I first encountered Ibibio Sound Machine last year when they appeared on Later with Jools Holland, although they have been around a bit longer with their debut album Ibibio Sound Machine being released in 2014. They immediately induced memories of some of the great world music I spent my younger years listening to, even taking me back to the Rotterdam Bar in the 80’s when I saw the amazing jit-jive of the Bhundu Boys from Zimbabwe. The band’s second album Uyai was released in March of 2017 and was well-worth the wait, picking up where the debut left off.
On first listen, I was immediately reminded of West African artists like Baba Maal, King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti and Youssou N’Dour as well as more recent acts to visit Belfast such as Amadou and Mariam and Tinariwen. Listen a bit longer and you start to pick up on more western jazz/funk influences of the Sly and the Family Stone variety with maybe some George Clinton and Curtis Mayfield in the mix as well. Having said that, the overall feel remains a very afro-centric one, driven by Alfred Kari Bannerman’s guitar but complimented by the trio of Tony Hayden, Scott Baylis and Max Grunhard who alternate between brass and synthesizers.
Ibibio is one of the many native tongues of Nigeria and many of the band’s songs are re-tellings of folk stories passed down to the striking and compelling lead singer Eno Williams by her family. As you may have already guessed, Williams may be London-born but is of Nigerian heritage. The band are mob-handed on the Black Box stage this evening, eight strong, with percussion, horns and synths as well as bass, guitar and drums. It’s a bit tight up there, but it doesn’t detract from what is an enthusiastically up-beat performance.
Tonight’s concert is the opening evening show of the 13th Out To Lunch Festival courtesy of CQAF and the band open with a couple of numbers that are a lively fusion of jazz, soul and funk and feature some great guitar riffs courtesy of Bannerman. Williams’ voice is a bit lost in the mix early on but she works tirelessly to engage with the crowd, smiling, waving and encouraging all to get involved with the singing. Everyone is loving this, and William’s makes a point of inviting the Belfast crowd to come to every show they do in the future.
The third track is “Give Me A Reason” from the last album, an up-beat electro dance number with a harder and more strident rhythm and this is delivered with real playfulness and fun. Seriously – three songs into the set and people are coming up to me to tell me how good this is. Williams starts to tease the crowd at this point, asking them “do you want us to stop?” The Chant (Iquo Isang)” is the perfect excuse to get the audience singing and I’m glad to say the problems with the vocals finally seem to have been sorted out.
There’s a strange lull somewhere in the middle of the set with a very synth/bass heavy track that just doesn’t seem to work but this is a minor quibble as the band quickly return to more up-tempo material. The diminutive figure of Anselmo Netto on percussion needs a mention; I lost count of how many instruments he produced from behind his congas and at one stage he was stripped to the waist and playing the congas with a talking drum under one arm and a drum stick between his teeth.
As you would expect, there’s a lot of material from the latest album, including “Power of Three” and “Sunray”. It isn’t a long set and the end comes far too soon with Netto introducing the encore (“The Pot is on Fire”) and then leading this off with a masterclass in conga playing. Bannerman joins in with his guitar in full wah wah mode producing a sound that could have come from the soundtrack of a 1970’s blaxploitation movie starring Richard Roundtree. When the horns come in they add real punch and bite to the mix and Williams leads the crowd in a one final song-a-long.
A great gig for lovers of funk and African music. It is impossible to capture the sheer energy and joy of Ibibio Sound Machine in words – you either needed to be there or you need to catch them the next time they play Belfast.
Scroll through our photo gallery by Julianne Rouquette, below: