Jo Whitehead talks folk tales and musical histories with the pioneering Eno Williams, front woman of Ibibio Sound Machine
Eno Williams is early. I’m due to meet the style icon and front-woman with eclectic African/electronic fusion band Ibibio Sound Machine, as she and the band prepare for their performance at Shakespeare’s Globe. This will happen in the candlelit intimacy of their Jacobean-style Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, as part of the Wonder Women gig series taking place over the summer. Curated by BBC Radio 6’s Lauren Laverne, the season aims to celebrate powerful, exciting and visionary women in pop music.
It makes absolute sense that Laverne selected Ibibio Sound Machine for inclusion in this. The eight-person strong band exploded into our cultural consciousness in 2014 with the energetic single ‘Let’s Dance (Yak Inek Unek)’, followed by their self-titled debut album. Signed to the respected Soundway Records label, Ibibio Sound Machine fuse elements of highlife and classical African music, with more contemporary electronic and jazz influences. Many of their lyrics are in the Ibibio language native to south-east Nigeria and focus on traditional folk tales, often with a moral, yet entertaining message.
I arrive at our meeting place, perspiring heavily, after racing through the busy and muggy London streets. In contrast, Eno is composed, polite and resplendent. Born in London, brought up in Nigeria and now based in London, her warmth immediately puts me at ease.
After some initial hilarity and much needed clarity around what the ‘F’ in The F Word actually stood for – “I don’t even swear!” – Eno and I talked about her career in music, inspirations and plans for the future.
I understand that you began singing in a local gospel choir…
Yes, I used to be in a gospel choir: a local church gospel choir called Tribe of Judah. I did that for a while and then one thing led to another and I ended up going on the road, on a cruise, funnily enough.
Yeah – I had my first job on a cruise shop and I loved it! I think that’s where I got my stage/performing experience, apart from my gospel background, of course. I then did sessions for a bit and then came back to London and was working with some friends – the guys who are in the band now – and I always had this idea in mind that it would be nice to do something original, something authentic, something different and unique. I remember back in the day, my grandmother used to tease me and say, “You sing all these beautiful songs so well. When are you ever going to sing in Ibibio?”, which is my mum’s native language and my grandmother’s language as well. Then we would joke about it and say, “Who is ever going to understand Ibibio?” I used to think it wasn’t global enough, but she said, “Well, music is universal. It’s a universal language.” And I was like, hmmm!
And then funnily enough, I was talking to Max, who is the producer on the record we’re currently doing, and just telling him about the stories that I got told as a child – all the morals and values and everything – and I started singing a line about the cracked back tortoise and how he got his cracked back and he was like, “Oh, the language is so rhythmic, it’s so musical”. I explained that these were just stories we were told. So, we thought we should just make something out of it and develop it. And one song became twelve songs and we went into the studio with a few of his friends, Leon and Benji, who are also the producers of the first album. And then Alfred, who’s like the high life king – he came along and put a bit of high life spin on it.
And, then we had Anselmo Otto; I remember going to Anselmo’s house – he’s a Brazilian percussionist – and he played something on the talking drum. The talking drum is more from the southern part of Nigeria – the Yoruba guys tend to play this in their music. It’s just so earthy – it just hits you right at the centre of your heart. There’s no words, just a drum. There’s something really deep about it and I remember him just playing and I thought [gasps]: how the heck did you learn to play that? And, then he starts saying about how his grandmother is Yoruba and he has ancestry from Nigeria and I was, like, wow!
So, all the pieces started coming together. And, then Tony and Scotty who are more electronic based – they’ve got that electronic vibe – and then the whole jazz vibe came in and everything just came together like a puzzle. So, it went from something I just thought about doing to wondering if anyone would even dig it or get it, to doing it. And, here we are today! It’s become something quite unique and people are interested in it. I guess that because it’s different, people have really got into it.
I’m so glad you did! I remember the first song I heard, ‘Let’s Dance’, and thinking what an amazing, eclectic mixture of sounds it was.
There’s actually a deep story behind that song, believe it or not! It concerns a girl who has been violated and, because of where she was from, they were like: “Oh well, since you were violated, you’re not allowed to do the maiden dance. You don’t qualify.” This is a rite of passage in the Ibibio culture, whereby the girls have to do a dance. But, the girl was like, “Well, I’m gonna defy the odds. Whether or not I ‘qualify’, I’m gonna do the dance!” So she gets all her friends and comrades and says, “Right, let’s dance!” and they all walk down to the river, chanting – like a feminist chant, so to speak! – and that’s her way of liberating herself and saying, “I’m a woman, so I have a right, regardless of my past.”
I understand your songs are inspired by Ibibio folk tales you were told as a child. Who told you these stories and does that oral tradition continue now?
