World Psychedelic Classics Vol 5:
Who Is William Onyeabor?
In the six months since Luaka Bop’s reissue album Who Is William Onyeabor? was released, the obscure, reclusive Nigerian funk and disco musician has been acclaimed as a lost genius, was the (largely absent) subject of a documentary (embedded above), and received more mainstream press than probably any new pop artist in the last 12 months aside from Lorde.
Onyeabor’s likeness has been blown up for life-size cardboard cutouts and his name, the iconic ONYEABOR, has been emblazoned on plain white t-shirts available for the low, low price of $20 each in Luaka Bop’s online shop. This month, Red Bull Music Academy’s New York 2014 series featured a star line-up of musicians covering Onyeabor’s music in what’s being billed as the only “official” live performance of these songs which were made, in some cases, more than 35 years ago.
It’s all rather remarkable for a guy who everyone claims wants nothing to do with it.
I admit that I watched this phenomenon emerge with a jaundiced eye, not least of all because of the astonishing ease in which the strange songs of an obscure musician from a place considered rustic even to Nigerians was given such treatment by mainstream outlets. Even Fela Kuti rarely appears outside of the segregation of the “World Music” beat. I mean, Who Is William Onyeabor? was Time Magazine’s #4 album of 2013, behind Kanye, Vampire Weekend and My Bloody Valentine, and you just can’t get more mainstream than that. Sure, most are probably interested more in the “story” than the music, but even now I still harbor the fear that someone smarter than me will assemble the clues of the most monumental hoax pulled on the music industry since Milli Vanilli.
But it is established that William Onyeabor does exist. The story goes like this: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Onyeabor (after some time in the Soviet Union) was making and self-releasing music not entirely unlike the Nigerian funk & disco of the day, with the significant exception that his sound was built around synthesizers. This wasn’t rare for the world, but it was very rare for Nigerian and African music. His records have been the center of a vinyl collector’s cult seemingly ever since.
Onyeabor’s productions, spread across 8 albums made over 9 years, have drawn overheated comparisons to early Chicago House. On the surface it’s pretty dubious claim: dropping most of these tracks in one of the Ron Hardy or Frankie Knuckles or Michael Ezebukwu sets that have survived would sound jarring and out of place. On the whole, it’s more similar to other music from Nigeria than it is to anything from Chicago, New York or Europe being made at the time.
Underneath the hood, however, you can see where the comparison has merit. Onyeabor and the early Chicago pioneers were working from similar but distinct recipe boxes. Chicago’s main stock was the ultra deep disco made deeper still on the 12 inches that Knuckles, Hardy and Robert Williams were getting from their New York connections. Onyeabor had no access to these; his own “foundation” remains the Nigerian music of his day. But what Chicago’s House pioneers & Onyeabor working in isolation appear to share is the profound influence of Italo, cosmic and mutant disco and Kraftwerk-inspired synth music – records that bombarded their sensibilities like cosmic background radiation, mutating the foundation into some new musical isotope. It was from this small gap that pop culture’s notion of dance music was born.
Onyeabor later fell into evangelical Christianity, left the music industry and apparently wants nothing to do with the “sinful” records he made in his youth. This also is not a foreign concept to us: among some Christians, particularly in the rural South, all secular music is judged “worldly” and thus being of the devil. (It’s actually one of the alleged meanings of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”: just playing music outside church & for a purpose other than to praise God condemned Johnson & his ilk as “servants of the devil”.)
If there is a devil’s music, it’s “Body & Soul”, the towering, irresistible first track on Who Is William Onyeabor? It’s really one of the best funk songs I’ve heard in my life. The nasty, guitar-strumming groove and Moog effects give it something of a supernatural and slightly sinister vibe. The chant-style female backing vocals, the serpentine male lead and the endless instrumental loop make it as good for adventurous DJs as any Salsoul 12″. It’s really a marvelous song.
I can hear Kraftwerk (and maybe ‘Lectric Workers) in the furious bombardment of synths and a home-brewed 808 sound (made of course without an 808) of “Good Name” – a frightfully forward-looking track in any context. But for all of the talk about synthesizers, it’s actually the guitar-driven funk of “Body & Soul” and “Why Go To War” that stand out as the best “songs” in this small selection from Onyeabor’s catalog. “Let’s Fall In Love” is almost an anomaly, an historical oddity – I’m not aware of anyone in Africa who was making music like this at the time, almost like early Hip Hop and Electro. If you chopped off the first minute, I don’t think anyone would look askance at this being included on a Grandmaster Flash record – only the vocals identify this as a product of Africa rather than Africa in America.
I still don’t understand the publicity campaign that made Onyeabor an overnight sensation. I’m not an expert on Nigerian music, but I’m still suspicious that people are more interested in the “mystery” of the “lost genius” of William Onyeabor than the music, as was the case with Rodriguez from the documentary Searching For Sugar Man. Or hell: look at Spencer Kincy right here at home, whose life is far more interesting to some people (or at least the ones that email me) than his music.
But at the risk of sounding naive, a popular consensus shouldn’t have a thing to do with what we play. Whatever black magic Luaka Bop owner David Byrne has in his bag, I can think of more malignant uses of the unholy arts of media manipulation than in smearing some good African music across the neurons of the normals. This would have gotten rave reviews if it were merely a re-issue single of “Body & Soul” – that track alone justifies it all. The rest is a hell of a ride through the previously uncharted career of a fascinating figure on the margins.