Words by:

Last week we lost the innovative synth-funk artist William Onyeabor, a cult musician whose influence travelled well beyond the boundaries of his home country of Nigeria. Here, Gwyn Thomas de Chroustchoff looks back on an extraordinary career, meditating on the records – and the expansive constellation of influences – that cement his visionary appeal.

William Onyeabor, who died on 16 January at the age of 70, was a Nigerian artist and businessman who produced, played instruments and sang on eight self-released records between 1977 and 1985. He never played live, and after those fruitful years, almost abandoned his music. He certainly shied away from attempts to involve him in the surge of interest which occurred in the 21st century driven by labels like Strut and Luaka Bop.

When a documentary was made about the attempt to track down Onyeabor and involve him in these worldwide celebrations of his music he, characteristically, refused to appear in it – although he did speak to Lauren Laverne for a BBC 6Music interview in 2014. The Independent even compared him to the reclusive late author JD Salinger, who kept his manuscripts in a safe and instructed his estate to never authorise their publication.

Onyeabor’s been called a disco innovator, but the description doesn’t quite do him justice. One hit, 1978’s Better Change Your Mind, is a spacey, electronic funk beatdown arranged in a psychedelic style that drifts and zig-zags, uninterested in the orderly use of verse and choruses. Snatches of Onyeabor’s voice echo through the mix, and you can almost hear him twiddling the knobs of his new machines and discovering their possibilities.

His music was huge in Nigeria, particularly around his hometown of Enugu, but it wasn’t until the 21st century that people beyond the West African scene started to take notice. The 2013 compilation Who Is William Onyeabor? – released by David Byrne’s label Luaka Bop – introduced his music to a new generation and left a fallout worthy of an atomic bomb. The name of another big hit of his, and later, of the supergroup that toured the world performing his music.

What is amazing is the correlation between what he was doing and the work of electronic music pioneers elsewhere – particularly in Detroit

What is amazing, and explains the clamorous response of Onyeabor’s younger, Western audience, is the correlation between what he was doing and the work of electronic music pioneers elsewhere – particularly in Detroit, where motor city soul was stirring into new life: techno. The Electrifying Mojo’s seminal radio show ran from 1977-1985, just like Onyeabor’s musical career, and he informed and inspired a new wave of artists with a huge range of music.

With synth pop, new wave, krautrock and the afrofuturist funk of Prince and Parliament/Funkadelic, The Electrifying Mojo was arming and mobilizing Detroit’s new musical generation. The proto-techno that emerged, with its flashes of synth and uber-flexible drum machine energy has much in common with Onyeabor’s music; try Anumberofnames’ Sharevari and Juan Atkins’ music, first with Richard Davis as Cybotron, and a little later as Model 500, or over in New York, the B-boy electro being produced by Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker.

Onyeabor’s essentially African music, continuing his country’s rich history in highlife and afrobeat, is not the same as the New York or Detroit movements – inside his music, the joyful silhouette of disco is still fairly solid, and if his message has a bittersweet edge, it’s a gentler one, with less sci-fi qualities and without such emphasis on ruthlessly strange rhythms, textures and atmospheres. But there is an affinity in spirit, and in the way technology is exploited to create a new kind of funk – his 1983 single Good Name is one such example. And there is certainly a darkness beneath the good humour: only “when the going is smooth and good” will “many people will be your friends,” he sings on When the Going is Smooth & Good.

We may never know whether Onyeabor had US proto-techno or bodypoppin’ electro on his hi-fi, or whether he was simply tapping a new musical vein from another direction. For his own part, his musical heroes were the solid baritone boys of American country music: Jim Reeves and Don Williams. Whatever the truth, his appeal to lovers of modern dance music is obvious; in the last few years his music has been covered and remixed by artists including Hot Chip, Four Tet, Daphni and JD Twitch.

Of course, nostalgia should always be approached critically. Writing about Onyeabor’s so-called ‘re-discovery’ for africasacountry.com in 2014, Connor Ryan identified the hypocrisy of the reissue market in ignoring current musical scenes and exaggerating the obscurity and mystery of artists like Onyeabor. He rightly points Western hipsters towards the dazzling music being made in West Africa today; afrobeats is a perfect example – a contemporary, electronic genre influenced by hip-hop and dancehall (don’t confuse it with afrobeat, the jazz, funk and highlife music pioneered by Fela Kuti, Tony Allen and others). See artists like Yemi Olade, Wizkid and Olamide.

Ignoring the market’s distortion of reality and and removal of context, there’s so much glory in Onyeabor’s music. One of his signature songs, Fantastic Man, is a dreamlike call-and-response in which the voice respectfully reminds the subject of how much affection he’s shown, making a plea for a reciprocation of love. This recognition certainly arrived for Onyeabor – his music was first performed live in the USA on the Tonight Show, that ultimate fortress of the mainstream, by a star supergroup comprised of David Byrne, Sinkane, Money Mark of Beastie Boys, Pat Mahoney of LCD Soundsystem, and Nigeria’s legendary Lijadu Sisters (the touring Atomic Bomb! Band also featured Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke). Host Jimmy Fallon even wore Onyeabor’s crown – a wide-brimmed hat that enlarged the already enormous tribute.

After his early musical accolades, Onyeabor went on to succeed in business and civic life, becoming a High Chief in his hometown of Enugu and running a successful semolina mill that saw him named as West African Industrialist of the Year 1987. He also re-focused on Christianity, becoming a pastor in the evangelical Christian church, and apparently a follower of the controversial minister JT Aubrey.

This decision to simply leave music behind, in light of such obvious talent and vision, has been used to fuel the mythology that now surrounds Onyeabor. But life is full of mystery and things we’ll never really understand. There is, however, one truth which remains unobscured: you look so good, fantastic man. Even from the brief glimpse we had.