This is an album that came out of a language. At least that’s what Eno Willliams told Afropop when they interviewed her in March. “We had spoken about that fact that the language had been very little documented, musically, and that it would be interesting to try using that as a starting point,” she said. The language was Ibibio from southeast Nigeria. Williams has Nigerian parents and she was born in London. Her grandmother used to tell her folk stories. Now those folk stories make up at least half of the album’s lyrics. From the titles you can guess that the heroes of these stories are wise or trickster animals, “Uwa the Peacock (Eki Ko Inuen Uwa)”, “The Tortoise (Nsaha Edem Ikit)”, and “The Talking Fish (Asem Usem Iyak)”.
The small piece of Ibibio that the non-Ibibio listener is going to retain, more than anything else, are the three words that come after the two in English in the title of the album’s first single, “Let’s Dance (Yak Inek Unek)”. They’re short, sharp, and direct, and the song turns them into a chorusing catchphrase, which is an ideal way to memorize anything. “Let’s Dance” is sprinkled with jerky, spastic New Wave blipperings, electric yips like lights being flicked on and off, the kind of sound that provokes you — vibrate!, it says — but doesn’t allow you to move in any naturally smooth kind of way. Stimulates the desire and takes away the performance, as the Porter states in Macbeth. You have to find some way around it or through it, and what else is the purpose of a dance move but a reaction against the sensation of being stopped or arrested, as the dancer assumes the responsibility of stopping and arresting for themselves, popping and locking until control has been claimed by the body that is its subject?
Talking Heads, say several reviewers — that’s the band it reminds them of. Afropop asked Williams about it and she said that Leon Brichard, one of the three producers, was the Talking Heads fan. The rest of them had come from a seventies retrofunk-highlife direction, with solid large bands, beat-keeping dance guitars, featly horns, and a West African groove. So the cool arthouse of the Talking Heads sound gets warmed up and disenstranged. Disco, too: the band likes disco. So there is this gleeful commercial artificiality — plastic rocket launch swishes in “Let’s Dance (Yak Inek Unek)”, for example — tied up in the snorty funk kick, while Eno Williams sings.
There are quiet moments, which is a a mistake. They finish off the album with an extremely short “Ibibio Spiritual” that is actually just a fade-out with a title. The tracks that rely on the voice are the most forgettable ones; the strength of Williams’ voice is its personality rather than its power. She sings like a woman who’s happy to be there, which makes her an asset during those songs like “Let’s Dance” that are meant to make you feel the same thing. The highs and lows come from the instruments. The richness is in the brass section. But there are no emotional lows, only funk lows and disco lows, which, in emotional terms, are virtually highs, the landing places in a bouncing run. The promise of the high is always within them. You can’t get sad during a disco low. Accordingly, you don’t get sad during Ibibio Sound System. You bop along to the language that “had been very little documented, musically” and you’re happy. In a testament to your happiness you remember the words “Yak Inek Unek” and the purpose of Eno Williams is fulfilled.