Ibibio Sound Machine Radiate Genuine Positivity on “Doko Mien”

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Photography by Angela Stephenson

It’s a fraught task to take on, combining and innovating traditions, sounds, and languages belonging to specific regions of the world in order to create a universal piece of art. However, London’s Ibibio Sound Machine (featuring members from Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, Trinidad, Australia, and elsewhere) have effortlessly done just that over the last few years, drawing upon elements of groove-heavy funk, Afrobeat, American soul, and Ghanaian highlife, and blending those influences with Ibibio folk story and British’s penchant for partying.

On their third release, Doko Mien, Ibibio Sound Machine hope to break down barriers with their music and stories. Singer Eno Williams, who sings in both her native Ibibio language and English, says, “We made it a conscious effort on this album to make it a bit more inclusive and make people understand what the backstory is about, even though music is quite universal. So even [when] music [is] sung in another language, you do feel it anyway.”

ibibio-by-angela-stephenson-1244-c-3Though the music speaks for itself—like the swampy, Rufus-like grooves on the opener, or the Afrobeat rhythms on “Nyak Mien”—Williams makes certain their messages of perseverance and positivity are expressed throughout her lyrics. The album’s title, Doko Mien, translates to “tell me”: a cry of frustration, as Williams explains. “It’s being told all year ‘This is right,’ or ‘This is wrong,’ or ‘You’re not doing it right.’ I get a bit like, all right, you seem to know best. Tell me what you want me to do,” she says. But Williams hasn’t given up yet. In spite of the male-dominated world around her, Williams retorts, “I’m going to be heard, and I’m going to scream it out loud and clear.”

On “She Work Very Hard,” Williams continues to address social inequalities over a slapping bassline and sputtering wah-wah guitars. “The song started with us just talking about money. Everyone has to have so much money,” Williams says. “There’s a story I remembered about a girl who wanted to go to a party and borrowed expensive jewelry from a friend. Unfortunately, the jewelry got lost, and she struggled for years to try and work so hard just so she could buy back the jewelry.” It’s an unfortunate reality, Williams believes, that “the rich have, and the rich are getting more and more. But the poor just never seem to get enough.”

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But despite the brokenness of the world, Ibibio Sound Machine always finds a way to dance their way forward. “No matter how bleak things might seem or how unfair or unequal life might be in the world that we live in,” Williams says, “we just always have to look at the positive side.”

This doesn’t mean, however, just wearing a smile no matter what we’re facing. In Williams’s eyes, positivity equals an active choice, a conscious decision to persevere. As she sings in Ibibio on “Just Go Forward (Ka I So),” “Mother always said do what you do while the sun is out / Don’t wait for tomorrow.” There’s absolutely zero quit in Williams. “In today’s world, there’s a lot happening,” she says. “Don’t just sit and wallow about the past and wonder what could have been or what couldn’t have been. Life is all about change, and accepting change, and moving on.”

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A large part of moving forward is finding those places of solace which refresh the spirit. For Williams, that refreshment comes from a “bigger power and bigger strength.” Songs like “I Will Run” and “Guess We Found A Way” offer honest prayers and meditations—Williams repeats “I will run into your arms” over synths that burst like lasers across a starry night sky.

On “Wanna Come Down,” Williams relates the universal folk tradition of visiting the river in times of need. “There’s a power with water,” she says. “[The song is] a story about someone who had been labored with stress and depression and negativity. And then someone is inviting them, look, you need something to lift you out of that gloom. Let’s go down to the riverside. Let’s get it washed away.”

ibibio-by-angela-stephenson-1244-c-4It’s refreshing, the way Ibibio Sound Machine radiate positivity on Doko Mien. Often, it’s just too easy for positivity to come off as ignorant or insensitive concerning the troubles surrounding us. But Williams and her so-called “United Nations of music” combat the world’s problems with music so multifaceted in nature and genuine in its intent that those arguments are invalid here. In Ibibio Sound Machine’s commitment to “just do us and be unique and not really mind whatever else is happening,” they offer a shining example that our diverse differences, both our strengths and our struggles, make our music and our spirits stronger when joined together.

-Christopher Thiessen

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