To celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, Lauka Bop will release World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor. As rhetorical questions go, it’s one of the best. No-one can say with any certainty who William Onyeabor is. Much of his life is shrouded in mystery. There’s a reason for this. After releasing eight albums between 1978 and 1985, William Onyeabor became a born-again Christian. He then turned his back on music and refused to talk about his life or music. In some ways, this has helped perpetuated the myths surrounding William Onyeabor.

With William Onyeabor refusing to discuss his life, rumours surrounded his life are rife. Before his career in music began, some believe William studied cinematography in the Soviet Union. He then returned to Nigeria, where he founded his own film company, Wilfilms.  William’s life after music is equally shrouded in music.

After music, there’s rumors William studied law in England, before becoming a lawyer in his native Nigeria. Others believe William became a businessman in Nigeria. According to other rumours, William worked for the Nigerian government. No-one can say with any degree of certainty. The only person who knows what happened next, is William Onyeabor. 

Thirty-eight after William Onyeabor found religion, and turned his back on music, he’s still refusing to discuss his past. Lauka Bop, who will release World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor on 28th October 2013, tried to discover what happened to William Onyeabor. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to solve what is one of music’s real mysteries. This means still, little is known about Nigerian music’s most enigmatic musicians, William Onyeabor. Before I tell you about World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor, I’ll tell you the little that’s known about the mysterious and elusive William Onyeabor. 

Trying to write an accurate biography of William Onyeabor is almost impossible. After all, William Onyeabor refuses to talk about his past? Some things we can say with a degree of certainty. The first is that growing up, William Onyeabor was a talented musician. He was born and brought up Enugu, in the Nigerian provinces. Then as a teenager, it’s thought William was awarded a scholarship to study cinematography in the old Soviet Union. On his return to his native Nigerian, William Onyeabor founded his own film company Winfilms.

Whether Winfilms released any films isn’t known? A subsidiary of Winfilms, Wilfims Records released William Onyeabor’s eight albums. They were recorded at Winfilms Recording Studio in Enugu, Nigeria. William Onyeabor’s debut album was 1978s Crashes In Love. Seemingly, there are two versions of Crashes In Love in existence. What’s known as the electronic version, which has added drumbeats, has five tracks. The original version has just four tracks. It seems even mystery surrounds William Onyeabor’s debut album.

Following his debut album, William Onyeabor released his sophomore album Atomic Bomb in 1978. Featuring the Winfilms Resident Band, Atomic Bomb was groundbreaking, genre-sprawling album. Released on his own label, Wilfilms Records, William Onyeabor was establishing a reputation as a pioneering musician. He’d release a further six albums between 1979 and 1985.

For the next five years, William Onyeabor released an album each year. On each album William Onyeabor wrote, arranged and produced each of the tracks on the album. He also played on a succession of ambitious and innovative albums. Musical genres and influences melted into one on each album. William Onyeabor released Tomorrow in 1979, with 1980s Body and Soul the first album of the eighties. After that 1981s Great Lover, 1982s Hypertension and 1983s Good Name saw William continuing to push musical boundaries. Then in 1984 William Onyeabor never released a new album. 

Whether this was the start of the changes in William Onyeabor’s life, no-one can say with any degree of certainty? What we can say with certainty, is that 1985s Anything You Sow was William Onyeabor’s final album. After that, William Onyeabor turned his back on music. He became a born-again Christian, refusing to discuss his music or past. Since then, rumors and myths have surrounded William Onyeabor. As for his music, it’s grown in popularity. Over the past thirty-eight years, William Onyeabor has been recognized as a musical innovator, who fused musical genres and influences to create his own unique and inimitable sound. That can be heard on World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor which I’ll tell you about?

