The Cracked Backed Tortoise
It was in the studio, recording with her friends Max Grunard, Leon Brichard and Benji Bouton that Eno Williams started telling the tale of the Cracked Backed Tortoise. Although Eno was born in London, this ancient African story was told to her when she was growing up in Nigeria. Although different versions of this myth exists in other parts of Africa and even amongst some native American tribes, the Ibibio version is a bawdy retelling that involves a cunning tortoise who receives a beating after he cheats a king out of all of his money.
The South Eastern Nigerian language is naturally lyrical and as Eno unravelled the tale, she slipped into her mother tongue and sang parts to add extra comedy emphasis. Her friends who are from different countries and couldn’t understand the phrases, but identified with the story as it came to life through Eno and Ibibio Sound Machine was born.
Bringing up baby
Ibibio Sound Machine quickly grew in size, taking extra brass and percussion from Tony Hayden, Scott Baylis and Anselmo Netto. It was also able to run before it walked thanks to the wisdom and wicked guitar licks of legendary Highlife guitarist Alfred Bannerman. But it was through touring that ISM really found its feet.
“The studio was obviously the birthing of the project and taking it on the road is like bringing it forth to the audience,” says Eno “So you’ve conceived it, then you’re breathing life into it by performing on stage.”
Eno is up in our offices for a chat ahead of her gig below in a few months’ time. She talks quickly, bursting with nervous energy clearly flushed with pride at the way her project has been received.
Not an obvious child
“It’s was great to have a receptive audience because everyone in the band loves the music and is passionate about it too. The music is about celebrating and bringing to life – the afro music and fusion of electronic sound all mixed together. It was a case of creating something new and unique. That’s what you see in the live show.”
Eno has been in the studio all day and is still impeccably dressed, climbing up our VU’s narrow spiral staircase to the tube carriages in a pair of stunning pair stilettos. Her black and white outfit is the perfect photo opportunity for the VUzine. On stage her clothing and physical performance overflows with exuberance.
“I’ve seen lots of shows, musicals and concerts and one thing that always takes me back is the visual,” says Eno “What you see apart from just the music. There’s so much more to putting on a show. I thought it would be nice to go a little over the top, of course not go crazy but give it a bit of a visual oomph if I may say so.”
Feeling female Fela
The Afrobeat influence is undeniable with Eno often performing with tribal looking dots on her face. It would be too easy to name her female Fela Kuti.
“Both my parents loved Fela when we were growing up but we as children weren’t allowed to listen to him. My mum in particular thought he was quite controversial and a trouble maker and she didn’t like the idea of us watching half naked girls gallivanting about the stage. It wasn’t until I got much older that I actually started listening to his music and appreciated what he was talking about. Even though he was quite political, there was a lot of truth in his music. He was saying a lot of things that made sense. You can hear so many other influences apart from just Afrobeat though. You can hear Talking Heads from Leon’s influence, you can hear jazz sound from Max’s influence, the whole Highlife thing from Alfred’s music and the Brazilian flair from Anselmo. My influence really is the merging of Western electronic music with African music.”
World of music and dance
I first came across Ibibio Sound Machine at WOMAD festival and I was surprised how varied her dedicated audience was. Playing the red tent it was a world away from the leafy arboretum. I wonder what she thinks about being considered ‘world music’.
“I would say it’s like human music… I’ve been really taken by the way the audience takes to the music. Sometimes I teach them a few lines and they sing along. It just goes to show how universal music is as long as the spiritual content is good and people can vibe with it, people just want to celebrate…and dance.”