Available on: Luaka Bop
William Onyeabor has put body and soul into preventing the release of Who is William Onyeabor?, a compilation of songs plucked from his infectious synthesizer-driven pop records released between 1977 and 1985, during the golden era of Nigerian funk. After four long years of painstaking persuasion, David Byrne’s world music label Luaka Bop has finally managed to release it, playing up to the mysterious theme of the record in their video trailer: “Synth Virtuoso, Russian Film Scholar, Oxford Law Student, sinner or saint?”
Nigerian ex-pat blogger Uchenna Ikonne made contact with the cult musician in 2009 and – in the “toughest ordeal I had ever endured in my life” – got a signature on a Luaka Bop contract. But after four years of painstaking attempts to follow up with the elusive septuagenarian, Luaka Bop boss Eric Welles-Nystrom had to fly to Nigeria to track him down himself. Welles-Nystrom eventually found his home – a palace of faded glory, a short drive from the hill-top town of Enugu – and after several days watching evangelising television, Onyeabor acquiesced to back the project.
It was Christianity that put an end to Onyeabor’s musical career, which produced eight extraordinary albums, each cover featuring the younger man donning debonair suits, surrounded by keyboards and chunky analogue equipment. Whether or not the Hitchensian adage “religion poisons everything” applies, it was certainly Onyeabor’s born-again faith that put his artistic days behind him.
“I was a sinner who repented and gave himself 100 percent to Christ,” Onyeabor told the New York Times this month, declining to discuss his music or his sketchy past. “I didn’t use [my music] 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.”
The hard-won fruits of this album have been worth it. Who is William Onyeabor? opens with ‘Body and Soul’, a 10-minute build to nowhere with a hard funk beat and female backing vocals, punctuated with Onyeabor’s sweet voice and chattering keyboards. The psychedelic ‘Atom Bomb’, the title track to his most famous album, has made the cut but its song ‘Better Change Your Mind’, again touching on the subject of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, sadly didn’t.
Artists including Four Tet, Dam-Funk, Devendra Banhart and Oneohtrix Point Never have heaped praise on Onyeabor. Carl Craig called him “an African Shuggie Otis” and Dan Snaith sampled him for ‘Ye Ye’. But now his infamously hard-to-find records – even MP3s – are presented for a new generation to hear, whether Onyeabor likes it or not.