“Enigma” and “mystery” are phrases that tend to come up often when discussing William Onyeabor, the Nigerian musician who died Monday at age 70. From 1977 to 1985, Onyeabor self-released nine albums of inventive synth-funk from his home studio and pressing plant outside of the rural town of Enugu. That last year, he finally had his biggest hit, the wryly sunny motorik sprawl of “When the Going Is Smooth & Good.” And then he just stopped. Speculation has long swirled that he studied at Oxford, or perhaps in Russia—and what about that purported movie, Crashes Into Love?—but little was really known, least of all how this music had come to exist and cross over seamlessly into the crates of 21st-century house-music DJs.
Luaka Bop label manager Eric Welles-Nyström, who first visited Onyeabor in August 2013, soon discovered that the semolina mill owner known to locals as “the Chief” was hardly less elusive in person. After five years of waiting, scouring through library databases, and deal-making, Luaka Bop had finally secured Onyeabor’s permission to release a compilation of his music. But the artist himself, now a devout Christian, wanted no involvement. “We would call, and he would hang up the phone,” recalls Welles-Nyström, who along with the Nigerian-American journalist Uchenna Ikonne was responsible for much of what we do know about the “Atomic Bomb” singer.
Over the course of several return visits, Welles-Nyström was able to persuade Onyeabor to do only one proper radio interview, with BBC Radio 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne. And Onyeabor, who had never performed live, wasn’t about to attend concerts celebrating his catalog, let alone take part in them. But Luaka Bop did manage to release Who Is William Onyeabor? in 2013, leading to the 2014 documentary film Fantastic Man along with a set of live tribute events worldwide that featured David Byrne, Damon Albarn, Dev Hynes, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, and LCD Soundsystem’s Pat Mahoney.
Onyeabor’s ability to maintain authoritative control over his work and its reception may help answer the deeper question: How the hell was he able to create like this in the first place? “Not many people understood what he did,” Welles-Nyström tells Pitchfork. “He was very much on his own. It was remarkable to think that he would just believe in himself and do that, and at his very high point of having a hit song he was just like, ‘All right, I’m done. I’m going to open a flour mill.’”
This is Welles-Nyström’s story of meeting Onyeabor, watching Nigerian religious TV with him, going to the ends of the earth to try to persuade him to play live, and getting to witness this reclusive recording artist actually commune with his own records.
I had never traveled to Africa. Uchenna [Ikonne, the Nigerian-American journalist who also helped raise awareness about Onyeabor] said, “If you go there, he’s going to break your neck. He’s going to ask where the money is.”
I’m really, really nervous when I get to his hometown. I think I double-checked the address like 10 times. I get there and what I’ve been told from Uchenna is that he lives in a palace. This address is right downtown. There were markets along the street, and it was really busy and noisy. Where could there be a palace? It doesn’t make sense, you know. The cab stops and I go into the address that’s been given to me.
Stepping in there, it was just like it was scripted. It was this empty business office. There’s a few computers piled on top of each other in a corner. There’s a clock on the wall that’s not working. There’s a lady sitting in the middle of the room with a very simple white plastic table and on a white plastic chair, just reading, and just kind of waiting—for someone to arrive or something to happen.
“I’m looking for Mr. Onyeabor.”
She says, ‘Oh, the Chief.’”
I’m like, “Oh yes, the Chief, Mr. Onyeabor.”
And then she says, “Are you from Russia?”
“No, no, I’m from the U.S., I work with his music.”
She’s like, “OK, I understand.” She picks up her cell phone, makes a call. “OK, I’ll take you to him.” We go out and we sit in the cab and then I realize as we’re going there that she’s almost as nervous as I am. I ask if she’s ever been there before. She’s never been there. She’s an older lady, maybe in her 50s or 60s.
We drive, and eventually you see this mansion towering up through the trees. It looks like a ’70s resort hotel from Spain or Mexico, and it’s just dropped in the middle of nowhere. I go inside and I wait inside his living room for a while. He’s got this massive living room with seating arrangements for like 30 people. Eventually I go upstairs and I meet him. I had heard from Uchenna that he was really tough and hard. But really he was very warm and welcoming and glad to see me and, I think, kind of honored that someone had come all that way.
That was the first week. I would go back four more times. Each time would be five, seven days, something like that. We would sit and watch Christian Nigerian television day in, day out. He really believed in this Nigerian prophet T.B. Joshua.
People that needed advice or people that wanted to invest in something or his lawyer would come by. I always thought of him as a business manager more than an artist. He was a boss in that regard. He really knew how to steer whatever situation to where you wanted it to go.
In all of this, I would have 50 questions I wanted to ask him. I would spend every morning and night when I was there trying to figure out, “How do I approach this question?”
