It was only when David Byrne’s Luaka Bop released World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor in October 2013, that the wider world first heard the music of one the most mysterious and elusive musicians. The title Who is William Onyeabor was one that nobody could answer with any certainly,
There’s a good reason for this,Much of William Onyeabor’s life is shrouded in mystery. After releasing eight albums between 1978 and 1984, William Onyeabor became a born-again Christian. He turned his back on music and refused to talk about his life or music. In some ways, this has helped perpetuate the myths surrounding William Onyeabor.
With William Onyeabor refusing to discuss his past, numerous rumours surrounded his life after music. Rumours were rife about what happened next. Some believe William studied cinematography in the Soviet Union, then returned to Nigeria, where he founded his own film company, Wilfilms. Then there’s the rumour that William studied law in England, then became a lawyer in his native Nigeria. Others believe William became a businessman in Nigeria. According to other people, 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. William Onyeabor however, isn’t for telling.
Thirty-nine after William Onyeabor found religion, and turned his back on music, he’s still refusing to discuss his past. This means still, little is known about Nigerian music’s most enigmatic musicians, William Onyeabor. The effect this has, is to perpetuate the myth of William Onyeabor. He’s a a musical riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Sadly, one that looks like never being solved. There’s no clues in William Onyeabor’s biography.
Trying to write an accurate biography of William Onyeabor is almost impossible. Especially when William Onyeabor refuses to talk about his past. There are some things we can say with a degree of certainty. The first is that growing up, William Onyeabor was a talented musician.
William Onyeabor was born either in 1945 or 1946. Nobody knows. Only William Onyeabor and he won’t say. He was born and brought up Enugu, in the Nigerian provinces. Growing up, William Onyeabor showed an interest in music.
Soon, William was hooked. Music began to play a bigger part in his life. Before long, he realised listening to music was one thing. He wanted to make music. So he decided it was tine to learn how to play an instrument. It’s thought that the first instrument William learnt to play were keyboards. That was his musical weapon of choice. Before long, it became apparent that William Onyeabor was a talented musicians. Some people thought that when William Onyeabor left school, he would make a living out of music. They were in for a surprise.
When William was a teenager and ready to leave high school, it’s thought he was awarded a scholarship to study cinematography in the old Soviet Union. That may, however, be one of the myths surrounding William Onyeabor.
Anyone who has a copy of William Onyeabor’s 1977 debut album, Crashes in Love, will see he is described as an American and French trained filmmaker on the back cover. Crashes in Love is allegedly the soundtrack to the film of the same name. It’s meant to have been made by William’s own film company Winfilms. That however, is another of the controversies surrounding William Onyeabor.
On his return to his native Nigeria, William Onyeabor founded his own film company, Winfilms. Between 1977 and 1985, when William’s career was at its height, people speculated whether Winfilms released any films? It was known if Winfilms had even released a film? Since then, efforts have been made to trace whether Winfilms released any films. There has been no trace of Winfilms releasing any films. That includes Crashes in Love. It’s billed as “a tragedy of how an African princess rejects the love that money buys.” However, another company William Onyeabor founded was more active and successful.
Winfilms wasn’t the only company William Onyeabor founded. No. 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.
Crashes In Love.
Crashes In Love was released in 1978 on Wilfims Records. This was supposedly a soundtrack album. However, no trace of the film Crashes In Love has ever been traced. That’s not the only mystery surrounding William Onyeabor’s debut album Crashes In Love.
Seemingly, there are two versions of Crashes In Love in existence. There’s what’s known as the electronic version. It’s essentially a remix album. The four songs have added drumbeats. Then there’s the original version.
The original version of Crashes In Love has just five tracks. It opens with the ten minute spic Something You’ll Never Forget. After that, the music continues to be funky, soulful and dance-floor friendly. Especially Ride On Baby and Crashes In Love would showcase William Onyeabor’s trademark sound. However, with two version of Crashes In Love being released, 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 Atomic Bomb was a career defining album further established William’s reputation as a pioneering musician.
