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If you crossed ’70s Nigerian highlife with LCD Soundsystem, you might get something like the opening track of Uyai. On “Give Me a Reason,” highlife trumpets and talking drums punch through buzzy synth lines and metallic drum machine effects. Like most dance music, it seeks liberation. Unlike most, it also laments: “As the story goes, they got sent to a house of wisdom/To learn all that the world can offer/But on setting out, they got lost,” Eno Williams sings in Ibibio, a language of southeast Nigeria. The song speaks about the 276 Chibok girls who were abducted three years ago, the vast majority of whom are still missing.
Led by London-born, Lagos-raised singer Williams, Ibibio Sound Machine are an eight-piece band whose music draws on Nigerian highlife as much as new wave, South African jazz as much as techno, Cameroonian makossa as much as disco. Besides being a nod to the Ibibio language and region that Williams’ family comes from, the band’s name is also a wink at Miami Sound Machine, whose ’80s pop exuberance and cultural mash-up are approaches that Ibibio shares. The band’s new release, Uyai, meaning “Beauty,” is their first since their self-titled debut in 2014. Accompanying a switch from the more vintage-oriented Soundway Records to indie rock label Merge, their sound has expanded to include more electronic and rock influences but has also grown more introspective. They still incorporate the kind of Ibibio storytelling that was at the center of Ibibio Sound Machine, but their focus this time has turned to themes of liberation, power, and beauty—specifically that of women.
Throughout the album, Eno draws on the presence of the women in her life, highlighting the experiences and histories that link them. Her sister and friends join her on several tracks as backing vocalists. On “The Chant (Iquo Isang),” her mom even makes a cameo chanting an improvised prayer, whispering and growling over shakers and a four-on-the-floor thump. Williams too recounts a chant from her schoolgirl days—the chorus from “Zangalewa” (originally by Cameroonian makossa group Golden Sounds; a couple decades later lifted by Shakira for the 2010 World Cup anthem). In writing “Joy (Idaresit),” an experimental techno-rock track, Williams was inspired by an older woman she saw dancing who reminded her of her own mother. By contrast, “Lullaby” shows the singer as the mother figure. It’s one of the gentler tracks, colored by atmospheric reverb, tinkly EKG blips, and bubbling talking drum.
As grounded as Williams is in her own roots, her and Ibibio’s vision also taps into music across the African Diaspora. On “The Pot Is on Fire” and “Guide You (Edu Kpeme),” Ghanaian keyboardist Emmanuel Rentzos, of Osibisa fame, contributes playful synth-work. On tracks peppered with swiveling robot sounds and cowbells, percussionist Anselmo Netto plays Afro-Brazilian percussion, like the squeaky cuíca (as on “Guide You”) or the conga-like atabaque and boomy surdo (as on “Power of 3”). Meanwhile, “One That Lights Up (Andi Domo Ikang Uwem Mi)” is a love song that sounds like watercolors, where the horns reference South African jazz, and distorted mbiras recall Kinshasa’s Konono Nº1.
With all these musical influences and elements at play, Uyai could easily be a chaotic mess. For the most part, it’s not, but every element doesn’t always feel necessary. On “Power of 3,” there’s a solid 30-second passage of laser gun sounds. The album as a whole has a lot of laser gun sounds. It also has frequent sudden shifts between high energy songs and mellower songs, so that even though the record has a unified sound, it sometimes feels disjointed. During the last two songs, however, that contrast works. On the tenderest moment of the album, “Cry (Eyed),” Eno intones the word “cry” over and over again over a muted balafon-esque pattern, as if by way of slow repetition we could find some release. On album closer “Trance Dance”—in a whirl of syncopated rhythms, chiptune blips, and guitar fuzz—we finally do.Share