In October of last year, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label released Who is William Onyeabor?, a compilation of the obscure Nigerian musician some eight years in the making. A few months on, Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab led an all-star tribute to Onyeabor. Over the course of concerts in London, New York, and Los Angeles, Gallab assembled the likes of Byrne, Damon Albarn, members of Hot Chip, the Rapture, and LCD Soundsystem, the Beastie Boys’ Money Mark, fellow Nigerian stars the Lijadu Sisters, Dead Prez, jazz star Joshua Redman and ’60s free jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, Peaking Lights, and more to cover Onyeabor’s music live. There was also a documentary, a remix record for Record Store Day, and six commissioned original pieces of art by contemporary West African and American artists. Now follows a 9xCD box set (also split into two hefty vinyl boxes) that collects the entirety of William Onyeabor’s recorded output. But even after listening to all nine of these albums and absorbing the contributing essays from Mike Rubin (an expanded version of his New York Times profile) and Nigerian author Chris Abani, as well as recollections of the search for the man from Luaka Bop’s Yale Evelev and Eric Welles, one question still remains: Who is William Onyeabor?
There’s little doubt that Luaka Bop turned over every single stone in their quest. They both talked to Onyeabor on the phone and traveled to his compound in Enugu. (Welles tells of his travels from Lagos to Nigeria’s “coal city,” where Onyeabor remains a prominent businessman, with a flour mill, gas station, Internet café, and record pressing plant, along with a street named after him and the honorific title of “High Chief.”) And they did ask Onyeabor personal questions while in his presence. But at almost every turn, he evaded specifics. And so very little biography on Onyeabor has been advanced beyond what was written on the back of his debut album, which calls him “a French and American trained professional film maker,” though the stories go that he also studied film in Russia. And when he returned to his native Nigeria, he had both filmmaking equipment as well as a trove of prohibitively expensive early synthesizers.
His 1977 debut Crashes in Love is subtitled “A tragedy of how an African Princess rejects love that money buys” and is presented to the record buying public as a soundtrack to Onyeabor’s film of the same name, though there seems to be no trace of the film. On the front cover is an advert for Onyeabor’s own Wilfilms, which produces, exhibits, and sells features and documentaries, as well as “Records, Motion Advert, General Entertainment, etc.” and the back features the disclaimer: “You may wish to know that it is neither all nor only the sounds contained in this album that are tracked in film.”
There are no credits other than that of Onyeabor, but there’s a full band behind him, a crisp backbeat of drums and hand percussion, horns, snaking guitar lines and bubbling bass, and female singers who sing “One day you’ll be lying dead” on the mortality funk of “Something You’ll Never Forget”. Onyeabor’s organ sounds less like a synthesizer prototype purchased in an Eastern bloc country and more like something airlifted from an Indiana rollerskate rink and what would be the primary instrument on future albums is relegated to accompaniment instead, the horn line and bass.
On Crashes in Love, Onyeabor is of a piece with his Nigerian contemporaries—the album bears similarity to the likes of other mid-70s bands like BLO, the Funkees, and Ofege. The title track has a lilt to it as if at any moment the melody might veer off into a particularly light-footed take on “Red Red Wine” while “Heaven & Hell” sports the kind of breakbeat that would have led beat heads to seek the album out in the first place. It closes with one of Onyeabor’s stranger songs, “Jungle Gods”, featuring roiling bass and thundering percussion, Onyeabor speaking in echoplexed tongues. It’s also an outlier in that the sense that soon after followed a second version of Crashes in Love, now minus “Jungle Gods”. The alternate version of this album sounds ever so slightly sped up on “Something You Will Never Forget”, and now features a sputtering drum machine atop every other song.
In his essay to the box set, Abani recalls hearing Onyeabor’s “Atomic Bomb” on the way to seminary, where it vies for attention with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Michael Jackson, Fela Kuti, and Bob Marley amid the din of the marketplace. Not even a few months later, Abani and his fellow Nigerian classmates attended an assembly on the nuclear threat and later that night dance to the ecstatic eight minutes of “Atomic Bomb”, which inverts that world-destroying fear into an expression of love.
On Onyeabor’s 1978 album,he ditches his dream of being a filmmaker and emerges as a singular musical artist. Opener “Beautiful Boy” features a relaxed loping beat, the organ now resembling a ray gun from a ’50s alien invasion, Onyeabor unveiling a soft croon to a woman, “I’m gonna take you home.” Elsewhere, he furthers his loverman persona, singing “My love, I need you all my life.” Another undeniable groove powers “Better Change Your Mind”, the most politically-engaged Onyeabor song and the catalyst for Luaka Bop’s search for Onyeabor when they included it on Love’s A Real Thing: The Funky Fuzzy Sounds Of West Africa.
