Published on October 27th, 2013 | by Dave Scaddan


William Onyeabor – Who is William Onyeabor?


There’s nothing quite as enticing for the obsessive music appreciator as the ‘unearthed’ album.  Every so often, some buried relic will find an audience in the present in ways that, for a variety of reasons, it never could in the past.  The stories of Rodriguez, Death, and to a lesser extent, Euphoria, have recently served notice of the music-buying public’s love for the story of a ‘lost’ album, (or even an entire lost artist or band) especially when the music cuts the mustard.  The story of William Onyeabor is being pitched to us as one of these musical resurrections, and we should be listening.

Onyeabor recorded a handful of albums between the mid-seventies and mid-eighties that drew comparisons to fellow African frontman Fela Kuti.  Over time, these comparisons have come to seem somewhat short-sighted, perhaps because they were based mainly on the fact that both artists are Nigerians with partially overlapping careers in which they’ve both laid down some very serious funk.  Apart from the accent both vocalists share, and perhaps some of the same tastes in rapid, jumpy drum patterns, the styles of the two are quite different.  Onyeabor’s trademark is his synthesizer, alternately an ELKA or a MOOG, which, combined with the drum, bass and vocal stylings of seventies funk Nigeria style, makes for most voluptuous union.  There is not a single ten-second nugget from this man’s entire back catalogue that could not be cut and chopped into a Paul’s Boutique-esque anthem of ass shakery.  Though the tendency to find a groove and ride it to epic lengths will recall some of Fela’s finest, Onyeabor really sounds more like a synthed-out James Brown or Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, or a housebroken ‘Atomic Dog’ era George Clinton, depending on the track in question.

The ‘lost’ or ‘unearthed’ allure of ‘Who Is William Onyeabor?’ is, as always, part hype of the variety not to be believed.  The mystery here begins and ends with the fact that in the mid-eighties, Onyeabor, born again, turned his back on his music and disavowed any connection with his decade-long legacy of champion funk.  Since then, he has certainly not remained unrecognized, though his celebrity has been obscure.  Fantastic compilations like ‘Nigeria 70 – The Definitive Story Of 1970s Funky Lagos’, ‘Booniay! A Compilation of West African Funk’, and ‘World Psychedelic Classics 3 – Love’s A Real Thing – The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa’ have kept appreciation of Onyeabor’s music from lapsing into total stasis, but his music will be entirely unfamiliar to those not initiate in grey-fingered crate digging.  On all of these compilations — all three of which are deep with similarly-styled wonders (minus the synth) — Onyeabor’s contributions rise as cream, so it’s no surprise that New York record label Luaka Bop should now further their ‘World Psychedelic Classics’ series with an album dedicated entirely to his catalogue.  Who cares if the hype they strive to generate by marketing this musical genius as the Colonel Kurtz of Nigerian 70s funk seems overblown to those who’ve known these grooves for years?  There is quite simply no one making music like this now, no one has been for a very long time, and a precious few ever did, and if a few waftings of hyperbolic mystique help more funk fans get Onyeabor in their ears, then who cares where he’s hiding, and from what, and why?

Who cares either if artists like Dam-Funk, Damon Albarn, Kieran Hebden of Four Tet, or Daniel Victor Snaith of Caribou are now ripe to be quoted about this man’s force behind the keys and mic?  Dropping the name William Onyeabor sounds cool, to be sure, but it will never sound as cool as the music behind the name, and any remixing, remastering or repackaging of gems like ‘Body and Soul’, ‘Fantastic Man,’ or ‘Good Name’ can only serve the supreme purpose of leading listeners back to the pristine source of this Nigerian relic’s grinding, honking, quacking, thumping synthesizer.

As an anthology, this Luaka Bop effort makes the right moves, leaving some of Onyeabor’s ballads, ill-advised latter-day experimentations, and overly sweet grooves behind.  ‘Who Is William Onyeabor?’ sticks mostly to what this godfather did best: jamming over quick drums with heavily stylized keys and seventies funk guitar, leaving no listener sitting still.  As a genius turns his back on his legacy, his largest audience ever seems poised to gather his loose ends.  His story may never surface fully, but the finest chapters of it are certainly in these songs.  Listen, and fondly remember a groove you never knew.

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is a teacher who enjoys writing and talking about movies, music, and books.

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