Review: Ibibio Sound Machine

Thirteen. Unlucky for some, but not the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival crew, who have unearthed another diverse and tantalising line-up of talent for us all to enjoy during their thirteenth annual Out To Lunch Festival, in a month where most are merely looking to shake off the post-Christmas blues and find their drive again.

Ibibio Sound Machine, fronted by London-born Nigerian singer Eno Williams, are certainly not short on drive – and jive. Or if you prefer another rhyming couplet, punk and funk. Inspirations from West Africa and modern times fused into a popular disco cocktail that is as eclectic as it is electric. (Another rhyme, yes. But there’s plenty of that here. And rhythm.)

For the eager, buzzing crowd that looks to have filled Belfast’s Black Box almost entirely from where I’m standing, that’s exactly what’s needed to fulfil the promise of “a wicked start to 2018” and the “proper musical trip” that is given to them.

Bookended and successfully complemented by DJ sets from Bounce Culture’s Kwame “Kwa” Daniels and Andy “Funk” Thompson – Daniels’ soulful electronica was the most memorable aspect of Derry-Londonderry club life throughout the noughties – Ibibio Sound Machine (ISM), also starring Anselmo Netto on percussion, Alfred Kari Bannerman on guitar, and featuring John McKenzie, Jose Joyette, Tony Hayden, Scott Baylis and Max Grunhard to back up with a mixture of bass, drums, brass and synth, draw everyone in with their commitment and synchronicity from the get go.

The rich intrigue in Williams’ folk tales about tortoises, talking fish and sun rays, to name but a handful, matter less than the unification of the noise and rhythm. Be you an audience member, a writer, a photographer or Williams herself, and all four are here, you’re in a trance to dance. My only concern is, having set off like greyhounds, will Williams and the ISM collective be able to maintain it?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. Harking back to the blaxploitation era with a clever, attention-grabbing use of guitar and brass is only the beginning, Netto’s rain drums and bongos stealing the limelight almost as much as Williams herself in a show that takes you back and forward in time. It gets better when Williams socialises with an audience member at the front and teaches the audience how to chant along with her choruses – the punter’s night is clearly made, and the hands which sway back and forth in the air add to a spirited party atmosphere.

Netto’s percussion and Joyette’s drums seem to guide Williams in her movement and in her singing, transitioning her flamboyant African princess look to that of a commanding rock star. The introduction of synth-like 1980s elements moves the set up a gear and widens Williams’ smile, her beaming face and widespread arms taking in and responding to the sea of joy in front of her. By now the audience need no one to tell them to put their phones away and dance. I know I don’t.

Williams is revelatory here, an artist defined and refined by her influences, her utterances and her moves. And how she moves, in tandem with what she says are probably the best crowd ISM have ever had. Not to be outdone, or entirely upstaged, though, are her instrumentalists, especially Netto and Bannerman, with the former leading the way in a terrific encore. Through the power of their music, ISM have elated and related – and given us the best opening night party for an arts festival that we could have hoped for.

Simon Fallaha

Ibibio Sound Machine played at the Black Box on Friday 5 January as part of the Out To Lunch festival, which runs until 28 January. For more information about upcoming events go to

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