Monday, 11 November 2013

William Onyeabor, That's Who!

The french novelist and art theorist André Malraux remarked, "Man is not what he thinks he is but what he hides."

So what is the enigmatic Nigerian synthesizer whiz William Onyeabor hiding?

How did this lone genius birth an unparalleled brand of political afrobeat that incorporated (and anticipated) the propulsive rhythms of house, the futuristic melodies of early Detroit techno, the economical arrangements of New Wave and dub reggae, all topped with the jheri-curled savoir faire of west coast electro funk?

As the title of his new retrospective album asks, who is William Onyeabor?

Onyeabor's analog waves first rippled out of his native country when they appeared on Strut's Nigeria 70 compilation. Since that introduction, Eric Welles at Luaka Bop, home of the World Psychedelic Classics series, has vied to unravel the shrouded figure behind the keys.

At the time Welles began his investigation, the only fact known about Onyeabor was that he made eight self-published albums, and the first of which, Crashes in Love, was mostly likely tied to a film (possibly also self-produced) as intimated in the album notes. Apart from that, the only rumours at hand - both unfounded and suspect - were that Onyeabor studied cinematography in the Soviet Union and that he operated a flour mill. An odd CV, to say the least.

Pursuing this trail of sparsely strewn bread crumbs, Welles finally made Onyeabor's acquaintance, owing to an introduction by Nigerian journalist and music blogger Uchenna Ikonne (Comb & Razor).

Welles did not, however, garner anything even remotely resembling a holy grail as reward for his crusade.

Welles discovered, instead, that Onyeabor currently resides in a sizeable white mansion, situated on the outskirts of Enugu - its grounds are well-appointed with fountains, and its interior adorned with Christian iconography, photographs of Onyearbor parlaying with dignitaries, and studio gear.

As it turns out, Onyeabor did indeed own a semolina mill. And it was his business acumen that afforded him a life of relative luxury, including the means to establish the vanity studio behind both his films and music, Wilfilms. But with regards to his former ties to Russia, Onyeabor and those in his guarded inner circle pointedly rebuffed Welles questions.

The former musician, as Welles concluded, is unreservedly content in his present life and no amount of persuasion will convince him to release either future albums or - more frustratingly - the particulars of his past. When his refusal to allow Nigerian poet Chris Abani to compose the liner for the forthcoming compilation nearly jeopardized its release, Onyeabor cavalierly replied, "I guess it will never come out then."

Although his personal history has yet to come out, the album has come out to unanimous, well-deserved accolades.

Perhaps that's all we need to know.

For more on Onyeabor non-existent biography, Welles's quest for truth, and the tribulations of scouring the globe in search of good music, check out Dorian Lynksey's superb article in The Guardian: The Five Year Quest to Reissue William Onyeabor.

Who is William Onyeabor, Luaka Bop, 2013.

Discogs: Who is William Onyeabor

"Better Change Your Mind," Atomic Bomb, Wilfilms Records, 1978

Discogs: Atomic Bomb

"Love Me Now," Tomorrow, Wilfilms Records, 1979

Discogs: Tomorrow

"Let's Fall in Love," Good Name, Wilfilms Records, 1983

Discogs: Good Name

"Fantastic Man," Tomorrow, Wilflims Records, 1979

Discogs: Tomorrow

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