Veteran Nigerian musician William Onyeabor retains his mystery

William Onyeabor released eight albums in Nigeria yet gathered fans in the West, writes Mike Rubin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 4:42pm

On a recent Saturday night, a boisterous crowd jammed into Buka, a Nigerian restaurant in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, spilling out onto Fulton Street. This wasn't the restaurant's usual weekend clientele, primarily expat Nigerians already familiar with specialities such as goat-head stew and giant land snails. Instead, the throng had gathered for a record-release party, listening to African-flavoured DJ sets by Steve Shelley, formerly of Sonic Youth, and Lizzi Bougatsos of Gang Gang Dance. Just past the bar, revellers took turns posing for selfies standing next to a two-metre cardboard cut-out of an imposing man in a disco-era cream-coloured tuxedo.

The life-size image was borrowed from the cover of the 1980 record Body & Soul by William Onyeabor, a Nigerian Igbo singer-songwriter who self-released eight nearly impossible-to-find albums of analogue synthesiser-driven electronic funk between 1977 and 1985. Highlights from those albums are collected on Who is William Onyeabor?, the recently released fifth volume of Luaka Bop's World Psychedelic Classics series, and the first album of Onyeabor's music commercially available in North America and Europe.

I have decided now that henceforth all my [music] will be to praise God and preach the word of God
William Onyeabor

Despite posters heralding the arrival of Onyeabor "for the first time in the United States", however, the guest of honour was nowhere to be found at Buka. His cardboard stand-in was probably the closest anyone would come to meeting Onyeabor, as he remained ensconced in his sprawling palace outside Enugu, Nigeria, ambivalent about the world finally discovering his music.

Closer in sound to Parliament/Funkadelic than to his compatriot Fela Kuti, Onyeabor is a cipher with a tantalisingly mysterious back story. Over the phone from Nigeria, responding to prepared questions, he stresses that all he wants people to know about him is that "I was a sinner who repented and gave himself 100 per cent to Christ". Describing himself as a born-again Christian, Onyeabor refuses to discuss his education (he reportedly studied film production in the Soviet Union and has a law degree) or his musical career.

"I am only proud of my music because of the creative aspect of it," he says. "I didn't use it strictly to praise God. That is why I have decided now that henceforth all my revealings will be to praise God and preach the word of God."

Nonetheless, Onyeabor is worshipped by a fervent cult, with his out-of-print records trading for as much as US$1,000 online. Even Luaka Bop's limited-edition vinyl reissue of his 1983 album, Good Name, sold out instantly this autumn and has since fetched US$150 on eBay. Onyeabor's work has also found enthusiastic fans among electronic artists such as Four Tet, Optimo and Hot Chip, as well as rock performers Damon Albarn, Devendra Banhart and Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards. And Luaka Bop is co-producing a documentary about Onyeabor.

Until now, most information about Onyeabor came from liner notes in the 2001 compilation Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970s Funky Lagos. They said he studied cinematography in Russia and was a businessman prospering from government contracts. Enthusiasts were left to divine clues from Onyeabor's album covers, which often showed him in dapper Western suits and oversized hats, surrounded by synthesisers.

Uchenna Ikonne, a Nigerian-born, Boston-based writer who runs the African music blog "Comb and Razor", says he tracked down Onyeabor by phone in 2009 and reached a verbal agreement to reissue some of his work, with details to be settled during a trip Ikonne was planning to Nigeria. Needing additional financial backing, he contacted Yale Evelev, president of Luaka Bop, which had included Onyeabor's 1978 track Better Change Your Mind on a 2005 compilation, World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love's a Real Thing - The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa. Ikonne offered to arrange licensing for a collection by Onyeabor, if Luaka Bop would finance a contract.

"I was ecstatic," Evelev recalls, "that he was going to come back in three months with a record."

Although warned that Onyeabor was a tough negotiator Ikonne anticipated a brief journey to Nigeria. Instead, he spent nearly a year there trying to cajole Onyeabor into signing an agreement. Ikonne returned without the signature or the advance money, which he had paid to Onyeabor in what is, Ikonne says, the customary Nigerian practice.

Onyeabor finally relented - but only after a friend of Ikonne's refused to leave the singer's home without a signed contract.

"That was the toughest ordeal I had ever endured in my life, just dealing with him. [I couldn't] listen to his music for maybe two years after that," Ikonne says.

Luaka Bop now had Onyeabor's signature, but not his participation; any attempt to ask him for information was met by awkward silences and abrupt hang-ups. The collection remained delayed for three more years, until Eric Welles-Nystrom, the new Luaka Bop label manager, became obsessed with finishing the project.

In August this year Welles-Nystrom travelled to Enugu, a hilly, verdant city of more than 700,000 people in southeastern Nigeria.

In addition to his music career, Onyeabor was apparently successful enough in business - a semolina flour mill, an internet cafe, a petrol station and a record-pressing plant - to earn the honorific high chief.

Welles-Nystrom says he found Onyeabor's downtown office in an empty storefront, complete with a clock on the wall that had stopped and a woman sitting alone in the darkened room. "Are you here to see the chief?" she asked him. "Are you from Russia?"

Soon he was driven 30 minutes outside town to Onyeabor's home, the Ezechukwu Palace, which "looks like a 1970s resort hotel", Welles-Nystrom says, with a giant, dry fountain out front and an indoor pool.

Now around 70, Onyeabor greeted his visitor warmly, if warily, allowing no photographs, no recordings and no questions about his past. Welles-Nystrom spent most of his week-long visit in the palace's VIP room, watching the Nigerian evangelist T.B. Joshua's Emmanuel TV network with Onyeabor. He left with more questions than answers but something of a relationship with the artist.

All of which leaves Luaka Bop effectively without an artist to promote.

In addition to the documentary, it hopes to hold concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Barbican in London next spring with artists performing Onyeabor's music, as well as a tribute to him in Lagos.

"When you don't have your artist there to do shows and interviews, it's so much harder, but we also want people to create something that lives, that people can experience in different ways," Welles-Nystrom says. "I don't want anyone to miss this music."

The New York Times