- Text by Sophie Church
The Nigerian synth funk pioneer William Onyeabor died in his sleep on Monday at the age of 70.
Between 1977 and 1985, he recorded nine albums in his self-built studio and released them on his own label. But recognition would take time.
International acclaim arrived almost 30 years after Onyeabor disappeared from music, leaving a legend shrouded in mystery.
By the time the Luaka Bop label released the compilation Who is William Onyeabor? in 2013, the musician had made it clear that fame didn’t interest him.
But the enthusiasm for his work proved so great that a line-up of top musicians – including David Byrne, Damon Albarn, Blood Orange and Hot Chip – got together and toured his music as the Atomic Bomb! Band.
Sinkane, otherwise known as Ahmed Gallab, became its musical director. Here he shares his memories of working with Onyeabor and the legacy he leaves behind.
What first drew you towards William Onyeabor’s music?
When I was 23, my friend played me this compilation of African psych called World Psychedelic Classics Vol. 3. That changed my life. It was the first time I heard music that felt related to my experience: distinctly African music with an American influence that was so earnest, so honest and so excited.
One particular song from William called ‘Better Change Your Mind’ completely blew me away. Whenever I hear that song, I can still smell the room I was in when I first heard it. That’s how powerful it was to me. It seems so multicultural and it had this amazing message: one of togetherness and universality.
After that, I became obsessed with him. I would scour the internet trying to find more music – but there was almost nothing out there. Occasionally there’d be a rare copy of one of his records but it would be so overly expensive and there was no way to listen to it. I was just riding off that one track for so long.
What do you think he was trying to do with his music?
I think he’s been quoted as saying that his talent had nothing to do with what he was doing, that it was something he was given by God. But ultimately he was a businessman. You wouldn’t get into music just for the sake of it by doing it the way he did.
He went and studied how to record an album. He bought all the necessary gear – state of the art stuff that’s still state of the art now. He learned how to manufacture records and he opened up a manufacturing plant.
He travelled the world to get all this stuff, so there was more to it than just the music for him. When I went back to Nigeria and met him, I realised that he’s a straight-up businessman who loves that side of it just as much as making music.
What was it like when you met him?
He was really hospitable but also a bit secretive, which I can understand from a person of his stature. You have to be careful about who you let into your life. His house was really far away from the city of Enugu – out in the bush – and on the drive there it felt like I was in a film.
You had all this lush African landscape, then this hairpin turn on a dirt road through all these trees until you reach this huge palace. They opened the gate up and I saw him from far away. He approached me with a big smile, his eyes glistening in the light, and he goes: “So you’re Ahmed…”
He knew who I was! He offered me a glass of water and we sat down in this gigantic living room that could have held like 300 people. He took [Luaka Bop label manager] Eric [Welles-Nyström] aside and I could hear him saying, “So you swear by this guy, he’s a good person?” and Eric was like, “Yeah yeah yeah”.
So he took us up to his VIP room and we just sat there for hours, listening to some music. He talked a lot about God and he seemed really enlightened by how positively his music affected people all over the world.
We’d show him footage of our live sets but only of the people dancing, smiling and laughing – not of us on stage. He really appreciated that. In his heart of hearts, he was a genuine person who wanted to help people.
That’s why he was drawn to religion. He led a church that had 3,000 patrons. He showed Eric and I the blueprints of a town he wanted to build. He was a giver… and I think he will be missed dearly not just by his family but by the whole community.
How big did spirituality become in his life?
If you go to Nigeria, Christianity is everywhere. In Enugu in particular you’ll see people walking down the street with their Bible, asking if you’ve you gone to church. It’s a part of who they are.
I think he grew up with that and came back to it, but I don’t think it ever left him. He was always a religious man but, in 1985, I think that’s when he decided that’s what he wanted to do with his life.
It was very obvious when we talked about his records that he had moved on from that part of his life. He enjoyed it and was very proud of what he had accomplished but, to him, it was like, “That happened a long time ago and I’m over it. I’m doing this now.”
It was kind of similar to when you think about high-school and say, “I was really into that at the time, but now I’m into something else.”
How has your own music been affected by his work?
Since I made my first album, everything about his music has influenced me. What I’m really inspired by is the fact that his music is distinctly African, but transcends our idea of what African music is.
Ultimately it’s his own unique sound and no one else can make that music because it’s so far out, it’s way ahead of its time. I aim to take from that by really pushing the envelope of what African music is or what my own identity is to try and make something truly unique.
But in the last two years, playing with the Atomic Bomb! Band, I gained a new understanding of camaraderie and community within the musical landscape. I got to play with a lot of my idols; I gained their respect; I became friends with them.
I never thought I’d be playing with David Byrne or Pharoah Sanders or Damon Albarn. But it inspires me to think William Onyeabor’s music brought us together. It had never been performed live before and none of us knew how powerful it was going to be.
Fans like to peek behind the curtain, they like to know as much about the object of their affection as possible. How do you think William’s elusiveness impacted his following?
I think it made him more powerful – and he was smart enough to know that. When I met him, he was just as elusive in person.
It took a lot for him to trust you and he was really careful about what he talked about. But it made people so intrigued and it became a part of who he is.
He did a really good job of letting you in a little bit – just enough to get you curious – and then he’d stop.
Did you not find that frustrating?
To some extent, yes. But also I just took it for what it was because the music speaks for itself and stands alone as a testament to his genius.
I think as people we are so nosy about everything and sometimes we should respect others’ privacy. You don’t need to know everything about William Onyeabor. His genius took that understanding and turned it into an identity.
He was a private person and knew when to pump the brakes. But he also egged it on just a little bit for people to keep on wanting more.
He would never come to New York to talk about his contracts; he would let [the label] come to him. He knew that people were intrigued enough to do that.
And they will keep on being intrigued by him but they’re never going to find out any more.
It’s just going to draw people into his songs and talk about them more and tell more people about it. I think it’s pretty amazing that he did that.