Body And Soul opens World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor. It’s the title-track from William’s 1980 album. Best described as a fusion of psychedelic funk, Afro-beat, soul, gospel and electronica, it’s a glorious melting pot of musical influences and genres. Wah-wah guitars and the rhythm section supply the funk, while William’s languid, heartfelt vocal supplies the soul. As for the female backing vocalists that answer his call and add harmonies, they veer between soul and gospel. Banks of keyboards and squelchy synths combine psychedelic funk and electronica. Chanted harmonies are not just deeply soulful but along with the rhythm section, add a mesmeric, hypnotic sound to this genre-melting, groundbreaking track.

Atomic Bomb is the title-track from William’s 1978 album. It marks a change in direction. Here, musical genres and social comment unite.There’s an almost understated sound as keyboards, meandering bass and bells combine. That’s still the case when lo-fi, vintage synths and drums enter. William’s vocal is pensive and thoughtful, growing in power and frustration. Helped no end by backing vocalists, a melodic, musical adventure unfolds. Thanks to the space-age, futuristic synths, the track heads in the direction of lysergic, cosmic funk. They’re helped along by the rhythm section, who supply a pulsating heartbeat. Then there’s impassioned harmonies, lo-fi synths and piano. They all play their part in a track where everything from Afro-beat, cosmic funk, psychedelia, soul and reggae create a melodic, uplifting, joyous and hook-laden track.

William Onyeabor released Good Name in 1983. The title-track has a hard, uber funky backdrop. It’s quite different from the previous tracks. Here the electronic influence in more prominent. A myriad of synths and drum machines play their part. Shrill synths and drum machines give the track a lo-fi sound. Adding a contrast is William’s vocal. Soulful, and sounding like aural sunshine, he’s like a musical shaman, spreading his musical message as his music evolves. Then there’s searing, screaming, scorching guitars which sound as if they’re being played by Jimi Hendrix’s ghost. Embracing electronica, funk, soul, Afro-beat, rock and psychedelia, William Onyeabor ensures his music stayed relevant by combining the musical past and present to create the music of the future.  

Something You Will Never Forget featured on William Onyeabor’s debut album Crashes In Love. Released in 1978, it opened Crashes In Love. The track has a much more traditional Afro-beat sound as it gradually reveals it secrets and subtleties. It’s very different from his later music. From just drums, a pulsating rhythm section, percussion and stabs of Hammond organ accompany William’s soul-baring vocal. He’s accompanied by backing vocalists. They’re later replaced by blazing, jazzy horns. Just like the prove the backing vocalists, they’re the perfect foil for William as Afro-beat, soul, jazz and funk combine to create the song that introduced the world to a musical visionary. For those unfamiliar with William’s music, this song is Something You Will Never Forget.

Why Go To War is another song full of social comment. William Onyeabor isn’t scared to ask the “big questions.” There’s none bigger than Why Go To War? Taken from his 1979 album Tomorrow, he questions and probes. War is like an affront to William. As if thinking aloud, he asks: “why not make peace?” This he does against a delicious, pulsating and mesmeric fusion of Afro-beat, funk, reggae, rock and soul. His band get into the tightest and funkiest of grooves. Singing call and response with backing vocalists, his impassioned, pleading vocal, not unreasonably William asks: “Why Go To War, why not make peace on this anthemic, antiwar song?”

Love Is Blind is a track from William Onyeabor’s 1981 album Great Lover. It’s akin to a call to dance. What follows, is truly irresistible. A combination of keyboards, thunderous, funky rhythm section and bubbling synths joins chiming guitars. They draw you in. It’s impossible to resist their considerable charms. Then there’s William’s vocal, which is more like a joyous chant. Especially when he’s joined by the backing vocalists. Together, they create a track that’s joyous and irresistible call to dance, whose charms you can’t help but submit to.

Heaven and Hell is another track from William’s debut album Crashes In Love. It’s four funky, soulful minutes of dramatic, spiritual music. Stabs of Hammond organ, rolls of drums, bursts of blazing horns and wah-wah guitars set the scene for William’s vocal. They create a tantalizing backdrop that you wish would last forever. Impassioned and heartfelt, William sings call and response with backing vocalists. His lyrics are judgmental, Old Testament, full of fire and brimstone. Hell it seems, exists in William’s world. Despite that, the music is a heavenly wall of surf guitars, a dusty Hammond organ and a myriad of drums and percussion.

