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Photo by Matilda Hill-Jenkins

IT IS A REGULAR SYDNEY DAY – warm, wet, indifferent – but down one of the side streets in the precincts of the University Of Technology it is a strange, discombobulating Time for Ibibio Sound Machine’s Max Grunhard, Sydney born and raised but long-docked in London where he co-founded the Afrobeat-meets-electronics-meets-Nigerian storytelling-meets urban funk band with co-writer and vocalist Eno Williams.

Back in the country for the first time in a couple of decades, he has been flummoxed, on an “emotional rollercoaster” he reckons, caught between the familiar and the utterly alien, between belonging and out of place. Not an inappropriate place actually, if you think about Ibibio Sound Machine; not an unfamiliar experience for Williams.

“I literally have three homes,” she says. “I was born in London, but spent most of my childhood in Nigeria, then went back to London and since then I’ve always been travelling. I feel like home is wherever you stay, whether it’s one day or two days, a month, a year.”

In fact Williams, whose family was from the southern coastal area of Ibibio, felt immediately comfortable in Sydney when the group arrived en-route to Womadelaide. “I got out of the airport and it was as hot as Lagos,” she laughs, adding with absolutely no regard for local insecurities. “Though it’s a bit more slow-paced than London.”

As two leaders of a London group that contains multiple backgrounds/ethnicities/histories – Ghanaian, Brazilian, English among them – as well as a blend of organic and non-organic instrumentation, they feel an obligation to represent something more than where they are at, where they are based.

“In a situation with music anyway, it is universal language so I feel like being artist and being musicians that lays off on you anyway,” Williams says. “But at the same time we are expressing ourselves as the same people, pretty much, because the music makes us one.”

Grunhard, who studied saxophone at the Conservatorium and might have taken a pure jazz route if the stars had aligned, takes a similar line, not surprisingly.

“I think our journey as a band encapsulates what that means, sharing a few things about everyone and try and make something new out of that,” he says. “The most important thing in the world right now is there is a whole lot of things that do separate us and can separate us, or can be made to separate us, and it’s like a Tower of Babel kind of thing. But there is potential for some amazing collaboration and cross-fertilisation.”

I reckon the Tower of Babel got bad press: what’s wrong with everybody talking in different tongues, bringing different cultures to bear, hearing different rhythms? Forget the trumpets at the walls of Jericho, imagine the great music that could have happened there, long before Ibibio Sound Machine appeared. Williams agrees.

“When there is a group of people in the one place and there’s a little chaos, a bit of confusion, a bit of drama, there’s always good that comes out of that anyway.”

Watching on, Grunhard describes Williams as “resolutely positive almost all the time, while I’m the one who brings in some of the darker aspects, including in the musical explorations”, which on their new album, Pull The Rope, takes in some of the grey-toned Sheffield industrial sounds of producer Ross Orton, who has worked with both the resolutely non-political Arctic Monkeys and the hyper-political M.I.A..

As Williams is by far the most colourfully dressed person among the drab student wear and plain office worker garb around us, this has some resonance. The woman herself sees it in a slightly different way.

“In the midst of things going wrong there’s always that positive at the end of the night,” she says. “There might be a bit of anger or angst in certain scenarios, and maybe we’ll talk about in the song, trying to bring light to the situation. If the anger is emotion at that time, we will feel it – it may not be the anger, it may be the intensity of the emotion – but what do you derive from that emotion? It might be, okay we are going through this now but let’s look at it at the end of the night, what’s going to come out of it.”

Speaking of bad press, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with anger and we shouldn’t believe all the good press that turn the other cheek used to get – how many cheeks are we supposed to turn after all? Sometimes anger is a perfectly appropriate response. Sometimes it will make you change things, sometimes it just has to be said.

“There’s a certain point, as an artist, where you can certainly fight a lot and put a lot of fighting to your music,” says Grunhard. “But the world does tend to wear you down.”

Resistance to that ennui comes through Williams’ lyrics - stories drawing on folk tales, family history and a modern response to it all – that the pair argue reflects an Ibibio Sound Machine with more complexity than just up-and-down or joy and anger. And that’s whether you understand what Williams is saying every time or not, even if you are just dancing your arse off.

“We are trying,” says Grunhard. “To do our bit.”



Pull The Rope is out now through Merge.



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