The stories were told to me by my Mum, grandmother, aunties and uncles. If you were doing something and they wanted to correct you and say, “You know, you shouldn’t be doing that”, there would always be a story! “This happened to that person because of that” – and immediately you would know: OK – that’s right – that story has a reason behind it. It’s funny because now I’m a grown woman and speak to my nieces, I still refer back to those stories, and then I think: “Oh my – I’m becoming like my grandmother and mother!” [laughs].
So, it does continue!
[Laughs.] It was just part of the richness of that culture, the values and morals and everything. It just meant that even if you left home – borders and everything – wherever you were in the world, you could always take those values with you and they could continue to shape you as a human being.
That’s lovely. And what do your nieces think of it?
Sometimes they make fun of me and say, “Auntie’s gonna go in her African voice, now – watch, watch, watch!” [laughs].
We’ve been going back and forth to Nigeria quite a lot and, of course, they’re seeing the difference between London and Nigeria. I told them a story about going to school back in Africa. It’s the same in some ways but, in other ways, it’s so different! I mean, time management: back in school, the alarm went off at 5am and you got up and had to go and get water to get a bath or a shower, but then you had to work on the clock. I say to them [my nieces], “Well, your school’s not too far away, you’ve got breakfast on the table and you can hop on the bus and get to school”, but they just laugh at me and say it isn’t true. But that was the reality! Now, it’s all phones and iPads and Pokémon Go! [laughs] There was none of that! You were self-sufficient. We had the bare necessities.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? What does this mean to you?
For me, a feminist is a strong woman, someone who has values and believes in something. On the other hand, some people think a feminist is a troublemaker – someone that takes a placard and goes outside and speaks for a cause. If you have to be the one to speak up for someone else, I say do it. I don’t see it as a negative thing to be a feminist.
I remember doing a play with Eve Ensler back in the day. One of her plays was actually giving a voice to something that had actually happened in the Congo – the whole sex slavery thing and the genital mutilation that had happened in Kenya. That was something that I was really, really happy to put my voice to, because when someone like that is bringing stories from across the world to raise people’s awareness [that’s good]. She’s labelled a feminist, but it’s in a good way. She was trying to put a stop to [violence] and say, hey, listen up, these things are happening.
I’m happy to be labelled a feminist, but for good reasons and a good cause!
The Wonder Women series that’s currently taking place at The Globe exists to support talented and exciting women in the music industry. Which women inspire you?
Oh, gosh – the list is endless. My mum, of course, my grandmother, my sisters. In music, I would say that I used to look up to Whitney Houston a lot, back in the day, before she passed away. People like Angélique Kidjo and Onyeka Owenu. We listen to everything from western music to African music…Aretha Franklin, all the gospel greats. Every woman that has paved the way is my hero.
I remember watching Angélique Kidjo’s video – I must have been about nine or ten years old – and I was like [gasps] – an African woman? Back then, in Nigeria, there were a few artists, but there weren’t that many crossover artists, on a global stage. Angélique Kidjo was the only one at the time – Sade as well, who was more contemporary, you know, pop rock.
Which musicians are you currently listening to?
There are so many. Oh my gosh! Laura Mvula? I love Laura Mvula. Angélique Kidjo! Alicia Keys…I listen to Beyoncé, too – I like a bit of girl power [laughs]! I’ve kind of got into Eska’s material, lately – she’s a UK based artist. I like Cuban and Latin music as well, a bit of classical sometimes, and then all the African stuff, like Baba Maal…[looks at playlist on phone]. Pharrell! And ESG! And Cecilia Cruz.
What next for Ibibio Sound Machine?
That’s always the big question!
Yes, there is pressure, to be honest. As with creating anything, you want to surpass yourself, you want to do better than the last project. We’ve been putting things together for the new project, so we should have a new album out very, very soon, which is exciting. I can say that now, as we’ve now finished the second album, so I guess I can say watch this space! Big times ahead. You heard it here first!
Is this an exclusive?!
[Laughs.] Over the last year, we’ve just been saying, “watch this space, watch this space”, as we’ve just been working, trying to get things going, so, yeah. We’ve done the first album. It was received well, thanks to all the fans, thanks to Lauren [Laverne] for supporting us as well. Now, we’re hoping that we can do better than that, so now we say, “God please – in your hands now.”
Good luck with it all! How are you feeling about Monday night?
I’m excited! I’m really excited. We normally play festival crowds and more dance, so it’s going to be really exciting. In a candle-lit room – mellow vibe, mellow environment – so we’ve tailored the show to, hopefully, fit the space. But, hopefully, we’ll still be able to get that energy and that dancing vibe and get people lifted and happy and dancing and ready to have a good time.
Ibibio Sound Machine perform in the Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe on Monday 8 August 2016
For more information about Ibibio Sound Machine, check out their website here
The video embedded in the middle of this article shows multiple images of Eno Williams dancing in front of a blank background.
The image shown at the top of this article is an upper body shot of Eno Williams in front of a grey background. This contrasts beautifully with the multicoloured top she wears, which is embellished with feathers and beads. She holds a keyboard under her right arm and appears to be clicking her fingers with her left hand.