Sound studio

How Roller Skating, Chintzy Keyboards and Coconut Rice Inspired Ibibio Sound Machine’s Exuberant New Album

Over the past two years, Eno Williams has discovered enough new hobbies to fill an average-sized recreation center: roller skating, tennis, textile design, custom lamp making. This is in addition to his role as the charismatic frontman of eight-piece London dance group Ibibio Sound Machine, whose high-energy tracks fuse elements of contemporary electronic and British club music with classic Afrobeat and highlife. It’s a deeply personal cross-cultural connection for Williams, who was born in England and moved as a child to join his family among the Ibibio people of southeastern Nigeria, before returning to London as a young adult.

The group’s spectacular fourth album, Electricity, was produced alongside members of Hot Chip, who helped the Sound Machine harness an even more powerful and emphatic presence on disc. Their thundering synths now feel like they have their own gravitational field, and Williams’ voice sounds like it’s coming from the top of a mountain. It’s music that invites a crowd to gather in celebration – that’s exactly what’s been the hardest thing to find over the past two years.

Working in London in Spring and Autumn 2020, Ibibio Sound Machine has been deeply affected by the tumult of the year: first the isolation of the pandemic lockdown, then the collective grief and international protest sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Williams’ lyrics tackle these heavy topics obliquely, but they’re never far from the surface. On the title track, she weighs the relative importance of watchwords like “equality” and “urgency” against the true universal language: love.

Subliminal messaging is a specialty of Ibibio Sound Machine. Since Williams often writes lyrics in Ibibio, a localized language even in Nigeria, the band spent years thinking about how best to communicate with audiences unlikely to literally understand their lyrics. At Electricity, the message is one of irrepressible optimism in the face of galvanizing challenges. “For any normal person, after a while you think, I can’t go on anymoreWilliams says in a video call. “So our mandate was just to hope, to try to find that inner strength.”

Here, Williams and Ibibio’s musical director and saxophonist, Max Grunhard, discuss the people, instruments and creative distractions that helped them keep making Electricity.


Roller

Eno Williams: During lockdown, a friend of mine said to me, “I should probably start rollerblading. I was like, “I’m probably too old for that. If I fall and break my hip, it’s over. I had never tried it before. But I bought skates and watched some videos on YouTube. I went to the park and came across a skate community there, and everyone was so supportive. Whenever I had some free time outside of writing and doing other things, I was like, “I’m going to practice. I was going back and forth, back and forth, and I was getting rid of the fear. And then I really got into it and started enjoying it. I’ve been going there ever since.