Reflections: William Onyeabor

Written by on 19th January 2017

The Nigerian mythic music pioneer, William Onyeabor has passed away at the age of 70. He died peacefully in his sleep following a brief illness, at his home in Enugu, Nigeria.

An avant-garde synth-funk musician, a born-again Christian and a would-be film maker, William Onyeabor was many things. Mysterious to the point of legend, his music has amassed a cult-like following ever since a 2013 reissue of his works on New York-based label, Luaka Bop. His larger than life presence was seen by only few but his music touched the lives of many. He is survived by his wife, four children and four grandchildren.

To truly understand Onyeabor, although it seems somewhat futile to attempt to do so given his proclivity for privacy, one must travel back to the Nigerian civil-war. As has been well-documented in the 2013 short film, ‘Fantastic Man,’ Onyeabor has since renounced his music and turned to God, becoming a born-again Christian and High-Chief in his hometown, Enugu. But in the years immediately following the 1967-1970 civil conflict, the Nigerian funk scene was thriving and Onyeabor was at its epicentre. The Funkees, The High-Grades, The Wings and many other bands toured the country to keep public spirits high. Taking inspiration from the likes of James Brown, these bands soaked up American culture before adding a Nigerian context to their music. But while most bands continued to perform afrobeat, highlife and afro-rock, Onyeabor was taking it to another level, with his own synths, recording studio and pressing plant.

“He’s not going to tell you how he made it, why he made it or what he was thinking about when he made it.” – Yale Evelev (Luaka Bop President)

Whilst a large question mark still remains over the Screen Shot 2017-01-18 at 16.59.23source of Onyeabor’s spending power, his willingness to flaunt his inexplicably expensive studio was never more so apparent than on his record sleeves. On the cover of his 1978 release, Atomic Bomb, Onyeabor is surrounded by eight microphones, a 1975 Polymoog and vintage Elka Synthex. Some say he had a benefactor in Soviet Russia, some say he had studied law at Oxford, but most could only speculate having never seen the man in person.

“In an era when we’re so used to finding out anything we want online, when there’s information you can’t find – it’s fascinating! That’s the magic of Onyeabor.” – Yale Evelev

Describing music as “before its time” is often a popular turn of phrase; overused in many cases as well. But with Onyeabor, his music was incomparably futuristic considering his geographical context and pioneering use of electronic instruments. Whilst almost all popular Nigerian music at the time was band-based, Onyeabor took to making studio-based music. Sequencers and drum machines met over experimental synth melodies to create perfectly robotic compositions. In tracks such as 1983’s, ‘Good Name,’ Onyeabor uses repetition as the driving element behind his music. As is noted in the 2013’s, ‘Fantastic Man,’ by Dan Snaith AKA Caribou: “Onyeabor was developing the same ideas as were seen in American dance music at the time, only completely independently.” 

William Onyeabor went on to self-released eight albums between 1977 and 1985, all recorded and pressed at his own production studio, Wilfilms Ltd. His music has become widely used by DJs across the world including the likes of Four Tet, Caribou and Floating Points. The fact that his music still resonates so heavily with young audiences is a true testament to his unique transcendental sound. 

With such outlandish stories as the rumour that the 105kg Onyeabor would eat only once a day, consuming the food that 5 men together could not finish, it is easy to overlook that fact that his music would often carry a serious and politically relevant message. Songs such as ‘Why go to War,’ with its lyrics:

All blacks and whites all over the world, I’m calling on you
Leaders, all nations, super powers
Tell me……… why you like to go to war.

Onyeabor’s music clearly carried with it a strong political message amid post-Nigerian civil war and Cold War contexts. The juxtaposition between his upbeat melodies and socially-conscious lyrics have undoubtedly driven the fascination that continues to surround his music. From his home nation of Nigeria to the lofts of New York City record label presidents, William Onyeabor’s presence is as enigmatic as ever.

Below, Melodic Distraction has curated a selection of tracks that we feel encompasses his work as a musician. If you’re already aware of Onyeabor’s work then sit back and take in some of his most powerful hits (and also some of his lesser-known B-Side cuts.) If you’re not already aware of the man’s music, then you have the pleasure of discovering the work of a true pioneer. Click an image below to listen to one of his works…

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