Ibibio Sound Machine at MRG30

Saturday, July 27

11 p.m., $65

Musically speaking, the London-based Afropop highlife band Ibibio Sound Machine is a fascinating anomaly on an indie rock-centered label like Durham’s Merge Records. But when you consider the label’s recent history of accentuating female-fronted bands and generally advancing more experimental sounds, it makes sense for Merge to be home to ISM, a band fronted by the versatile Eno Williams, who was born in London and raised in Nigeria. 

On the eight-piece band’s third and latest release, Doko Mien, Williams pilots party vibes that swerve from electro-funk jams in her native Nigerian Ibibio language (“Wanna Come Down”) to gentle kickback ballads (“Guess We Found a Way”) sung in English. In a post-Sharon Jones world, the prevalence of funk divas such as Williams can’t be emphasized enough, and the current crossover appeal of “Afrofusion” (i.e. Davido, Burna Boy, and the recent The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack, which was executive produced by Beyoncé and features tracks from several prominent African pop artists) is helping propel ISM’s appeal. 

On Saturday night, in a rare U.S. appearance, the outfit helps its labelmates close out the MRG30 festival at Cat’s Cradle. Ahead of the trip, Williams chatted with the INDY from her home in London about signing Merge, women’s liberation, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

INDY: You’re the only band of its kind on Merge. What was it about the label that made you want to work with them? 

ENO WILLIAMS: I think it was a two-way thing, really. Even though they’ve never really put out anything like what we do, they believed in what we do and we got the vibe that they believed in what we were trying to bring to the label. And looking at their past of having female-backed bands that were very successful, we felt very at home with them. 

How has the label helped with familiarizing Afropop with a U.S. crowd? 

It’s slowly changing. Afrobeat culture is coming to the forefront now. It’s picking up. 

How would you explain highlife music to those who may be unfamiliar with Afrobeat and its offshoots?  

It originates from West Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana. It’s just a different time register with how the music sounds. The guitar playing, the percussion, and the rhythm section is more of a laid-back sound. It’s jazzier and more folky.

For those who may not understand the Ibibio language, the vibrancy of the songs still resonate. Is there some sort of rhythmic advantage to writing and singing in Ibibio versus English?

Yeah, it’s supposed to do that. Music is quite universal in that way. I remember when we started the project and just thinking about the emotional connectivity that was there even though we were writing in Ibibio from the get-go. We wanted to stay authentic, but also the Ibibio language is very musical. It wouldn’t have the same depth if it were translated. 

You’ve talked about a “cultural resistance to women fronting bands.” In what ways do you think ISM has helped combat that? 

Well, I think that the fact that I’m a woman fronting a band that’s made up of mostly guys, people think, “Oh wow, you’re doing that as an empowerment thing.” It’s not the norm that I’m a woman fronting a band and singing in the Ibibio language. It’s liberating. But I would like to see more of that moving forward.  

If your first album Uyai addressed women’s liberation and representation, what would you say is the theme of Doko Mien?

The overall theme is truth-seeking. It’s about asking questions and seeking answers. From listeners’ point-of-view, it’s about telling me what you’re feeling, telling me what you’d like to hear, or just telling me what you want me to do. But it’s still about women’s liberation and giving women the chance to be heard. 

Oftentimes, with highlife and Afrobeat, a song’s message may get lost in the euphoria of the groove. Is that something that you worry about? 

The thing with the Ibibio language in itself is that the language is all about storytelling and the music is all about storytelling as well. Especially with this album (Doko Mien) we tried to incorporate a little bit of the English language as well—either in a verse or the chorus to create a little bit of backdrop to what the song is actually about. But of course, we do get caught up or carried away with the groove of a particular beat. 

Your music has often been described as being on the pop-side of highlife and Afrobeat. Is that something that bothers you or do you see it as beneficial for the band’s reach? 

I think it depends on how the listener digests music. There are a lot of highlife elements to the music, but it’s also very electronic. If people think that it’s more poppy, it’s probably because they can easily dance to it or sing along to it. But I wouldn’t get offended, no. 

You closed out Doko Mien with “Basquiat.” How does his art inform your music? 

We were asked to do that song for an exhibition last year here in London, and everyone loved it, so we decided to put it on the album. I really got interested in how different and unique he was and how he got everyone’s attention by doing things his own way. It plays into what we’re doing as well. 

Comment on this story at music@indyweek.com.

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