before that you wanted to make sure it didn’t just sound vintage. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that.

Yeah. Making sure that it was of today. It’s just like everything now, you have your old school, you have the things that were there before, and you have your today sounds. I just wanted to make sure it was current and relevant. Sometimes when you hear music of yesteryear, you think, “Oh yeah, that’s really quite retro, that’s really old school.” But I wanted to make sure it was received well, and that people would get into the vibe, because it’s current. It’s the whole thing of making something sound current and sound fresh and new. Not just completely bringing something from way back, but also bringing a new sound, and a new vibe as well.

I thought that was really interesting, because, and I’m not sure if this is as true in London, but in the U.S. there are all these bands whose thing it is to sound almost perfectly retro.

Yes, exactly. I mean, it’s good to sound old school, but the old school was there for a reason. There’s a way things were done back in the day, and then there’s now, and you want to… it’s just like going into an apartment, how it would have been furnished in the 1940s, and you just like the look of it, because it was done in the 1940s, but then you kind of want to add the element of now, to keep it new, keep it fresh. Because, as much as we’re going back in time, we’re moving forward as well. The whole idea is: Moving forward, but taking a bit of the past, bringing a bit of the future and bringing a bit of the now, to bring that whole newness. Something different. “Wow, my goodness, this is a completely different ballgame.” That was the idea behind the whole project.

So what’s next for you guys after the album’s released?

Oh, we’ve got lots of dates lined up. We’re also already thinking about the second album. Here in March, we have a few BBC radio appearances. In April, we have festivals in Paris. In May we’ve got Brighton Festival. In June we’re in Sweden. In July we’re in Switzerland. So we’ve got tours already lined up. We’re doing the big WOMAD festival here in July. So there’s lots of things already happening. We’ve got a great team behind us. So we’re thankful to God for that. We’ve got a great management team, a great record label as well, in Soundway. So we’re quite thankful. The future is looking quite bright for us. We can only be thankful, and keep working!

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!

Thank you Sam, really appreciate it! It was nice talking with you, too!

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