Atomic Bomb is one of those albums where there’s no weak tracks. It just oozes quality. From Beautiful Baby to the defiant, social comment of Better Change Your Mind and Atomic Bomb, William Onyeabor unleashes a series of musical tour de forces. They’re just three reasons why William Onyeabor would be hailed as one of the most innovative musicians with Nigeria in the late seventies. So is the understated, spacey lo-fi funk of Shame and I Need You All Life.
For the recording of his third album Tomorrow, William Onyeabor headed to the familiar surroundings of Wilfilms Studios Limited, Awakunanaw, Enugu. William had written another five tracks. They would feature what was his trademark sound.
Essentially, this was funk and soul fused with a pulsating Afro-beat beat. Sometimes, the female backing vocal took the music in the direction of gospel music. Especially when they sung call and response with William. The music was joyous and irresistible. What made William Onyeabor’s music stand out, were the banks of synthesisers. This was very different from most of the music coming out of Nigeria.
William it seemed, was determined to stand out musically. Tomorrow and Fantastic Man are proof of this. This is Why Go To War, one of many ant-war songs William recorded. His music had a social conscience. It was also evolving with each album. There was no chance of William Onyeabor standing still. That wasn’t his style. He was determined his music would continue to evolve. That would be the case as a new decade dawned.
Body and Soul.
For the cover of Body and Soul, William Onyeabor dawns a while suit and bow tie. This makes him resemble Lou Rawls. So when you drop the needle on The Way To Win Your Love, you’re expecting a slice of the smoothest soul. You’re in for a shock. It’s all beeps, squeaks from the music and sound-effects department of Wilfilms Ltd. Add to this stabs of horns and hissing hi-hats. After that, soul, funk and Afro-beat melt into one. This is the case right Poor Boy, Body and Soul and Believe In God, which provides a clue to William Onyeabor’s future.
Five years after the release of Body and Soul, William Onyeabor would become a born-again Christian. Was the release of Believe In God a hint of the direction William Onyeabor’s life was leading? He was certainly known for his anti-war songs and social conscience, but religion was apparently a new thing. Believe In God was just a hint that William Onyeabor was changing.
Just like Body and Soul, the cover of Great Lover is akin to a homage to the album covers of giants of American soul. William Onyeabor dawns a tuxedo and top hat on Great Lover. Wearing a watch that’s the size of a dinner plate, William Onyeabor looks urban and debonair. This is very different to the younger version of William Onyeabor that headed to the former Soviet Union to study cinematography. The image William Onyeabor is also very different to the reality of his life.
By 1981, when he released Great Lover, William Onyeabor wasn’t exactly a giant of Nigerian music. He was enjoying a modicum of success. However, he wasn’t one of Nigerian’s most successful musical exports. So it’s no wonder rumours continued to surround this mystery man. However, one thing wasn’t in doubt, William Onyeabor’s talent.
That’s apparent on the genre-hopping Great Lover. Elements of Afro-beat, Afro-Cuban, funk and soul melt into one during this concept album. Just like his previous albums, William Onyeabor is determined to innovate. He manages to do that on an album that’s soulful, funky and tinged with the influences of three continents.
In 1982, William Onyeabor was ready to release his sixth album, Hypertension. It marked a change of direction from the man they called a musical chameleon, William Onyeabor. He fused Afro-beat, funk, psychedelia, rock and even a hint of soul. This musical melange also so songs of praise and protest songs sit side-by-side. Hypertension was William Onyeabor his eclectic best.
From the opening bars of The Moon And The Sun, what was probably William Onyeabor’s most eclectic and ambitious album proved a musical mystery tour. After The Moon And The Sun gave way to Papa Na Mama and Hypertension, William’s social conscience shines through on Politicians. They’re far from William Onyeabor’s people. They’re to blame for Nigeria and the wider world’s problems. This impassioned track closes William Onyeabor’s most eclectic and innovative album Hypertension.
Little did anyone realise it, but 1983s Good Name would be the penultimate album William Onyeabor released. Good Name is a truly compelling album. Although it only features two tracks, where elements of Afro-beat, electronica and funk are fuses, these two tracks speak volumes.
