Music

Afrofuturists ONIPA Offer Uplifting, High-Energy Music via 'We No Be Machine'

Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Bandcamp

London-based Afrofuturist band, ONIPA frame discussions of humanity within a pan-African sonic context on their brilliant debut, We No Be Machine.

We No Be Machine
ONIPA

Strut

20 March 2020

The duo behind London-based group ONIPA -- "human" in the Akan language long spoken across much of modern-day Ghana -- couldn't have known that debut full-length album We No Be Machine would be slated for release at a time of such isolation as this. Still, it's more than serendipitous that, at a time when social distancing has suddenly and necessarily become a practice at the forefront of our global consciousness, ONIPA emerges to take us on an Afrofuturist journey centered around the idea of strengthening community. In an age marked by the availability of virtual spaces and, at times, a corresponding sense of disconnection from one another, ONIPA is here to meld the electronic and the flesh-and-blood in thrilling ways.

Though they tour with other collaborators, Onipa is essentially made up of vocalist, percussionist, and balafon player Kwaku of Ghana, eponymous frontman of K.O.G. and the Zongo Brigade, and Nubiyan Twist producer Tom Excell. Here, their guests come from across Africa and beyond. Activist Ghanaian pop singer-songwriter Wiyaala, South African singer and rapper Spoek Mathambo, Basotho electro-folk innovator Morena Leraba, Ghanaian master percussionist Afla Sackey, and others lend their voices to an oft-uplifting, always high-energy blend of music.

And this is a blend like no other in terms of scope. To listen from start to finish to We No Be Machine is to take a tour of Africa, to experience living and ever-changing traditions that stretch through time and space. Pieces like the opening crisply rapped title track and starkly echoing "Hey No I Say" reach toward the future with ringing synths even as they find Onipa grounding in percussive analogs. Meanwhile, the brighter sounds of "Makoma" entwine tropical dancehall and modern highlife with retro-pop sounds from southern Africa, playful rhymes, and warm vocal harmonies.

Interlude "Smoke Screen" and fast-paced "Nipa Bi" incorporate the round metallic sounds so strongly associated with the Congotronics series that turned Konono Nº1 and the Kasai Allstars into unofficial representatives of Central African-derived electrified folk music abroad. Leraba, Mathambo, and UK-based rapper Syntax encourage listeners to "Free up your mind / Switch up your vibe" on upbeat hip-hop collaboration "Free Up". That leads into the vast, dreamlike visions Tanzanian sisters Pendo and Leah Zawose conjure with soaring voices and accompanying mbira on "Safari a Muziki".

All told, We No Be Machine is 19 tracks long, ending with "Promised Land", a song featuring the soulfully psychedelic kora playing of Jally Kebba Susso in triple time, entrancing alongside spoken word entreaties ("Where is the promised land?"), philosophically anti-establishment raps ("I've got questions in my mind that I need to resolve / I'm like, who runs the system, who's the king of the block?"), and Susso's weathered vocals. It makes for an open ending to the album, leaving room for growth and questions about roots, identity, and humanity hanging, unanswered. There is solace to be found in these unknowns; within them, after all, Onipa generates brilliant creative works.

As we hunker down the requisite six or more feet apart from each other, we, too, have a unique opportunity to renegotiate how we share life as a species, as a planet. We No Be Machine has already given us a running start, a sonic framework within which we can ponder the big questions -- or, at least, find joy in a brilliant example of human expression.

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