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The Mysteries of William Onyeabor 

Wednesday, Apr 30 2014
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There is more to wonder about Nigeria's William Onyeabor than there is to know — but since his music is more knowable than anything else, let's start there. Between 1977 and 1985, Onyeabor released eight albums of psychedelic synthesizer funk so alien, yet so seductive, that his obscurity is practically offensive. Discovering a song like "Body and Soul" is like hearing Sly and the Family Stone for the first time: It's 10 minutes of strutting funk so pure and intoxicating that you have fight to hold still while it plays. The best of Onyeabor's songs could've been ejected from whatever Afro-mystic volcano or magical fount of syncopation gave us the work of James Brown and George Clinton. His music easily stands next to that of better-known West Africans like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé. But given Onyeabor's obsession with Moog synthesizers and studio electronics ­— not easy equipment to acquire or maintain in the Nigeria of the '70s, or even now — his brand of sci-fi funk is excellent accompaniment for these gadgetized times.

Onyeabor's songs are so damn compelling that the managers of Luaka Bop, the world music label started by the Talking Heads' David Byrne, waited years and endured dozens of occasionally terrifying setbacks to put out a compilation of them. These setbacks were brought about exclusively by Onyeabor himself, who now lives in a palace (the only word to describe it) outside of his hometown in Nigeria. No longer making music, the Onyeabor of today is a seventy-something born-again Christian who wants mostly to spend his days watching preachers on TV, and certainly does not want to talk about how he made some of the most exciting music from Africa in the second half of the 20th century.

But when the songs are this good, you don't give up.

Onyeabor's biggest hit was "Atomic Bomb," eight spell-like minutes of synthesizer and electric organ acrobatics over a moody minor-key groove, with some call-and-response vocals thrown in for a human touch. With synthesizer flourishes spiraling and fizzling out, it feels like a lament for the end of the world, even though it's Onyeabor who sings that he's going to explode. "Fantastic Man" is another buoyant funk exercise like "Body and Soul," with Onyeabor imploring his female companion to tell him how good he looks for once. (It's not an empty plea: Along with his trademark cowboy hat, the imposing Nigerian graced the covers of many of his albums wearing dapper banker's suits.) Not every song of Onyeabor's is as transcendental as these ­— a few get lost among their cascading layers of synths and extraterrestrial effects. But Onyeabor's best work combines a distinctly African retro-futurism with thoroughly intoxicating rhythms and the idiosyncrasies of an auteur able to indulge every whim. He's Africa's Funkadelic, its Kraftwerk, and its Brian Eno, all rolled into a single recluse.

In 2005, Luaka Bop included a song of Onyeabor's called "Better Change Your Mind" on the compilation World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love's a Real Thing. After its release, the label was approached by a Boston-based Nigerian music expert and blogger named Uchenna Ikonne with the rather modest-seeming idea of putting out a whole album of Onyeabor's music. Ikonne was from the southeastern Nigeria city of Enugu, the same town as Onyeabor, and he was going there to visit family for a few weeks. He could easily bring Onyeabor a contract and some cash to finalize the deal. Or so he and Luaka Bop thought.

Ikonne fought for nine months to get Onyeabor to sign the record contract. In the end, he came home with neither the money nor the deal. Interviewed by NPR late last year, Ikonne explained, without going into detail, that the experience of dealing with Onyeabor had shaken him to his core. "It was not just emotionally draining, it was emotionally devastating," he said. "This man completely crushed my soul. After I finished dealing with him, I didn't listen to his music for maybe two years, because just hearing his voice would almost give me an anxiety attack."

Eventually, a female friend of Ikonne's went to Onyeabor's house with the contract and refused to leave. She emerged five hours later with a signature.

