WHO WAS WILLIAM ONYEAEBOR?
Who Was William Onyeabor?
Enigmatic. That was the perfect word to describe synth funk pioneer, William Onyeabor who died on January 16th 2017 aged just seventy. That day, Nigerian music lost a musical pioneer. However, he was also one of the most mysterious, elusive and enigmatic musicians in musical history and much of his life was shrouded in mystery.
After releasing eight albums between 1978 and 1985, 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 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 he studied cinematography in the Soviet Union, then returned to Nigeria where he founded his own film company, Wilfilms. Then there’s the rumour that he studied law in England and then became a lawyer in his native Nigeria. Others believe William Onyeabor became a businessman in Nigeria while others say he worked for the Nigerian government. Nobody can say with any degree of certainty. The only person who knew what happened next was William Onyeabor.
William Onyeabor wasn’t for telling. When he found religion and turned his back on music he refused to discuss his past. This means that little is known about Nigerian music’s most enigmatic musicians, William Onyeabor. The effect this has, to perpetuate the myth of a man who was a a musical riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Sadly, the death of William Onyeabor means that this riddle will never be solved and there’s no clues in his biography.
Trying to write an accurate biography of William Onyeabor is almost impossible. Especially when he refused 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.
Prior to his death, nobody even knew William Onyeabor’s date of birth. Only William Onyeabor and he won’t say. It was speculated that he was born in 1944 However, it turned out that William Onyeabor was born on March 26th 1946. He was brought up Enugu, in the Nigerian provinces and growing up, showed an interest in music.
Soon, he was hooked and music began to play a bigger part in his life. Before long, he realised listening to music was one thing, bur he now he wanted to make his own music and decided it was tine to learn how to play an instrument. It’s thought that the first instrument he learnt to play were keyboards. That was his musical weapon of choice. Before long, it became apparent that William Onyeabor was a talented musician and some people thought that when he 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 his 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 his career was at its height, people wonder whether Winfilms released any films? However, nobody could say with a degree of certainty the company ever released a film.
That’s despite efforts have been made to trace any films that Winfilms released. The conclusions were that it’s unlikely the company ever released a film. This includes the much vaunted Crashes In Love which was 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.
Wilfilms Records was a subsidiary of Winfilms and released William Onyeabor’s eight albums. They were recorded at Winfilms Recording Studio in Enugu, Nigeria including William Onyeabor’s debut album 1978s Crashes In Love.
Crashes In Love.
Crashes In Love was released in 1978 on Wilfilms Records and 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 Crashes In Love.
Seemingly, there are two versions of Crashes In Love in existence. There’s the original album and what’s known as the electronic version. It’s essentially a remix album where the four songs have added drumbeats.
The original version of Crashes In Love has just five tracks. It opens with the ten minute spic Something You’ll Never Forget and 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, Atomic Bomb was a career defining album further established is reputation as a pioneering musician.
Atomic Bomb is one of those albums where there are no weak tracks and it just oozes quality. From Beautiful Baby to the defiant, social comment of Better Change Your Mind and Atomic Bomb to the understated, spacey lo-fi funk of Shame and I Need You All Life it’s a musical tour de force and is why William Onyeabor would be hailed as one of the most innovative Nigerian musicians of the late seventies.
For the recording of his third album Tomorrow, William Onyeabor headed to the familiar surroundings of Wilfilms Studios Limited, in Awakunanaw, Enugu. That was where he would record five new tracks that would feature his trademark sound.
Essentially, this was funk and soul fused with pulsating Afrobeat. Sometimes, the female backing vocal took the music in the direction of gospel music. Especially when they sung call and response with William Onyeabor. The music was joyous and irresistible. What made William Onyeabor’s music stand out were the banks of synthesisers that he used on the album. This was very different from most of the music coming out of Nigeria.
William Onyeabor it seemed, was determined to stand out musically. Tomorrow and Fantastic Man are proof of this. This is Why Go To War was one of many ant-war songs he recorded and this music had a social conscience. His music 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 and 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 which made him resemble Lou Rawls. So much so, that when record buyers dropped the needle on The Way To Win Your Love they must have been expecting a slice of the smoothest soul. They were in for a shock as it’s all beeps and squeaks from the music and sound-effects department of Wilfilms Ltd. Add to this stabs of horns and hissing hi-hats on an album were soul, funk and Afrobeat 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 the 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, he 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 on the album cover is also very different to the reality of William Onyeabor’s life.
