By Thomas Gesthuizen
When American label Luaka Bop released a compilation of songs by enigmatic 1980s singer William Onyeabor in 2013, they unleashed a full-on promotional campaign which included a website, t-shirts, buttons, a virtual fanclub, launch parties in cities around the world and a string of remixes by some big names in modern electronic music.
The CD and double LP Who is William Onyeabor is aptly titled, because few people know much about the artist and what became of him since he released his last pop album in the mid-1980s.
The enigma greatly contributed to the appeal that William Onyeabor’s albums have to a young and mostly non-Nigerian audience around the world. His original albums are hard to find, the rarest ones fetching over $1000 on Ebay, and until recently few people had spoken to the man again. Yet, his sound, which was certainly unique at the time, a merger of funk, soul and pop, played on expensive – analogue – synths, with the occasional feel of a proto-house track, has proven relevant and of interest to a new group of people, which for a large part seemed to consist of white, 30+ males who are otherwise into electronic music and the vintage sounds of Africa. The scope of Luaka Bop’s reissue has moved the exposure outside that group though, breaking new territories for reissues of African music of the 1970s and 80s.
The long mission to get William Onyeabor to agree on a reissue series has been partly documented, and our friend Uchenna Ikonne (Comb & Razor) played an important role there. The official story that was put out there by the record label is that William Onyeabor became a born-again Christian and didn’t want to have anything to do with his worldly artistic past. However, all this time it was conveniently left out that he continued making music, and even released a couple of music videos – all religious music, and therefor undermining the assumption of the PR campaign for the Onyeabor reissue series – ‘Who is William Onyeabor’? The answer to that question better not be ‘A Christian singer who has moved on from his musical past’, right?
And just as we were left at that conclusion, while enjoying the reissue compilation along with the integral release of his rarest album,Good Name, this came out: Fantastic Man, a 30-minute long documentary by You Need To Hear This (part of Vice magazine’s music section Noisey) which – just like previous articles – traced the steps towards meeting Mr. Onyeabor and talking about his past, since he still refuses to shed light himself. Even people that have seen him recently talk about him as if he’s the greatest living mystery, leading to such quotes as, “He’s a giant – he feeds once a day, and when he eats he will eat the food that 3 or 5 people consume”. Featuring record digger Duncan Brooker (Strut), producer Damon Albarn, writer and Nigerian musical historian Uchenna Ikonne, lawyer/historian Ed Keazor, producer Goddy Oku and many more but most importantly there’s at last a glimpse of the man himself on camera – meeting William Onyeabor outside his mansion near Enugu in South Eastern Nigeria.