Some of us may have already enjoyed the fascinating and utterly infectious music of William Onyeabor.
A mysterious Nigerian producer of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Onyeabor’s cult-like status has recently grown beyond the 1% of specialist record collectors (and Nigerian natives) thanks to David Byrne’s world music record label Luaka Bop.
But, if you missed the 2013 chart-topping release of World Psychedelic Classics Vol.5: Who Is William Onyeabor?, you are in for a real treat.
Discovering Onyeabor’s music is like being let in on a very special secret. Rich with playful hooks, repetitive melodies and strange electronic sounds, the Moog-driven songs lean more toward spacey Germanic techno than the raw Nigerian Afro-beat of that era.
So it’s easy to understand why we are thrilled of “Fantastic Man,” a documentary on Onyeabor from Luaka Bop’s Eric Welles-Nystrom and Yale Evelev, at London’s Barbican Center. The man’s legacy is truly mystifying.
He self-released eight albums between 1977 and 1985, all of them sonically ahead of their time and all of them exceedingly rare today. Shortly after his last LP was released, Onyeabor became a born-again Christian and swore never to speak of, or perform, his music again.
The enigmatic musician was a crowned High Chief and Priest of Enugu (Nigeria), where he lived till he died from a brief illness, peacefully on Monday 16th of January, 2017.
The contradictions and elisions in Onyeabor’s life story have never been fully resolved. For decades all that was known for sure was that between 1977 and 1985, he released nine albums of bewilderingly inventive synthesized afrobeat on his own Wilfilms label. Beyond that there were only rumors.
Had he really studied cinematography in Moscow? Or law at Oxford? Did the film for which his 1977 debut Crashes in Love was allegedly the soundtrack even exist? How on earth had a DIY auteur in a small Nigerian town made records so unique and forward-looking that they could slot into house music DJ sets decades later? And why did he stop? In the 2014 Noisey documentary Fantastic Man, an acquaintance remarked: “It’s difficult to say exactly who he is … so people just made up things to fit.”
Most of what we know about Onyeabor is thanks to Luaka Bop’s Eric Welles-Nyström and Nigerian-American journalist Uchenna Ikonne, who spent years trying to answer these questions, with virtually no extant information to work from. “It just didn’t make sense,” Welles-Nyström said
“How could someone have done all these things and there be no information available?”
His songs are often heavily rhythmic and synthesized, occasionally epic in scope, with lyrics decrying war sung by both Onyeabor himself and female backing vocalists. In recent years a number of his songs have appeared on various compilations, most often his biggest hit “Better Change Your Mind” which appeared on Africa 100, World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s a Real Thing – The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa, and Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970’s Funky Lagos, through labels such as Luaka Bop.
Credits to: Cool Hunting, Guardian, Wikipedia
On our throwback thursday episode today, we have selected two out of his classic songs for your listening.