On side one, William almost dawns the role of a preacher. The message he preaches is about Love. That he believes leads to peace, harmony and happiness. Then on side two, Williams sings about the importance of good name. It he believes is better than silver and gold. William reinforces this message by singing: “no money, no money, no money, Nn money can buy good Name.” Looking back, this could be seen as the beginning of a change in William Onyeabor. Maybe this was the start of William Onyeabor turning his back on music?
Anything You Sow.
If Good Name gave a hint of what was about to happen, Anything You Sow spelt it out in large letters. Given the title, Anything You Sow, it looks as if William was changing. Maybe he was on the verge of a spiritual awakening and was questioning the world around him? This would explain songs like When The Going Is Smooth and Good, This Kind Of World, Anything You Sow and Everyday?
A fusion of Afro-beat, funk and soul, the changes in William’s life didn’t affect the quality of music on Anything You Sow. William was continuing to push musical boundaries. He was determined, maybe even fearful of releasing music that didn’t evolve. There was no chance of that. Similarly, there was no hint of what was about to happen next.
Looking at the back cover to Anything You Sow, William Onyeabor continued to give an impression that Wilfilms Limited was an important, thriving company. It wasn’t a case of what Wilfilms Limited did, it was case of what they didn’t do. Their services were listed as “recording and record manufacturing industry. Music, video and film producers.” They also had within their portfolio of business interests an office, factory and recording studios within the Wilfilms Complex. To the onlooker, it looked like William Onyeabor was on his way to building a business empire on the back of his recording career. Surely, the last thing he was about to do was walk away from music?
1984s Anything You Sow was William Onyeabor’s final album. After that, William Onyeabor turned his back on music. He became a born-again Christian. Since then, he has refused to discuss his music or his past. Both his musical career and his past are another country. Since then, rumours, myths and speculation have surrounded William Onyeabor.
One of the most controversial parts of his life was where he studied. Which side of the Iron Curtain did William Onyeabor study? Originally, he claimed to have won a scholarship to study cinematography in the former Soviet Union. Then on his 1977 debut album Chains Of Love, which was the alleged soundtrack album, William Onyeabor claims to have studied cinematography in France and America. Just like the rest of his life, William Onyeabor refused to speak about this period of his life. So tight lipped is William Onyeabor, that ge wouldn’t even confirm if he had ever made a film. As a result, allegations of the Russian connection in William Onyeabor’s life refuse to go away.
Even when Luaka Bop released World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor in October 2013, William would neither discuss his music nor life. That is a great shame. This means that those who love his music are denied the opportunity to discover more about his life and music. Especially his music.
No longer is it just discerning musical connoisseurs who love the music of William Onyeabor. No. Many people within the music industry are fans of William Onyeabor’s music. So much so, that when Luaka Bop decided to release an album of cover versions and remixes of William Onyeabor’s music, that many high profile musicians and remixers offered their services. This includes Hot Chip, The Vaccines, Justin Strauss and Brian Mette, JD Twitch, Javelin, Policy and Scientist. They all feature on William Onyeabor-What?! It’s a ten track compilation which will be released on 8th September 2014.
For William Onyeabor-What?! the ten artists have chosen some of the best music in William’s back-catalogue. There’s no better way to start than Hot Chip Vs. William Onyeabor’s take on a stonewall classic, Atomic Bomb. Hypnotic, spacey, melodic, sultry and spiritual it’s a joyous take on one of William Onyeabor’s finest musical moments.
The Vaccines gave William Onyeabor’s Do You Want A Man a moody makeover on their E.P. d Melody Calling. Released in August 2013, The Vaccines transform Do You Want A Man, It becomes moody and rocky. Especially with machine gun guitars added. The result is a track that melodic and not short of hooks.
There’s three versions of Body and Soul on William Onyeabor-What? They’re all very different. The first is Justin Strauss and Brian Mette’s whatever/whatever remix. Uber funky, soulful and dance-floor friendly, it’s a glorious remix. It brings out the best in another William Onyeabor classic. Body and Soul epitomises his trademark sound. Space-funk meets psychedelia, soul and gospel-tinged female backing vocals.
