Of all the musical rediscoveries of the last decade, that of Nigerian electronic funk maverick William Onyeabor was as unlikely as it was thrilling.
While the re-evaluation of his music was fully realized with the release of Who Is William Onyeabor? on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label in 2013, records he made between 1977 and 1985 had begun to circulate among diehard afrobeat fans during the previous decade when single tracks appeared on a number of compilations.
The nine albums he released during that fertile period were recorded and manufactured at his own pressing plant in his hometown of Enugu in south-eastern Nigeria. Their unusual, compressed sound added a depth to the joyous funk workouts he specialized in, while his synthesizer excursions added a unique psychedelic quality.
Despite his efforts, music success eluded Onyeabor, and he withdrew from playing to concentrate on wide-ranging local and international business interests – the latter leading to an award for West African Industrialist Of The Year in the late ‘80s. In later life, he would become a born again Christian.
His music failed to find a wider audience until Luaka Bop’s 2013 compilation collated his most irrepressible tunes, including Fantastic Man, Atomic Bomb and Body And Soul.
The release garnered instant praise from critics and fellow musicians alike. Despite his renewed cult status, however, he refused to tour or promote the album, which led in turn to the formation of the Atomic Bomb! Band – an amalgam of musicians revolving around English afro-funk artist Sinkane (aka Ahmed Gallab) and featuring a revolving cast including Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Damon Albarn, Money Mark, Pharoah Sanders, Green Gartside, Shabaka Hutchings and Byrne among them. This collective played selected shows celebrating the man and his music, including sets at the Latitude Festival in 2014 and Green Man in 2015.
Onyeabor declined most requests to be interviewed. When, in late 2013, MOJO contacted Luaka Bop to inform the label that Who Is William Onyeabor? had been selected by our writers as one of the reissues of the year, he felt moved enough to write a message to the magazine which he wanted passed on to the readers.
That message appeared in MOJO 242 and read:
“Brothers and sisters, I thank God for creating me, the way he did. My name is William Onyeabor. Lead a good life. Lead within the word of God. Do the word of God. Read your Bibles, and lead a good life. I’d like you to read James 1, verse 22-25. Do the will of God and lead a good life. I love you all. Bye for now.”
It was a rare acknowledgment of his newfound acclaim. He passed away peacefully in his sleep at home on January 16, 2017, at the age of 70, leaving a unique musical legacy.