The only time I got really personal stuff from him was when I told him about myself and my own background. I grew up in Sweden. He would tell me that he had been to Sweden and had spent a lot of time there working importing these presses for his record plant.
The second time I was there I had heard about this music video that he’d done. So every now and then I’d meet people, I’d go to the national TV archive or the radio station or find somebody in the music store. If they were of a certain age, they would have heard of him if they were in Enugu. Not very many in Lagos. But in Enugu they would know the song “When the Going Is Smooth & Good.” They would have this memory of seeing this crazy man dancing in the street to that song. And they would say, “Yeah, it always came on right before the news, and everybody loved it, and it was a hit song.”
It sounds like it was a mix of an early music video but also kind of an advert that he put out. He did a lot of advertising for his studio, for other labels and musicians to come and record there. The language that he uses to advertise is very confident and boisterous. “The greatest studio in West Africa! High-tech equipment!”
He hadn’t told me about it, but at this point I could go to him and, like, “Hey, I know there’s this video.” He said, “OK.” And then the last day of that trip, he brought out a cassette on the table. We started talking, I kind of understood what was there, and he understood how excited I got by the cassette. He said. “I’ll give this to you next time you come.”
Another thing that was significant is his sense of humor. You hear it in “Fantastic Man” and some other tracks. Maybe he picked up on me being nervous, and he would often set up this awkward situation where I would get even more nervous. And then he would totally flip the scenario and say something absurd. Like, he liked to call me his American son. I would be with him and he would be like, “Eric, please call your dad. Call your dad in Sweden.” And I would be like, “Why does he want to talk to my dad?” And then he’d say very warmly, “So your African dad can talk to your Swedish dad.”
I did one trip there before our first live show, just to try to invite him to come. I showed him pictures of the hotel room where his family would stay, and we would talk about travel arrangements and try to really get down to the specifics. We had that conversation over a full day of listening to Christian television. He would just let it end with, “Well, let’s let think about it. I’m just worried that if I come people will expect me to dance like Michael Jackson.” Or he’d be like, “I’m not very strong anymore. I used to be able to wrestle down Hulk Hogan.” We’re in the bush of a town in Nigeria and you’re talking about Hulk Hogan?
It goes back to his vision for himself in life, and how he traveled and was so well-read. The news that he watched, he would swing from CNN to Al-Jazeera to an English-speaking Chinese news channel and then back to this crazy Christian preacher. The cover of [1982 LP] ‘Hypertension’ was shot at Tivoli [a famous amusement park] in Copenhagen. He spent a lot of time in Sweden. He traveled to New York and he bought all this incredible electronic equipment.
He went to Milan, and there was a company there called Ambrosio that he worked closely with. I think they had some kind of beef toward the end. He regretted how it ended, and for a long time he really wanted to make it right. He said, “If you find these people and if you can help me make it right, my conscience will be cleared and I can go and perform live. But I can’t perform if I have this on my conscience.”
I went to Italy in the summer of 2015. I had such great leads! But you know how there’s always that x number of steps to get through to a person? It was always like, we got through to the last person that could give the last details of the people that we were looking for. I told Willy, “I spent a week in Italy, I’ve been working really hard, and I’m really close, and I almost was able to find the person you were looking for.” And he’s like, “OK. Thanks for trying.” It was like it actually didn’t matter.So sometimes it was a really beautiful and exciting trip, and sometimes it was like, what the hell am I doing? Why am I spending a week in the summer in Milan when I could be with my family?
Among all the stories we heard, we heard a lot of bad stuff too. Some even said he actually wasn’t a musician. He actually couldn’t sing. That’s actually not him on the record. It opened up all these kinds of questions about “what was he, what did he do, and how legit is this.” But when I went to his house, I saw lots of old equipment—keyboards and some of the machines from his factory.
On the last day I was there, he wanted to give me a Bible, so I accepted the Bible. And then I asked, like, “Hey, by the way, would you have any records left that I could have?” He was very surprised. He calls to his wife and he speaks to her in Igbo. She disappears somewhere in the palace, and then she comes back with three mint copies, two in plastic.
He holds the records, and I can tell this is the first time in a really long time that he’s actually holding these things. And he’s flipping the records and he’s going through the songs, one by one, reminiscing really magically. “These were the songs I did.” And he very, very proudly points to the corner of the record with his logo, “Printed by Wilfilms Ltd.” And he says, “This was my company. I did everything. I built everything. I made this.”
And then he takes one of the records and he flips it, and I think it was the song “Fantastic Man.” He points to it. And he starts singing “Fantastic Man.” And it was like—yes.
Source: Pitchfork / Marc Hogan