ONIPA ‘We No Be Machine’ LP/CD (Strut) 4/5

Onipa or ‘human’ in the Akan language of Ghana are a four-piece outfit, they’re UK based with a sound that is distinctly Afro-futurist. This is thanks in no small part to the influence of lead vocalist KOG or Kweku of Ghana, Kweku Sackey a Ghanaian born percussionist and vocalist now based in Sheffield. KOG also leads his own band, KOG and the Zongo Brigade, a fusion of Afrobeat, soul, funk, reggae and rock. A similarly eclectic mix can be found on this debut release by Onipa. KOG’s main collaborator on the album is the guitarist and producer of Nubiyan Twist Tom Excell. On drums is Finn Booth who also works with Nubiyan Twist. On synth bass is Dwayne Kalvington aka Wonky Logic who describes his craft as ‘soulful electronics and futurist crunk’. Onipa are also joined by a roster of Ghanaian musicians on many tracks including singer Wiyaala.

The album’s title We No Be Machine is a defiant cry and could perhaps be a 21st-century Afro-futurist retort to Kraftwerk’s restrained 1978 masterpiece The Man-Machine. At any rate We No Be Machine seems a prescient conceptual statement regarding the ability of technology to simultaneously connect and isolate humanity. It’s brought into sharp focus this year as many of us sit in safe seclusion behind our screens, the psychological fallout and cost to the human soul yet to be calculated. The record was released back in March so has only become more relevant as 2020 has unfolded. The band explain ‘we use technology but it will never use us, our music is live and about deep human connection’.

The title track, ‘We No Be Machine’ begins with a narration which sets the scene for the album’s concept, an apparent anxiety and ambivalence concerning humanity’s relationship with technology. The voice, not completely intelligible and distorted by the vocoder, says ‘we were masters of technology, now we’re slaves to machines’. At this point electronics are combined with an emphatic and soulful chorus ‘we’re not a machine’. KOG’s rap follows in a similar vein ‘I see your control, mind, body, you want to take my soul’ followed by ‘turn off your TV, turn off your screen’. The tune ends more optimistically as the narrator states ‘people got the power’.

The first side of the album alternates between brief narrative links and more extended electronics fused with Afrobeat rhythms. The song ‘Material Microdots’ describes how ‘they have turned us into robots to show off in their coded war, human souls carefully programmed with electronic umbilical cords’. Later some of the tracks have a much more traditional and acoustic Afro feel, ‘Free Up’ is a command to free up your mind with a beautiful undulating percussive wave which seems to roll through the whole thing. ‘Onipa’ features the soulful vocals of Wiyaala and some prominent guitar, fusing a bluesy feel with hypnotic trance-like grooves. After this the album ranges further afield in themes and moods before the final track ‘The Promised Land’ featuring Jally Kebba Suso gets back to the main theme, asking ‘where is the promised land?’ There’s a reassuring believability and calmness to Jally Kebba Suso’s delivery and a sense of spiritual renewal as he offers a pathway to keeping the faith.

With its impressive scope, energy and eclecticism Onipa have created a seamless sound which blends electronic and acoustic rhythms to create something with a very human soul.

James Read