Eno Williams dances around the stage, her sleeves whirling as her arms reach with steadfast determination toward the disco ball on the ceiling, her feet stepping to the demanding beat. An audience member beckons her closer, and gives her a present in the form of a Philadelphia Phillies jersey. She puts it around her shoulders, signaling the love she’s expressed for her Philadelphia audience all night long. The party on stage is almost rivaled by the absolute riot of a time people are having in the crowd. “I’m gonna show it to my mum!” she proclaims. Williams locks eyes with individuals in the World Cafe Live audience, and dedicates a song to the City of Philadelphia, just one stop of Ibibio Sound Machine's (ISM) Electricity Live Tour on Oct. 20.
ISM is a British Afro–funk band based in London consisting of vocalist and frontwoman Eno Williams, guitarist Alfred Kari Bannerman, percussionist Anselmo Netto, drummer Jose Joyette, bassist Derrick McIntyre, Tony Hayden on the trombone and synth, Scott Baylis on trumpet and synth, and Max Grunhard on saxophone and synth. The octet released their critically acclaimed fourth studio album, Electricity, in March 2022.
Williams arrives on the stage in a gold headpiece, vibrant red patterned dress and matching boots, with a red fur coat. Her presence demands the audience’s attention, but not in an intimidating way.
Williams points to her heart to introduce the first song, and says, “Without love, there’s no electricity.” The synthesizer immediately picks up and begins the title track. “Let me speak from the heart, without love / There's no, no, no electricity.” Her voice is monotone, and you can feel the thunderous beat underneath your feet. Unlike a number of songs in their discography, the lyrics are in English.
Oftentimes “the lyrics are based on the Ibibio language from south–east Nigeria, and on stories I was told growing up in Africa,” Williams told The Arts Desk. Williams sings of folk tales she’s heard growing up, and also sings to protect her audience. “Protection From Evil” was a song written during the COVID–19 lockdowns. Williams describes this period as the “most chaotic time,” and this song serves as a “prayer chant.” The hypnotic synth begins and it feels like the ‘80s are becoming cool again.
“I Need You to Be Sweet Like Sugar (Nnge Nte Suka)” is a funkier track from ISM’s album Doko Mien. The versatility from their hour–and–a–half set introduced the audience to their dynamic sound and showcased Williams’ incredible vocal range. She invites the sparse audience to dance and sing with her in “The Chant (Iquo Isang).” To my surprise, the crowd largely consists of white 30– and 40–somethings, who excitedly sing along to the Ibibio lyrics.
Williams talks about Ibibio and her culture in southern Nigeria. She speaks about the kidnappings of 276 Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014, and laments how “this could’ve been me.” She sings “Give Me a Reason,” which does not slow pace, but still conveys Williams’ heartbreak over the situation. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Williams exclaimed, “Why can't we just be free to be who we want to be? Why can't children just be free? It's not an angry song. It's a challenge. It's [about] empowering people.”
The band’s energy is contagious and they are clearly having fun on stage. At a point in the concert, Williams points and dances toward Netto. She then throws water on Joyette during his drum solo. Many bands get wrapped up in technicalities during their performances and don’t interact with their audience members or band members. Sure, ISM goes above and beyond, but this is the standard that all other live artists should have to compete with. You can’t help but feel loved by Williams. In fact, she tells the audience, “I love you,” in a genuinely heartfelt way that makes everyone stop and smile, before continuing to dance.
During Grunhard’s saxophone solo, Williams calls him “absolutely wonderful.” She owns the stage, but shares it with her band members in a democratic way. The band then encourages the audience to take part in the fun. Williams tells us to clap our hands, stomp our feet, and motions us to go to the left and then the right. She then offers words of encouragement like a kindergarten teacher: “You got it!”
When the concert ends, Williams leaves the audience with words of affirmation, saying, “Whatever in life you want, you can get.” But that isn’t the end. Pre–encore, Netto comes back out and says, “Every time I get on stage, nothing else matters. I’m having a ball.” Then asks the audience, “Are you going to dance like there’s no tomorrow?” to which the crowd goes absolutely wild.
For the encore, Williams comes back on the stage with the Phillies jersey on. As the instrumentals continue, Williams takes the time to introduce her band members one by one, showing the utmost appreciation to the people whom she creates with. Williams shines in the spotlight, but makes it clear that this is a group of equal members that all contribute to the ISM’s success.
The concert showcased the infectious stylings of Afrobeats, exposing a largely white audience to Nigerian cultural sounds, seemingly spanning cultural barriers. But more importantly, ISM made apparent the love they have for each other and their audience. After the show, Williams stood behind the merchandise line, autographing vinyls and taking pictures. While they have the star factor to make it to the top of the electronic dance music genre, ISM’s personable intimacy with the audience sets them apart from any other band, delivering a priceless concert experience.