Ibibio Sound Machine, Gorilla; 28 October 2017.
The cowbell is the happiest sound there is. The song that requires the now shirtless (but still in a hat) percussionist to whale on the cowbell could’ve been twice as long and I wouldn’t have cared. But there are a lot of happy sounds tonight. There’s the mbira, the two-finger technique on the guitar and the South African horns on One That Lights Up (Andi Domo Ikang Uwem Mi) that remind me of home. The djembe – there’s an entire skyline of these goblet drums on the stage, the same percussionist moving behind it, his hands on fire. There are even laser gun sounds to start one song.
There’s a lot to be happy about. The band is warm, excited to be here; everyone on stage is smiling. British-Nigerian frontwoman Eno Williams dances with (and for) the audience, with her bandmates. No turning away from the audience during instrumental breaks to look at the drummer. It’s a full stage – there are eight people up there, and many more instruments – and a full sound: drums, bass, djembe, guitar and three different kinds of brass. The band is sharp; the set is tight, if short, the energy high. Ibibio Sound Machine has a reputation for being great live, better than on the record, and they are. Gorilla is a good fit – it’s always a little sticky in the clubspace, and we’ve dressed to sweat. You can’t help but move to the music, which is a crash of African and electronic elements: Nigerian highlife, new wave, South African jazz, disco, Cameroonian makossa, techno. It’s the weekend and there’s a lot to be happy about. But something feels a little off.
We felt it immediately, but tried at first to ignore it, to understand it. The last time the four of us saw live music together, we were sharing lollipops in front of controversial South African rap(-art?) group Die Antwoord, wincing when Ninja asked the crowd to call him its “African father”. It was weird. Afterwards, we read essays on delegitimised South African whiteness and culture as a found object. OK, two of us did. We continued to quote their less winceable lyrics at each other – “you look niiiiice, good enough to eat, girl” – though less as time wore on and chemicals rebalanced. So maybe it’s just that we’re primed to find weirdness where there is none, problems where there are none, justifications where there should be none [delete as appropriate].
Maybe. But the more I look around, the more it becomes clear that it isn’t just us feeling (or being) weird. It’s the Saturday before Halloween, an excuse for glitter and booze. What dressing up as something or someone else will allow you. That a good fraction of the audience is wearing fancy dress is a little on the nose. There are witches and cats moving through the crowd, which, one can’t help but realise immediately, is not very diverse at all. And on the face of it, maybe that’s not the problem. Maybe that’s what the audience for “world music” is like in the UK. And let’s be honest, I first encountered Ibibio Sound Machine at the 6 Music Festival in Newcastle in 2015. For my friends, it was on BBC Radio 6. Hardly a diverse demographic. But, boy howdy, what a 6 Music crowd it is tonight. White people in their thirties and forties, mostly in couples, and, as it happens, quite pissed. Punching their fists in the air with intent that’s hard to parse. Maybe it’s just for fun, but it seems to coincide less with the electronic elements and more with the African ones. Is that OK? Correlation does not imply causation, unless in this case it does?
And so what if it does? People paid to see the gig, which was close to sold out. It’s good for the band, who we should recognise is a pop group making good pop music with the intent to appeal as widely as possible.
A group in front of us in fancy dress, the star of the show a man in white bellbottoms and a paisley polyester shirt, who dances with a Pinocchio nose attached to his finger. Next to him, a woman in cat ears, a man with a clown propeller hat on. They dance at each other for laughs, don’t pay attention to the band; their gestures are in dress up from another place. One does a move and the others follow: it’s something they all have to be in on, to make sure that it’s OK. It’s self-conscious. Towards the end, Paisley tries to start moshing and they all pull him back. For a moment, they stop dancing how they think they should and the difference is striking.
Later, as we leave, I overhear a conversation about how great the band was – which it bears repeating, they were – and both men remarked to each other how “Chorlton” the audience was, how lacking diversity. And it’s a relief to know that other people are making those same observations, that perhaps the atmosphere in the crowd was so strange because we were mostly either drunk or woke(-adjacent), trying to work out what’s OK, how to feel, which questions to ask. For instance, does it bother the band, who represent a very diverse range of backgrounds and who called the audience the best they’d ever had, if the audience isn’t more diverse, and if it doesn’t, can it – should it – bother anyone else? Is there a wrong way to enjoy music? Where is the line between enjoyment and appropriation?
Welcome to being a human who’s trying to do better in 2017. I could simply say, it was good, you should go next time. I guess I can: it was good, you should go next time. That goes for cats, witches and liberal hand-wringers alike. Give them your money and attention. Ask some questions. Let the cowbell ring in your ears.