Music from the artist Ibejii is frequently described as eclectic and indeed it is, but on his remarkable new album, Ilu Ilu, the first impression has to be this: It’s highly cinematic. Ilu Ilu is mood music for these times — if these times were composed of scenes.
The eponymous opening track sets the tone with fast drums that appear to be announcing something major. The song thunders and a chorus chants in Yoruba as the drums threaten to overwhelm everything else but doesn’t quite. It is a song that suggests a vivid image: your mileage may vary but I keep seeing a group of men heading for an undefined but climatic episode in a community’s existence.
The idea, it seems, is to provoke a question: Are we in the presence of a worthy talent? The answer, especially on songs like ‘Orisa Bi Iya’ and ‘Omo Ilu Owa’, is yes.
Invariably, that talent will be compared to Brymo’s. Both acts use the Yoruba language to pursue their thoughts. Both are well-versed in traditional Nigerian sounds as well as in western genres. Both seem interested in expressing their philosophy in melody. But they are also distinct: Brymo glances at the past; Ibejii welcomes it.
At least on one song on Ilu Ilu, that welcome is literal: On ‘Leke Leke’, Ibejii takes the childhood rhyme that gives the song its title and repurposes it for nostalgia. “Can you take me back to simpler times,” he asks.
Someone could tell him that that won’t happen but one gets the impression that it wouldn’t mean much. That naivety could be part of the man’s charm. On ‘Imukoku’, for instance, he laments the deception of friends, seeking how to tell the green snake from similarly coloured foliage. “Travel over grass and over trees, good and bad people look like twins,” he coos over gentle strings.
You probably don’t need a musician to tell you that, but music is hardly journalism: its primary function isn’t to bring you the news. In this case, the appeal of the song is directly linked to its aural pleasure, listening to Ibejii gently caress syllables in Yoruba, in English.
Unfortunately, some of Ibejii’s best qualities result in songs that don’t quite belong to his own top shelf. The songs ‘Midnight Strings’ (naive) and ‘I Quit’ (maybe too delicate) belong in this category. Fortunately, one of the album’s truly wonderful highlights ‘Troubled Soul’ follows the latter track. It’s impressively theatrical and brings to a conclusion a very good album. Talk about ending on a high note.
The cinematic feel of Ilu Ilu means that listening to Ibejii’s music at home or in your car is potentially only half the pleasure. When life returns to normal post-pandemic, it should be quite an experience to see Ilu Ilu Live. I have a feeling I won’t be the only person in the audience.