Filmmaker Jake Sumner and record label Luaka Bop try to answer the question: "Who Is William Onyeabor?"
by Leo Walton
Like many of us, you may have already enjoyed the fascinating and utterly infectious music of William Onyeabor. A mysterious Nigerian producer of the late '70s and early '80s, Onyeabor's cult-like status has recently grown beyond the 1% of specialist record collectors (and Nigerian natives) thanks to David Byrne's world music record label Luaka Bop. But, if you missed the 2013 chart-topping release of World Psychedelic Classics Vol.5: Who Is William Onyeabor?, you are in for a real treat. Discovering Onyeabor's music is like being let in on a very special secret. Rich with playful hooks, repetitive melodies and strange electronic sounds, the Moog-driven songs lean more toward spacey Germanic techno than the raw Nigerian Afro-beat of that era.
So it's easy to understand why we were thrilled to attend the world premiere of "Fantastic Man," a new documentary on Onyeabor from Luaka Bop's Eric Welles-Nystrom and Yale Evelev, at London’s Barbican Center. The man's legacy is truly mystifying. He self-released eight albums between 1977 and 1985, all of them sonically ahead of their time and all of them exceedingly rare today. Shortly after his last LP was released, Onyeabor became a born-again Christian and swore never to speak of, or perform, his music again. The enigmatic musician is now a crowned High Chief and Priest of Enugu (Nigeria), where he continues to live today.
The film, directed by Jake Sumner, takes viewers on a short journey from London via New York to Onyeabor's hometown of Enugu. Cut alongside original footage of '70s Nigeria, the story is told through interviews with famous fans, such as Damon Albarn, Caribou and Martyn Ware of The Human League/Heaven 17. Beautifully shot and—obviously—featuring a stellar soundtrack, "Fantastic Man" is essential viewing for Onyeabor fans both new and old. By all accounts, this is the closest we're likely ever to get to knowing who this magical man really is.
Despite meeting Onyeabor's peers and some of Enugu's amazing characters (DJ Patrick's vinyl shack will have record collectors drooling into their popcorn), you're still left feeling overwhelmed with wonder. Onyeabor's private record pressing plant and studio synth setups were far more advanced than any of the local studios owned by major record labels. Could they have been funded by the Russians? Did Onyeabor really study law at Oxford? Why was he so rarely seen in public despite his music being all over the airwaves? Why didn’t he ever perform live? Was he a genius or was he actually a "Dangerous Man?" Does the Bible's James 1, verse 22-25 hold all the answers? Who really is William Onyeabor?
Perhaps we'll never know, and perhaps that's for the best. Perhaps Onyeabor is just a deeply religious man who enjoyed making experimental music in his younger years and would now prefer to focus on his faith. Either way, thanks to David Byrne and his devoted team at Luaka Bop, we're all (a little bit) closer to this great, mysterious talent.
As of today, 25 February 2014 "Fantastic Man" is available in its entirety online. As with all film, the silver screen will always trump that of a Macbook. That said, "Fantastic Man" will screen to the public at London's Barbican Center on 1 April 2014, with tickets available for purchase online. You can also pick up the album in various formats from Luaka Bop's Onyeabor gift shop.
Images from the film courtesy of Luaka Bop