Joakim featuring Akwetey covered Good Name, the title-track from William’s 1983 album. It’s then given a remix Dragons of Zynth. Twinkling, crystalline synths provide the backdrop for the vocal as the original track is reinvented, not once but twice. It’s transformed from the track that William Onyeabor originally envisaged and is given a contemporary dance-floor friendly sound.
JD Twitch Vs William Onyeabor breathes new life and meaning into another of William Onyeabor’s best known tracks, Why Go To War? Mesmeric and pulsating the arrangement is driven along by synths, percussion and a persistent, prying guitar. Genres melt in one. This includes electronica, funk and Afro-beat. The vocal is impassioned as bewildered and despairing it asks Why Go To War?
Daphni’s remix of Ye Ye is quite different to the other tracks on William Onyeabor-What?! It’s painted from a different musical palette. The track takes on a darker, pensive sound. Having said that, the combined efforts of the pulsating bass and synths drive this compelling remix along.
Javelin takes on the job of remixing Heaven and Hell. This is a track from William Onyeabor’s 1977 Crashes In Love. Two versions of Crashes In Love were released. This means two versions of Heaven and Hell. In Javelin’s hands, the track is given a musical makeover. Its reinvention transforms the track and gives it a dance-floor friendly sound.
With three remixes of Body and Soul on William Onyeabor-What?!, David Terranova decides to take the track in a very different direction. He gives Body and Soul an understated nu-jazz sound. Later, his remix heads in the direction of house. The result is a laid-back, chilled out remix with a summery sound.
Policy’s remix of Something You Will Never Forget bursts into life. Afro-beat and house melts into one. What follows is is irresistibly catchy and guaranteed to fill a dance-floor. William Onyeabor’s original track is reinvented. It becomes an uplifting anthem that’s akin to aural sunshine.
Closing William Onyeabor-What?! is Scientist’s take on Body and Soul. It’s totally different from the two other versions. Scientist’s remix is darker and dubby. The arrangement is also understated and mesmeric. It holds your attention and proves the perfect way to close William Onyeabor-What?!.
Less than a year after Luaka Bop released World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor, they’ll release on William Onyeabor-What?! It’s best described as a homage to one of the most mysterious and elusive men in music. However, don’t let the mystery and speculation surrounding William Onyeabor’s life overshadow his music.
William Onyeabor is a hugely talented singer, songwriter, musicians, arranger and producer. The eight albums he released between 1977 and 1984 are a reminder of this. Throughout his career, William Onyeabor pushed musical boundaries. He wasn’t content to stand still. That was for other, less talented artists. Instead, William Onyeabor innovated and created music that was groundbreaking and pioneering.
From 1980 onwards, William Onyeabor’s 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. William Onyeabor fuses musical disparate genres seamlessly. Sometimes, these fusions pf musical genres that shouldn’t work. They do and sit happily side-by-side work. It seems William Onyeabor dared tread where others fear to tread. That’s why for some people, William Onyeabor is perceived as a musical innovator.
It’s also why ten artists and remixers have taken some of William Onyeabor’s best known tracks and reinvented them on William Onyeabor-What?! The tracks are transformed. New life and meaning is breathed into a selection of William Onyeabor classics. As a result, William Onyeabor-What?! is the perfect companion to World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor. They’re the perfect introduction to a musical innovator, who fused a multiplicity of musical genres and influences to create his own unique and inimitable sound.
Thirty years after William Onyeabor released his final album Anything You Sow, his music is still relevant. It’s also timeless. That’s apparent when you listen to the music on the eight albums William Onyeabor released between 1977 and 1984. When William Onyeabor walked away from music, music lost a true innovator.
A reminder of this musical innovator can be found on Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor. It was released by Luaka Bop in 2013. The next chapter in theWilliam Onyeabor story is William Onyeabor-What?!, which will be released by Luaka Bop on 8th September 2014. Hopefully, William Onyeabor-What?! will introduce a new generation of music lovers to one of Nigerian music’s most innovative sons, William Onyeabor.