Right up to his death at the age of 70 this January, William Onyeabor’s publicly-known biography has remained somewhat brief. Based in Enugu, Southeastern Nigeria, between 1977 and 1985 he sang on and recorded eight albums, released via his own label and remarkably his own pressing plant - Wilfilms Limited. From the late 2000s these records developed a fervent interest, particularly after David Byrne’s Luaka Bop released a compilation of his tracks Who Is William Onyeabor? back in 2014. Yet whilst his music was fast gaining a new lease of global admiration, the artist himself stayed firmly in Enugu, refusing interviews and turning down the opportunity to participate in this resurgence. In the previous decades Onyeabor, a successful businessman crowned locally as ‘High Chief’, had since ventured into the flour mill and food processing business, became a Born Again Christian, and closed the door firmly on his musical past to focus on his role within religion and his community. So the mythic status he had come to acquire crystallised.
Still, when it comes to the groundbreaking and psychedelic music which Onyeabor spearheaded, the details of his personal life are something of an aside. Onyeabor took the rhythmic energy and guitar instrumentation of highlife, fused it with afro-rock popularised by the likes of The Funkees, and then reinvented the whole thing with synths. These synthesisers - uncommon in rural Nigeria at the time - gave his music its visionary and futuristic edge. A sound which transcended that of his hometown, Onyeabor’s output exists in its own time and space. It is definitively and intrinsically funky, off-kilter and eccentric - much like the fragments of what we know of the man himself.
And here he was, vibrantly and visually plastered on every physical release. His portrait was his watermark: adorned in a crisp white suit in Body and Soul, donning a spectacular red wide-brimmed hat on Hypertension, encircled by hardware on Anything You Sow. He caught the eye of the record-holder, always smiling, and, like the directness of his gaze, communicated to the listener through frankness and humour. War, politics, poverty, heartache, love, success, faith - all topics he explored from an enlightened bird’s eye view, devoid of overcomplicated allegory or ostentatious language. This is made no more stark than in Heaven and Hell, in which he bluntly sang “Hell, will suffer you forever.”
At the backbone of all of this, Onyeabor made music which makes you feel good. Whatever the subject matter - be it ‘suffering’ in the tightly-wound This Kind Of World, or the crooning and saccharine love vignettes such as Great Lover and Love is Blind - the experimental peculiarity of his synths, and the grooving repetition of his rhythms, made for tracks teeming with spirit and soul. They have toured the globe as part of the Atomic Bomb! Who is William Onyeabor? live shows, and have found their way into the likes of Daphni’s and Four Tet’s repertoires, and will undoubtedly continue on captivating and inspiring all those who choose to delve into the idiosyncrasies of his catalogue. They feel as cutting, as relevant, as pioneering now as they must have done then. William Onyeabor - Fantastic Man - no one sounds like you did.
Words: Josie Roberts