Onyeabor’s death means that we as a nation have lost the opportunity to document some of the best moments that our music history had to offer. As news of William Onyeabor’s death broke through the various international news agencies, Nigerians awoke to a new reality; one in which they are left confused as to how a legend of funk existed in Enugu, with very few people having knowledge of it.“I didn’t even know about him until now,” a colleague honestly said. His case is not alone.
On social media, many Nigerians didn’t know who William Onyeabor was, and how the legacy of his music far outshines the many artistes that we now celebrate and idolize.But partly, it is not their fault. This generation hardly of music enthusiasts are handicapped by the failure of the local media of the 60s, 70s and 80s to properly provide multimedia coverage to Nigeria’s diverse music genres, and document the period in history as it is being done now. All we get are scraps handed down to us from international media who documented tours and performances when they engaged the foreign markets. But William Onyeabor is more than a footnote in our history. His music came from the post-war era, which was heavily influenced by Western funk music, which travelled to Nigerian via the media and our exposure to the West.
Onyeabor began his music career in the 1970s, when he put together an impressive home studio and pressing plant in Enugu. Between ’77-’85, he single-handedly recorded, pressed, and printed a series of groundbreaking synth-funk albums. They included classic songs such as “Good Name” and “Fantastic Man,” which at that time, were new takes on synthesizer-driven funk that stood out even within Nigeria’s thriving music scene.His audacious use of synthesizers, which verged on proto-techno, was without precedent in Nigeria, where such equipment was as hard to find as it was to afford.
In ’85, Onyeabor became a devout Christian and stopped recording music. His records began to command enormous prices, particularly as interest generated in the West. Onyeabor’s retreat held fast, while his reluctance to discuss his music career—beyond lamenting that his songs did not sufficiently praise God—enhanced his enigma. In a rare interview in 2014, he said, “I did study so many things, but they have nothing to do with my natural talent, because you don’t study talent. Talent comes from God.”
In 2013, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop gave Onyeabor’s career a new lease of life, as the label released Who Is William Onyeabor?, the first compilation of his work authorized in America. Byrne also organized a series of events paying tribute to the artist, who, despite rumors of an appearance, remained at home in his sprawling palace. Performers included Byrne himself, Damon Albarn, Dev Hynes, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, and LCD Soundsystem’s Pat Mahoney.
“William Onyeabor would never speak about himself and for a long time refused many of the interview requests that came his way,” The statement from his record lable Luaka Bop said. “Having become Born Again in the latter part of life, he only wanted to speak about God. We would like to send our deepest condolences to his family and thank each and every one of you who has helped share the love for his music around the world.”
Onyeabor was given the honorary title justice of the peace in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, he became the president of Enugu’s Musician’s Union and chairman of the city’s local football team, the Enugu Rangers.He is survived by his wife, four children and four grandchildren.
Although Onyeabor inadvertently contributed to the lack of coverage about him, by his refusal to talk about his pioneering work in Nigeria, the lack of local coverage means that we as a nation have lost the opportunity to document some of the best moments that our musical history had to offer. It’s an L to all of us. One that must inspire us to do more, curate and document for generations to come.
Source: PulseNG Music Buzz