Ibibio Sound Machine
The Electric Ballroom
The air is a bit thicker than usual in Camden as I walk down the high street on a humid April evening. Ambulances scream past me on my right as a young boy shoves a basketball under his shirt faking contractions. At least, I hope he's faking. It's on this evening, before a four-day weekend, that I’m being inducted into the Ibibio Sound Machine factory.
Perhaps, like us until recently, you’ve not even heard of the 10-piece phenomenon that is The Machine. Fronted by Nigerian singer Eno Williams, Ibibio Sound Machine is a clash of African and electronic elements inspired in equal measure by the golden era of West-African funk & disco and modern post-punk & electro. You might be thinking to yourself, “gimme a break, we can’t keep up with each and every scorching hot artist popping up that’s your job!” Fair play, only thing is, London based ISM have been kicking it around the way for the better part of a decade. With three LPs and an EP under their belt, they’re the best worst kept secret. Trust me, we’re embarrassed too. With Electricity out on the May 11, ISM is warming up now before hitting the festival circuit and we were just lucky enough to get a peak.
Shuffling into the ballroom, I'm held up at security. Not for a frisk, instead it seems the gleam off the pins on my denim jacket catch the guards' eye which are thoroughly inspected in lieu of my pockets. Lucky for me. The peculiar luck doesn’t end there. At the box office, I'm mistakenly given a photo pass. I consider flogging it for beer, rather than snapping shots in the pit using my phone. Making my way past the merch table I see, plugged in, lamps for sale. I’m both confused and intrigued, but break free and continue to the stage. I get a good spot and watch opener Porij. Honourable mention as they played a solid set with the highlight being ‘Divine’. Eggy on vocals introduces the track, “This next one's called ‘Divine’, and it basically means you're the shit, everybody knows if so, just enjoy it”. Great energy throughout the set; worth catching a headlining gig.
ISM cuts no corners when it comes to showmanship. The 10 piece and two backing singers; Eno’s sister and best friend, and other collaborators, fill the stage and welcome the canary-draped Space Goddess on last. Everyone on stage looks out of this world but Eno takes the cake. From her intricate hair, Egyptian inspired jewellery and banging pipes, no effort is spared. Not one element of the stage is static, from the drum set to the keys throughout their performance. Cymbals are crashing, keys are clacking and the guitars, brass (sax/trumpets) and bongos have all taken a life of their own. It was next to impossible to catch a shot that wasn’t blurry of Eno, as she wasn’t still between singing, playing the keys, clapping and dancing. Even her clothes seemed to take a life of their own wildly whipping around in the windless venue.
The audience and myself were captivated throughout. ISM kept pumping out love and tunes in equal measures and everyone was receptive. It was a cultural melting pot that oscillated to a frequency everyone was switched on to, a pleasant change from the last few gigs I’d attended. Eno’s woven into her music and embraced her Nigerian roots (both musically and lyrically) but goes beyond the cosmos with her live show. It’s an incredibly warm and inclusive vibe full of singing (audience included but don’t ask me how) clapping, snapping and dancing. Highlight of the set was ‘Protection from Evil’ which I’m confident we all were feeling after being blasted with sonic love in the Ballroom that evening. The set ended with a nearly 40-minute finale where the band jammed out as they were individually introduced. I cannot imagine how mind-blowing an untethered open-air performance would be. There is one way to find out though.