FEATURE \\ William Onyeabor and the Benefits of Seclusion

27th June 2019
William Onyeabor’s story is shrouded in mystery – not even a documentary could get to the bottom of it. Here’s a look at how his obscure background and reclusive lifestyle influenced his pioneering sound.

By Harry Stott

Most writing about William Onyeabor tries to answer one thing and one thing only: who on earth was this man? This question spawned the title of record label Luaka Bop’s seminal 2014 compilation of Onyeabor’s music ‘Who is William Onyeabor?’, and after his death a couple of years ago, corners of the internet were filled with obituaries each trying to find a different way of saying that no one seems to know very much about him (pity the poor writer who, with no biographies, interviews or indeed anything else to go off, has to do some proper research). With Bukky Leo soon to put his own take on this Nigerian man of mystery’s music at Love Supreme, it feels like a good time to try and piece together Onyeabor’s story, teasing out what his muddy history and infamous reclusion can tell us about his music which, if you haven’t heard it, sounds like little else.

Let us begin with the myths; when you search for info on William Onyeabor’s background, a few stories tend to come up. One posits that Onyeabor was plucked from his native rural eastern Nigeria by Soviet Russia to study cinema in Moscow. Following that, he is said to have returned home armed with a dazzling array of synthesisers, putting film on the back burner to begin his musical career. The idea of the man who created ‘Atomic Bomb’ studying how Battleship Potemkin was made seems a little out of whack, but the synths (and there were a lot of them) had to come from somewhere, why not the USSR? Another rumour is that Onyeabor studied law at Oxford. But trying to imagine ‘Fantastic Man’ being created in a cloistered 60s college feels even more absurd – at least the Russia story had a bit of Cold War pizzazz.

Bukky Leo & Black Egypt Presents The Legend of William Onyeabor at Love Supreme 2019

Either way, Onyeabor’s youthful travels (wherever they lead him) seemed to turn him into a recluse. After returning to Nigeria, he started a hugely profitable flour mill – step up, West African Industrialist of the Year 1987! – earning enough to set up his own studio and film/music imprint called Wilfilms. From the company’s base in his lavish rural mansion, William holed himself up with his keyboards to make nine albums of maniacal electro-disco-funk, but he never gave interviews or talked to anyone about his music, despite its huge popularity in Nigeria. It is this seclusion from society, however, that I think we can actually thank for the music; Onyeabor’s enigmatic, absurdly original sound could only be the product of one man’s imagination unsullied by outside influences.

Damon Albarn’s assessment of Onyeabor’s music on the excellent Noisey Documentary ‘Fantastic Man’ gets it bang on: ‘It’s quite sort of eccentric, but it’s also very intelligent, and incredibly funky’. The eccentricity element is obvious: Onyeabor’s fleet of synths that he so proudly flaunted would have been the envy of many London studios. It was a set up of keyboards layered upon keyboards with mics aimed at every angle, a retro-futurist haven of analog machines hidden away in the West African brush. Albarn is right when he calls the music intelligent too, even more so in fact. While his African (and indeed many European) contemporaries were noodling around on keyboards or trying to emulate James Brown, Onyeabor was experimenting with sequencers and drum machine loops in a way that only maybe Kraftwerk or Brian Eno were doing at the time. But his tracks are not cheap facsimiles of those early European dance records – Oneyeabor’s music was his own, his innovations organic.

In the same interview Albarn goes further, saying ‘In the tunes they’re almost finding out what you can do with the instrument as they’re recording it’, and you can absolutely hear that. The wobbles and warbles that meander and shift on ‘When the Going is Smooth & Good’ sound like they are being chosen in real time, like their creator is testing the limits of his instruments and discovering their potential while he is recording. Onyeabor’s notorious stubbornness – now a born again Christian, he refused to help Luaka Bop with their re-release or even speak to them about his musical past – is certainly a factor in this innovation. One imagines a request to give any artistic ground would have been met with the barrel of a gun. However, it is his seclusion from the world, from anyone who might have told him to go down a different musical path, from the tainting influences of other music, that I think is the biggest factor, the key reason he was able to make the music he did. That, and having the resources to fund every aspect of the music making process, of course.

Listen to other African synth based artists from that era – Mamman Sani from Niger is one of the very few who come to mind – and you realise that Onyeabor was operating on a different planet from his contemporaries. There’s certainly no one else like him from Nigeria or West Africa from that period, and comparisons with Afrobeat or Highlife seem entirely pointless. The potent, squelching funk that Onyeabor drags us through might be best aligned with P-funk and bands like Parliament in the US, but even this doesn’t do it any real justice. Onyeabor was truly a one of a kind, a synth wizard who created and then threw away his own church of sound to join another. Given his self-imposed seclusion and his closely guarded story, Onyeabor’s mystique and fantastical aura, the thing that has afforded him so many devoted disciples, remains intact after his death, rumour and hearsay embellishing the story of a man whose music should speak for itself.

Bukky Leo & his 11 piece band Black Egypt are presenting ‘The Legend of William Onyeabor’ at this year’s Love Supreme festival. You can check out the programme in full and buy tickets here.

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