Originally published for The Skinny March 2017 issue.
With the release of West African highlife powerhouse Ibibio Sound Machine’s new album Uyai due this month, we speak to the band’s dynamic frontwoman Eno Williams about her diverse creative influences
The Skinny: Where in the world are you just now?
Eno Williams: We’re in Pattaya, Thailand. There’s an odd vibe, lots of dodgy old man tourists but we’ve come out of town and it’s lovely. I’m sitting on a beach and it seems more like the proper Thailand. We were doing a festival called Wonderfruit. It’s very well run, I think Wilderness Festival has something to do with running it. It’s just been going a short time.
Your new album is out this month – can you tell us about it?
The album is called Uyai, which means beauty in my mother tongue, Ibibio. It’s not the obvious Western idea of beauty so much as referring to the beauty and strength of women in general. It extrapolates further to encompass the beauty of nature: the moon, the sea, even the process of making music. Lyrically, there are themes around this idea and particularly freedom and empowerment of women, and people in general. Musically, we delved further into electronic territory, which is what seemed to capture people’s imagination on our first album.
You’ve said it was a difficult journey completing the album. Why was that?
Well, there are more expectations with a second album. We particularly had more expectations of ourselves I suppose. Also, we had a couple of internal changes in the band which meant it was a more drawn-out process than usual, perhaps. But every album is difficult to make and is its own journey so that’s more significant.
What’s the story behind the lead single Give Me a Reason?
It’s about the Chibok girls that were abducted in northern Nigeria some years back – you may recall ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ [a series of protests prompted by the kidnapping of 276 female students by extremist group Boko Haram in 2014]. The story struck a chord and I was thinking, ‘Why can’t girls have the simple freedom to go to school?’ And on a greater level, ‘Why can’t we be free to be who we want to be?’ So I ask the question, ‘give me a reason’ – why not? It felt like a positive message, something that should be uplifting rather than melancholic.
Who did you work with on the accompanying video and what was the concept behind it?
We worked with a company called The Forest of Black from Glasgow. They were really cool; our label Merge had worked with them previously and suggested them. The director was called Ciaran Lyons and most of the visual concept was his idea. I guess the idea was to transmit the feeling of the song visually.
On the album, a lot of the songs are given their English titles and then their Ibibio translations. What were your initial reasons for wanting to sing in both Ibibio and English?
Our initial idea as a band was to try something with the Ibibio language but we also want people to understand what we’re saying. There is something we like about trying to communicate a message with words that the vast majority of people will not understand. It’s a challenge.
How would you describe traditional Ibibio music?
There is a lot of chanting, storytelling, as with most tribal languages. In later days, it had quite a highlife aspect to the sound, incorporating the popular styles of West Africa in the 20th century.
What’s your favourite Ibibio record?
My grandparents used to love dancing to a guy called Inyang Henshaw, who had a song called Kpong Me Yie Adesi. It was a funny track about being introduced to rice by Westerners. A lot of highlife tracks have topics that seem very funny or odd in the context of Western songwriting. I remember laughing about one highlife song that Alfred [Kari Bannerman], our guitarist, told me about that is from the perspective of a man asking a woman, ‘Why have you lost so much weight? You were so pretty when you were fat.’
What records or artists brought you together as a band?
We love all sorts of different stuff. A lot of 70s highlife, funk, and 80s stuff like Talking Heads and Grace Jones. We also get inspiration from people we meet in our travels and hear live: Jupiter and Okwess, The Comet is Coming, a trio we played with a while back called Peluché. It’s always a tough question as there are so many influences.
You get compared to Grace Jones quite a lot. What’s your favourite Grace Jones record?
Nightclubbing. I guess it’s just the one I connected with as a kid at a certain point. Obviously, she’s an icon and did things no one else before her had or since her has done. She opened the door for black female artists in a new way. The visual imagery was all part of her appeal, of course. I really couldn’t say I’m even a tenth of the artist she was though.
How much does fashion influence you personally and your music?
I love fashion, I try to incorporate that in what we do. I must give props to a very young designer in Berlin called Laura Lang – she designed the outfit on our album cover, she’s very talented. I tend to look about for people but we have had a couple of people asking to work with us and our music on occasion as well.
Who’s your favourite designer?
I always liked Alexander McQueen. I like the hips in his clothes; his stuff has a femininity about it. It reminds me somehow of our traditional Ibibio clothing, which emphasises the power of a woman’s middle. We have a dress called abang, which is like a hoop or cage skirt.
What’s your favourite record to dance to?
We recently did a mix for BBC 6 Music and I was enjoying Ohue by Victor Uwaifo. I was dancing to that when I was practicing for our video so I’ll say that as my current favourite.
What record always cheers you up?
African Woman by Baba Maal. I find it an empowering song that takes me back to my upbringing. I also find a lot of gospel very heartening.
What’s your favourite of your own tracks to perform live?
I like The Chant from our new album, we’ve just started doing it live. It actually features my mum doing a bit of speaking in tongues and I can’t wait to get her up to do that live.
What are you looking forward to most this year?
We’re trying to plan our first trip to the US at the moment and I’m really looking forward to playing there with the band for the first time.
Uyai is released on 3 Mar via Merge. Ibibio Sound Machine play Aberdeen Jazz Festival, 18 Mar & Band on the Wall, Manchester, 28 Mar.