Tomorrow, his third album in as many years, now featuring Onyeabor in a velvety double-breasted suit, begins to move away from the solid groove of Afrobeat towards something more diaphanous. The drums and bass loosely twine about Onyeabor and his female backup singers, their vocals unhurried, the organ squirreling in, out, above and around the rhythm. “Why Go to War” has what sounds like a Slinky threaded through an electric guitar and then nervously plucked, continuing Onyeabor’s mind being on both the smallest of affairs between man and woman and the mutually assured destruction of the world. The album also features what some 35 years later might be Onyeabor’s greatest pop “hit,” the preening funk of “Fantastic Man” (which you can now hear on ads for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). And no wonder—it’s a doozy, Onyeabor peacocking before a group of females even as he steps on a disco duck and has a UFO crash land on his fly threads.
“Body & Soul”, the title track off his next album, has made its rounds on open-minded dancefloors via a few different 12” pressings. It scans as Afrobeat while maintaining a slack beat, suggesting downtempo, reggae, funk and disco, with modular synth bleeps without ever being beholden to any one of them. Instead Onyeabor (dapper in a white tuxedo on the album sleeve) testifies to his love of music, body and soul. But the rest of the album maintains a relaxed grip on Afrobeat, “The Way to Win Your Love” urgent in its pleading if not its meter. While on “Poor Boy,” Onyeabor’s keyboard blurts are hurried and the interplay between horns, drums, and synths are some of the most intricate to date.
Great Lover is the album I’m least familiar with, in that only “Love is Blind” –with its “Ring My Bell”-esque synth swoops– was previously compiled. It continues Onyeabor’s run of swag covers, now posing in a tux and tophat, his wristwatch bling-sized. On the back are photographs of the Wilfilms compound, which seems formidable indeed in rural Africa circa 1981, with a four-story building, 24-track recorder, 32-track mixing console and a photo of Onyeabor wearing that top hat indoors with the caption “We Mean Business” underneath. “Tell Me What You Want” shows Onyeabor absorbing reggae and its lilting rhythms, his keys chirping and pinging like island birds and the album itself sounds cloaked in haze, either from there being missing master tapes or the condition of the copy sourced here. But such sonic haze no doubt will endear it to Ariel Pink, Lewis and DaM-Funk fans, or those who now associate low fidelity with heightened mystery.
Hypertension finds our mystery man now dressed as a mariachi band member, right down to a blood-red sombrero. But musically he seems taken with calypso and soca and other Caribbean rhythms on “The Moon and the Sun” and “Papa Na Mama”. That amalgam of island beats, disco sensibilities, and Onyeabor’s warped synths bring to mind compilations like Tropical Disco Hustle, showing a strange kinship between the Caribbean and Nigeria during the Year of Thriller.
By the next year, a greater urgency underlies Good Name (Onyeabor now sporting a white cowboy hat and gold crucifix chain), a two-track album with one song apiece taking up an entire side. In much the same way that a continent away Indian pedal steel guitarist Charanjit Singh invented acid house with Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat in 1983, Onyeabor himself seems to be anticipating the rise of the machines. Squelches and throbs propel “Let’s Fall in Love”, continuing Onyeabor’s foremost inspirations, God and love. On “Good Name”, the guitars sear, the sputtering drum machines skitter fast as rats, and Onyeabor’s keys bear a frayed and serrated tone as he sings—a trace of desperation in his voice—how “no money can buy a good name.”
Anything You Sow, the Onyeabor album that first entranced me, was also his last album before he gave his life (and every subsequent interview answer) over to Christ, turning his back on his musical output. Sampled by Caribou (under his Daphni alias) and no doubt a template for the likes of Four Tet, LCD Soundsystem, Peaking Lights, and James Holden, to name a few, Onyeabor’s influence can most easily be gleaned here on primitive-futuristic tracks like “Everyday” and “This Kind of World”. Over a joyous splutter of a beat on “When the Going is Smooth & Good”, Onyeabor couches a bitter pill. Perhaps a commentary on Onyeabor’s own status at the time of his conversion, the song rails against people who soothe in good times only to evaporate in bad, or worse still, “to help in knocking you down down down.”
In the past decade, the only other Nigerian artist to merit such a career-spanning box set was Fela Kuti, yet in some ways it’s odd to consider William Onyeabor an equal. While Fela was truly a force of nature (the year of Crashes in Love’s release, Fela himself recorded and released six albums), Onyeabor seems, for lack of a better word, meeker (if more liable to keep his stylish shirt on). Fela’s music feels irreducible as steel while Onyeabor’s is curiously ductile. An enemy of the state as opposed to a respected businessman. Both were politically-minded, though it’s hard to compare Onyeabor to the vociferously outspoken Kuti.
A God-fearing man making sweet, light-hearted ditties in juxtapose to a demiurge with a compound full of women, yet both men have greatly influenced western music-making in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Fela’s influence spans from Brian Eno to Talking Heads on up to Broadway and his revolutionary music can be felt in an instant, but Onyeabor’s was quiet and every bit as revelatory. Folks tinkering with analog gear and archaic drum machines and how to make such machines express sweet-hearted human sentiment may not have realized Onyeabor’s example until reaching this precise thin layer of sediment buried deep down in reissue culture. Perhaps then Onyeabor’s renaissance will be closer to that of Arthur Russell’s, both of their catalogs continuing to find resonance among those fiddling with gear, be it in their bedrooms or in their compounds.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1qD5lO6