The pioneering electro/synth/soul artist William Onyeabor passed away in his sleep on Monday at the age of 70. Onyeabor was a businessman based in Enugu (Southeastern Nigeria) who began releasing music in 1977. Not a musician himself, there remains debate as to whether or not Onyeabor even sang on the eight records and two singles that he self-released between 1977 and 1985. That’s really of no matter though, as what Onyeabor lacked in technical musical ability, he more than made up for in boundary pushing ideas.
In a 2014 interview with Madeleine Brand for KCRW’s Press Play, DJ/journalist Uchenne Ikonne – a native Nigerian himself – revealed a bit about what led Onyeabor to pursue the style of music that he was able to craft with skilled collaborators in his home studio. He noted that Onyeabor was a big fan of the 1972 Timmy Thomas hit, “Why Can’t We Live Together?” Interesting that that song had it’s own resurgence in 2015 when it was sampled in arguably the most popular song of that year, Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”
Listening to the Thomas track back to back with anything from Onyeabor’s catalog, the influence is clear. Thomas used a drum machine, and played a simple organ line over it to create the song’s signature melody. The effect is somewhat eerie until the song unfolds into an uplifting anthem celebrating a message of togetherness. Onyeabor used synthesizers, drum machines and other somewhat uncommon for his time and place instruments/effects to craft a sound that was similarly distinct; soulful, danceable, and more than a little psychedelic all while remaining straightforward and uncluttered. His biggest hit came in the form of 1985’s “When the Going is Smooth and Good,” and that was the end of his music career. He became a born again Christian around this time and shifted his focus onto various other business ventures, as well as being a major champion for Nigeria’s Christian music scene. It’s often reported that Onyeabor had very little to say about his recordings later in his life, only noting that he wishes that his songs had given more service to God. However, reading a bit deeper into the accounts of people that interacted with him around the time of Luaka Bop’s release of the compilation Who is William Onyeabor? reveals a man that was still quite fond/proud of his work. As he should have been.
I must admit, I was unaware of Onyeabor before that 2013 compilation surfaced, but I was hooked from the moment I put it on. It was immediately clear why this music is such an important part of DJ culture. Even listening to these songs today they sound as equally modern and timeless as they likely always have. William Onyeabor was a somewhat confounding figure who lived his life shrouded in a great deal of mystery, but the music that he left us with speaks volumes. Below is a playlist of Onyeabor essentials, and my personal favorite song of his “I Need You All Life.”