By 1981, when he released Great Lover he wasn’t exactly a giant of Nigerian music. He was enjoying a modicum of success but wasn’t one of Nigerian’s most successful musical exports. It was no surprise that rumours continued to surround this mystery man. However, one thing wasn’t in doubt, William Onyeabor’s talent.
That’s apparent on his genre-hopping alum Great Lover. Elements of Afro-beat, Afro-Cuban, funk and soul melt into one during this concept album. Just like his previous albums, he’s determined to innovate and 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 Afrobeat, funk, psychedelia, rock and there’s even a hint of soul on Hypertension. Songs of praise and protest songs sit side-by-side on this musical melange which found William Onyeabor back to his eclectic best.
Hypertension was probably William Onyeabor’s most eclectic and ambitious and akin to a musical magical mystery tour. That was the case from the opening bars of The Moon And The Sun which gave way to Papa Na Mama and Hypertension. However, on Politicians William Onyeabor’s social conscience shines through. He believes there not for the people and they’re to blame for Nigeria and the wider world’s problems. This impassioned track closes what was 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. It’s a truly compelling album although it only features two tracks. They’re a fusion of Afrobeat, electronica and funk and speak volumes.
On side one, William Onyeabor dawns the role of a preacher and the message he preaches is about Love. That he believes leads to peace, harmony and happiness. Then on side two, he sings about the importance of good name which he believes is better than silver and gold. He reinforces this message by singing: “ No money, no money, no money, No 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 him 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 he 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?
The album was a fusion of Afrobeat, funk and soul and the changes in his life didn’t affect the quality of music on Anything You Sow. William Onyeabor was continuing to push musical boundaries. He was determined to do so and was 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.
That’s what it’s claimed that William Onyeabor had been doing. During the first half of the eighties, he opened a flour mill and food processing business. Both it’s claimed became flourishing businesses. If that’s the case maybe the success of William Onyeabor’s business interests resulted in what happened next.
After the release of Anything You Sow in 1985, William Onyeabor turned his back on music. He became a born-again Christian and 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.
After his death, it has been claimed that William Onyeabor being awarded West African Industrialist of the Year in 1987. It’s also been claimed that at that when he was at peak of his popularity, he was given the honorary title of Justice Of The Peace. Further claims include that he was president of Enugu’s branch of the Musician’s Union, and the chairman of Enugu Rangers his local football team. However, like other parts of William Onyeabor’s life it’s hard to substantiate fact from fiction.
Indeed, there were even rumours that William Onyeabor didn’t even exist and the music had been made by other people. All the myths and mysteries were just part of a marketing strategy to sell records. This was just one of a myriad of rumours that 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 was William Onyeabor, that he 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.
This is all part of the rumour, mystery and speculation that surrounds Nigerian synth funk pioneer, William Onyeabor who sadly, passed away on the 16th January 2017. Since then a few more details about William Onyeabor’s career have emerged since his death. Ironically, they have further fuelled the speculation surrounding William Onyeabor’s life after music. Alas, nobody will ever know exactly what happened to William Onyeabor after his sad and sudden retirement from music. Doubtless the speculation will continue. However, one thing that’s not in doubt is that William Onyeabor was a musical pioneer.
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. Everything from Afrobeat, cosmic funk, gospel, jazz, post-disco, proto-house, psychedelia, reggae, rock and soul was thrown into the melting pot by William Onyeabor. The music was the work of 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, he was pushing musical boundaries. He wasn’t content to stand still. His albums are proof of 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, he 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? Alas, we will never know. Sadly, William Onyeabor who was elusive and enigmatic musical visionary passed away on the 16th of January 2017. The death of William Onyeabor means that music has lost another pioneer. However, he left behind a rich musical legacy for future generations to enjoy. They will are sure to embrace, enjoy and appreciate this groundbreaking music but are sure to wonder who was William Onyeabor?
Who Was William Onyeabor?