Still, the managers of Luaka Bop knew very little about the man whose music they were now obligated to release. Rumors held that Onyeabor had studied film in Russia and started a motion picture company; that he had earned a law degree in the U.K.; that he was a successful businessman, or a violent criminal. And there was still the question of his money: Onyeabor had built his own record pressing plant and recording studio in remote Nigeria, which he filled with exotic analog synthesizers in an age where this technology was still very new and expensive. How the hell did he do that?

Luaka Bop wanted a Nigerian writer to interview Onyeabor for the liner notes of the record, to answer some of these questions. They called him to set it up. "And William Onyeabor's like, 'Why would I want to do that?'" remembers Eric Welles-Nystrom, Luaka Bop's label manager, laughing. Most artists ­— most people ­— want to talk about themselves, he says. Onyeabor just hung up the phone.

Welles-Nystrom took on the research project himself. After a year of investigating Onyeabor online and through various DJs, collectors, and African music experts ­— and finding little more than a paragraph's worth of lore — he decided to go to Nigeria to meet Onyeabor in person. "We told [Onyeabor], of course, that I was coming. But we kind of had to make up this story that I was there for other reasons to not freak him out that I would go to Nigeria to see him."

Eventually Welles-Nystrom found his way to Onyeabor's imposing white palace. On the first day, he spent some seven hours inside with its master. "We'd talk a little bit and then we'd spend a lot of time watching Nigerian Christian television," Welles-Nystrom remembers. "That went on for a week. There were very rare moments that we could speak about music, or speak about him or his background."

But although Onyeabor could be elusive and guarded, he was far from oblivious. "He is incredibly sharp — he is super-aware of things happening around him," Wells-Nystrom says. "He's super on top of current affairs and news, and sometimes he'll even comment on what Barack Obama did last week. You've got to really be on your toes with him."

Over the course of that trip, and two more ­— including one to film a half-hour documentary on Onyeabor that can be seen free online ­— Welles-Nystrom filled in a few of the blanks about the elusive Nigerian. He'd been a businessman as well as a musician, making money with a semolina mill. He'd been named high chief and a judge of his town, Welles-Nystrom discovered; there's even a street named after him in Enugu. Inside the palace hang photographs of Onyeabor with visiting dignitaries.

But there are still far more questions than answers. Luaka Bop's compilation, which was finally released last year to widespread acclaim, was supposed to be called This Is William Onyeabor. Instead it was titled, Who Is William Onyeabor? — because no one but the man himself really knows, and he isn't saying.

That reluctance puts Luaka Bop in the strange position of promoting an album by a musician who is still alive, but largely unavailable. "It feels so weird to tell people about an artist when he is there and he can tell people about himself, but we kind of have to talk for him," Welles-Nystrom says. And despite the label's urging, Onyeabor has also refused to participate in a series of tribute concerts to his work.

This week, David Byrne, LCD Soundsystem's Pat Mahoney, Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor, Block Party's Kele Okereke, and Sinkane's Ahmed Gallab, among others, are performing Onyeabor's music at the Warfield. Gallab is music-directing the concert series, which began earlier this month in London, and is tasked with translating Onyeabor's exacting studio creations to the live stage. Though the Nigerian recorded and played almost all of his songs himself, adapting them for a group was not easy. "The music is so lively and energetic and it's so good to listen to that it almost feels like it is made to be performed live," Gallab says. "[But] he never intended for it to be played live. He just wanted to make a studio record."

Which, along with his shaky health, may be partly why Onyeabor has so far declined to travel to perform his music with Gallab's newly christened Atomic Bomb band. "I think it felt so foreign for him to take that step," Welles-Nystrom says. "He doesn't really understand what it is that's happening, and how it is to have shows at these amazing venues, which I think is a little bit sad. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

But maybe Onyeabor truly doesn't care. Maybe he simply wants to dedicate himself to praising God, after spending most of a lifetime engaged in who-knows-what-other pursuits. We may forever wonder. But at least now, thanks to Luaka's Bop's efforts, the music is out there ­— and when it comes to assuring William Onyeabor's legacy, the music is more than enough.

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Ian S. Port

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