Music from outside of the West has the power to give a voice to those who are not so often heard in our own musical spheres. The music of the Malian Tishoumaren band, Tinariwen, for instance, has shone a light on the political strife of the Tuareg people, particularly with the critical and commercial success of their latest album, Elwan. On Ibibio Sound Machine’s self-titled debut from 2014, on top of the floor-filling, Afrobeat-influenced, funky dance grooves could be heard frontwoman Eno Williams’ celebration of the band’s heritage amongst the Ibibio people of southeast Nigeria. With the group being based in London, whilst pulling heavily from many Western musical stylings, such as from the early British electronic and post-punk scenes, the music of Ibibio Sound Machine was an homage not solely to their own culture, but also to the marriage of various cultures through the means of their musical customs. As such, the sound of their first album was as rich as the cultures that the band were pulling from, incorporating ideas that spanned across electronic music, funk, disco, post-punk, psychedelic music, Afrobeat and a whole host of other stylistic persuasions. Despite such vast inspirations being put on display, the end product was rather straightforward in its appeal, with the group pumping out danceable beats performed with vibrant, live electronics and Williams’ beautiful singing as the cherry on top. Ibibio Sound Machine’s new, sophomore record, Uyai (meaning ‘beauty’ in Ibibio), seems to retain the same objective as its predecessor, but the group nevertheless have proven themselves to have honed their sound considerably, as to make their eclectic stylings even more accessible than on their debut. Whereas their first album required some examination and contemplation to fully appreciate, Uyai is far more upfront, exhibiting its energy and its beauty in a noticeably bolder manner than its precursor. Therefore, not only is Uyai sure to please the critics that had lauded Ibibio Sound Machine on their previous studio effort, but it will also likely see a surge in commercial success for the group, courtesy of the far-reaching appeal that can be found in its multi-faceted sound.
The album’s opener and lead single, Give Me a Reason, epitomises the broad appeal of Ibibio Sound Machine on Uyai. The disco beat paired with Williams’ fiery vocal performance makes for a quirky, danceable groove that provides the foundation for the song, before it breaks out into the electronic ear-candy of the next section, which features a buzzing synth bass, a synth line that could have been pulled straight from an early Gary Numan track and some searing guitar leads to boot. Williams’ vocals teeter between ecstatic shouts and soulfully smooth sung sections, with the singer not moving an inch as the ringleader of the dynamic disco-fest. The next portion of the composition sees an abrupt shift from the EDM stylings of the verse section towards a funk-orientated approach, making use of a fluttering bass line, clicky, percussive guitars and some bright horn melodies. These two worlds collide with spirit and energy during the hook, as Williams leads an impassioned chant of the song’s title, still maintaining a Nigerian inflection to her voice as she sings in English for the first time on the track. As if Give Me a Reason couldn’t get any more lively and eccentric, the hook is followed by a percussive instrumental break, which applies not solely African rhythmic concepts, but also some percussive stylings that are reminiscent of forms of traditional Latin music, with the peppy whistles being evocative of a festival in the streets of Brazil. Ibibio Sound Machine really pull out all the stops on Give Me a Reason, with the end product being more worthy of the label ‘floor-filler’ than any other song I’ve heard this year.
The second song in the tracklisting, The Chant (Iquo Isang), expands Ibibio Sound Machine’s exploration of various sounds and musical stylings further, incorporating everything from traditional Nigerian chanting to a jazzy saxophone towards the end. With regards to the singing, The Chant (Iquo Isang) references the musical customs of the Ibibio people to a greater extent than almost any other song on Uyai, and yet the upbeat disco-funk vibe to which it is applied makes it incredibly accessible, and it doesn’t sound out of place one bit. There are, however, other songs on this album that place a particularly strong emphasis on the vocals, but with Williams’ singing being much more conventional for an English dance album. The Pot Is on Fire, for instance, sees Williams’ vocal performance take centre stage, as the singer comes through with one of her most infectious melodies on the record, but is nevertheless far more typical of Western music, with it not being difficult to imagine her vocals here appearing on a track from The Prodigy, particularly given the lyrical topic. Joy (Idaresit) applies a myriad of different sounds and stylings to Ibibio Sound Machine’s disco roots. The punchy bass line that provides the foundation for this track has a slight post-punk air to it, but nevertheless marrying it with a dance structure that creates an atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of New Order. The squeals of synthesizer embellishments decorate the piece with a more modern dance vibe, whereas the soulful horn section is suggestive of bands who sought to merge disco music with funk and soul. Indeed, Joy (Idaresit) incorporates a large amount of influences primarily from the Western world, which contrasts greatly with the succeeding cut, Power of 3, which brandishes a rhythmic structure evocative of Malian desert rock, particularly when paired with the clean, blues-inspired guitar lines. Ultimately, the diversity that is evident on Uyai is incredibly impressive, largely as a result of the success with which Ibibio Sound Machine incorporate so many ideas in such an explosive fashion. Whilst the listener will undoubtedly pick up a whiff of another artist or a specific music scene in the titbits of these songs, the product as a whole comes together as a sound that is completely the group’s own. Indeed, every single track on this album could be heavily scrutinised, dissected and analysed to reveal all manner of varying concepts pulled from a diverse pool of musical idioms, but they are applied in such a way as to not sound even faintly tired or rehashed, rather the end product is refreshing, dynamic and, above all else, incredibly enjoyable.
The salient success of Ibibio Sound Machine on Uyai is the command and expertise with which they join the sonic stylings of both their homeland and their country of residence. The music on this album is so rich and so vibrant as a result of the knowledge, awareness and dexterity that the group display when handling the foundational influences and styles that they are dealing with. Despite all the various genres with which the band flirt, they never lose a sense of accessibility or danceability in these songs, nearly all of which wouldn’t feel at all out of place in an English nightclub. That’s also not to say that these tracks are any less entertaining listened to on the sofa, as opposed to on the dance floor, as there is so much going on here, with these compositions being so textured and so colourful, that it would be a shame to solely enjoy the danceable beats and not take notice of the gorgeous instrumentation and impressive musicianship. On these grounds, Ibibio Sound Machine are not solely one of the most prominent acts to be working in the world music sphere currently, but they are also a pinnacle amongst dance artists, leading the way when it comes to innovating the genre past its fundamental themes. Ultimately, Uyai stays true to its name, being a thing of beauty that is multi-faceted both in its assembly and the ways in which it can be appreciated, through earphones or through a DJ’s speakers.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10