Buzzing sci-fi synths open the futuristic Let’s Fall In Love. Sounding like a conversation between two robots, this is groundbreaking, inventive music. Taken from Williams 1983 album Good Name, it marks a change in his music. William sings call and response against this futuristic backdrop. Later, the backing vocalists add chanted harmonies. They’re the perfect foil to the sci-fi sounds emitted from the arrangement. Another contrast is the braying horns that blaze across the arrangement, as electronica, soul and jazz unite to create a compelling fusion of influences.

Closing World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor is Fantastic Man. It’s a track from William’s 1979 album Tomorrow. A pulsating, hip-swaying fusion of buzzing synths and a pounding rhythm section, it provide the backdrop for sweet, soulful harmonies. Filters and panning are used effectively and extensively. The result is a track where music’s past and present meet. Listen carefully, and the ghost of disco can be heard passing the musical baton to Chicago house. In the shadows, lurks the influence of Lee Perry and King Tubby with their hands poised on the effects, ensuring William neither overuses nor abuses them. He doesn’t. Instead, he creates what’s best described as a mesmeric fusion of post-disco and proto-house.

Over a seven-year period, William Onyeabor released eight innovative and inventive, groundbreaking, genre-melting albums. On each of these albums, was music that was way ahead of the musical curve. Proof of that is World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor, which features nine tracks from William’s illustrious back-catalogue.

Everything from Afro-beat, cosmic funk, gospel, jazz, post-disco, proto-house, psychedelia, reggae, rock and soul was thrown into the melting pot by William Onyeabor. This is apparent on World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor which will be released on 28th October 2013, on Lauka Bop. No wonder. William Onyeabor was a musical visionary. That’s no exaggeration. After all, how many people could successfully mix sci-fi synths with soul and jazz? William Onyeabor could, and does on Let’s Fall In Love. Then on Fantastic Man, William like a mystic, foresaw the changing of the musical guard.The ghost of disco passes the musical baton to Chicago house. This fusion of post-disco and proto-house demonstrates the versatility of William Onyeabor.  

Indeed, William Onyeabor’s music evolves throughout the period between William released his 1978 debut album Crash In Love and 1983s Good Name. Whilst other artists were churning out albums of similar music, William was pushing musical boundaries. He wasn’t content to stand still. One listen to World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor and you’ll realize this. From 1980 onwards, his music evolved. It became much more reliant on synths, keyboards and drum machines. Sometimes, it’s best described as futuristic, with a sci-fi sound. An example of this is Let’s Fall In Love, from his 1983 album Good Name. Buzzing, sci-fi synths are key to the track’s futuristic sound. To this inventive track, somehow, William welds soul and jazz. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work, but does. In a way, it’s just one example of the genius of William Onyeabor, which was lost to music after his 1985 album Anything You Sow.

That William Onyeabor turned his back on music, is music’s loss. Who knows what heights of innovation and inventiveness William Onyeabor might have reached? After all, he was creating music in just as midi was invented. He never got the opportunity to work with all the new technology producers now take for granted. What could’ve William Onyeabor have done with a modern studio packed with the latest hardware and running computers packing Logic, Reason or Ableton Live? Sadly, we’ll never know. 

Nor will we ever know Who is William Onyeabor? Rumor, myth and mystery will forever surround William Onyeabor, one of music’s mavericks. An innovator and musical chameleon, World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor proves that in his pursuit of musical excellence and perfection, William Onyeabor pushed musical boundaries and rewrote rulebooks. His legacy is eight albums, released between 1978 and 1985. A tantalizing taste of that music can be found on World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor, which is the perfect introductions to one of music’s lost geniuses. Standout Tracks: Atomic Bomb, Something You Will Never Forget, Why Go To War and Fantastic Man.


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