One of the most interesting developments of the funk era is it’s strong explicit African connection. The funk era represented a unique point in the often strained relationship between Africa and her descendants in the West. One might say that the continent itself as well as it’s descendants in the “New World” were all at similar critical points in their history. Africa was going through the beginning stages of independence from colonialism and nationalism, and in America descendants of Africa were fighting for Human and Civil Rights, as well as increasing the consciousness of their history and even envisioning revolutionary justice in many cases. There was a great exchange of ideas at that time, with MLK, Malcom X, Richard Wright, CLR James, Frantz Fanon and other American and Carribean people of African descent providing inspiration in Africa that was returned in equal measure by African figures such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patryce Lumumba, Tom Mboya, Hallie Sellasie and Nelson Mandela, among others. For adherents to the international African groove thang, this was represented most prominently by James Brown and Fela Kuti, but also by other artists such as Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. In recent years, Fela’s music has become more and more celebrated in the Western world, as perhaps the last great revolutionary popular music maverick of the ’70s. Fela’s country, Nigeria, has been a particular focal point in this African/American exchange, being a large country with a high percentage of people living or educated in the West, a country where English is the official language, and one with a particular cultural connection to the New World because many Black inhabitants were taken from that region.
Ibibio Sound Machine is a new group based in London that revives the Afro-Funk sound and updates it for the modern internet age. The creators of the group are three producer/musicians, Max Grunhard, Leon Brichard, and Benji Bouton, who were huge fans of African grooves. The lead singer is the lovely Eno Williams, a British national of Nigerian descent, who’s roots lie with the Ibibio people of south eastern Nigeria, hence the name of the band. Eno grew up in England raised by a mother who was a native Ibibio speaker. The Ibibio people are one of the many ethic groups in Nigeria, but I was not aware of them as I was other Nigerian tribes such as the Ibo, Hausa, Yoruba and Fulani. Eno’s lyrics take traditional Ibibio folk tales that her grandparents related to her and put them to a groove that mixes West African funk and disco, post punk and modern electro. The 8 person touring band also features Ghanian guitarist Alfred “Kari” Bannerman and Brazillian percussionist Anselmo Netto, making the sound truly Pan African.
“The Talking Fish” is a funky delight sung in the highly rhythmic Ibibio language. Williams tells a funny folk tale that I had to resarch the story behind to understand. The story is about a young girl going down to the stream to fetch water. When she got there, she met a fish that was happy, and running down a mean stream of consiousness dialog. The young girls were amazed by the fish’s singular verbosity. They knew they couldnt eat such an intelligent and vocal fish, partially out of the fear the fish would keep talking even after they’d consumed it! Their squeals of delight and alarm scare the whole village because they think something has happened to the girls. Instead of eating the fish the fish becomes a celebrated local attraction.
From the first notes of the song, it’s clear Ibibio Sound Machine is going for a cinematic, blaxploitation era, classic funk sound. The tune starts off with a classic funk bass figure backed simply by hi hats and a trippy lead analog synth sound playing a wide “scoop.” The bass figure is pure funk, a strong and dominant Major Second interval going up a step and then jumping up an octave. After that clear statement, the bass player plays around with the same notes, displacing their rhythm here and there, playing with the groove. The horns come in with call and response patterns. The music sounds dramatic, like a movie score, calling to mind Bernie Casey from “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka”, “Every hero needs theme music.”
After that scene setting introduction, the band plays a phrase that will reappear throughout the song as a kind of a hook. The phrase is four notes going up the scale, accompanied by snare drum hits, then going back down twice. After the first appearance of the phrase, the track starts in earnest, supported by heavy disco-funk drumming, a meat and potatoes kick and snare eq’ed right with the hi-hats playing the classic disco “pea soup” pattern, the opening and closing of the hi hats. This pattern was introduced into the ’70s lexicon by the drummers of Philly International and quickly became the standard in disco drumming.
Williams sings her funky tale of the Talking Fish as the band riffs behind her, the music is highly responsive to her vocals and features synth squiggles as well as single note muted guitar riffs courtesy of Ghanaian highlife guitar legend Bannerman. Williams delivery is rhythmic, playful, and gets to you even if you don’t understand her Ibibio tounge, you will feel it no doubt.
The funk breaks down at 2:50 or so, adding deep percission with a synth bass playing one note on the ONE, a basic drumbeat with lots of funky small instrument chatter, with percussionist Anselmo Netto bringing the Brazillian contingent of the African musical diaspora to the fore. Around 3:40, Kari Bannerman gets his chance to solo, and he does so with a nasty distorted tone. Bannerman delivers a rhythmic, hard plucked, funky and well phrased blues/funk solo. By the end he builds up the intensity with rock and roll double stops and chords as the song fades out.
The Ibibio people are a 5,000,000 strong ethnic group in Nigeria that I’d never heard of, and this album represents the first time their language has been sung and recorded for a worldwide audience. Williams mentioned in an interview that to her, Highlife music, the one time most popular genre in all of West Africa, was as traditional as any other music to her growing up. Of course, this is the same view a modern Black kid might have in America with regards to funk, viewing it as something older and akin to the early blues and rock and roll. Ibibio Sound Machine is another wave in the reclaimation of Funk and Afro-Funk styles. Their vibrant music brings one back to a time when the Black communities of the world were full of much hope and forward movement, and hopefully children of the future will one day look back on music such as this as the soundtrack to another positive time in their history.