Published Mar 19, 2019Poised and self-assured as Eno Williams might seem onstage and on wax, the front person for British Afrobeat band Ibibio Sound Machine sometimes finds herself frustrated in that role.
"In England, there aren't that many women fronting bands," she tells Exclaim! in an interview on the heels of Ibibio Sound Machine's latest LP, Doko Mien. That title translates to "Tell Me" in Williams' Nigerian Ibibio tongue, and the album's title track delves into the inequality she faces as a trailblazing front woman.
"It's me declaring: 'Okay, you tell me since you seem to have all the answers,'" she says of singing about the male-driven music industry that can so often fail to see things from her perspective. "From a bigger picture, I'm [also] imploring the listeners: 'Tell me! I'm all ears. Tell me exactly what's going on in your mind.'"
But before she began penning feminist anthems, Williams drew inspiration from one special woman in particular. As a girl growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, she shared a close bond with her grandmother, who would often tell a young Williams folk stories that she alludes to in her lyrics to this day.
"A lot of the stories I got told as a child were part of a process of passing down culture," Williams explains.
And her grandmother's influence went well beyond that. Williams recalls how she would "speak in English a lot around the house, and my grandmother would tease me and often ask, 'When are you going to sing in Ibibio?' And we'd laugh about it."
Flash forward years later, when Williams was in a session with what would become her current band. Those fellow musicians noticed how "I was just humming rhythms and murmuring lyrics to myself for fun, and they asked 'Oh what's that?' And I said, 'Just a song from my childhood.' And we became so excited about it together, that we began writing one song after the next, and infusing Ibibio singing with electronica and funk."
Today, Ibibio Sound Machine are known for the inventive, seamless incorporation of that Nigerian language in their lyrics. Inscrutable as those lines are to listeners that have never heard a word of Ibibio, Williams' vibrant delivery nevertheless makes Doko Mien songs like "Nyak Mien," and "Kuka" catchy and captivating for just about anyone with ears.
Though her grandmother is no longer alive to witness the success Williams and her band mates are having with that eclectically intercontinental music, the front woman hopes to one day reach yet another milestone that would have made her beloved elder and mentor smile all the more.
"I haven't been back to Lagos yet to perform with Ibibio Sound Machine, and show everyone there what we've done," she says, before adding with a passionate belly laugh: "We keep hoping to make it back there, and I keep picturing and imagining it. But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it!"
Doko Mien is out March 22 on Merge Records.