"He always made sure he got the outcome he wanted, whether it was by asking something outright, or by playing these invisible chess moves. It was amazing to see, and felt amazing to be in the presence of an artist and person like that."
Who is William Onyeabor? One of the most mysterious figures in modern music, late Nigerian musician William Onyeabor has eluded most documentarians attempts to pin down his exact autobiography before his passing in 2017.
Seamlessly blending African rhythms with the analog synthesizer, spiralling keys and the lolloping groove of highlife guitars, Onyeabor formulated his own unique brand of psychedelic funk, an essential in any music lovers library. But after self-releasing eight albums between 1977 and 1985, the star became a born-again Christian, removing himself from the public eye and refusing to speak about himself or his music again. Leaving only the music to do the storytelling, Onyeabor was lost to everyone but fanatical record collectors already obsessed with his sound.
Rough Trade is excited to boast being amongst this crowd with World Psychedelic Classic 5 - Who is William Onyeabor? a much loved title in our Essentials collection, now available on limited Rough Trade Exclusive vinyl.
World Psychedelic Classic 5 - Who is William Onyeabor?
on Rough Trade Exclusive green and white yolk vinyl (300 only)
This release would not exist without the work of New York based label Luaka Bop, who set out to put together a compilation of Onyeabor’s top tracks in 2013. The world of music record label started by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne features electronic and psychedelic music from all over the globe, Brazil, Peru, London, and Africa- making them the perfect flag-wavers for Onyeabor's sound.
We spoke to Eric Welles-Nyström of Luaka Bop, a key figure behind the label's dedicated campaign bring the music of the mythic musician to the fore, to find out more about who William Onyeabor really was.
What was it that initially drew Luaka Bop to wanting to raise awareness of Willam Onyeabor?
Like with any other Luaka release, it was music that felt so different, unique and unlike anything else we’d ever heard. Not fitting in is what the label is really about. We never felt we really fit in as a label and as such we have worked with things that also don't fit in. No one had ever made a Susana Baca album in her home country of Peru, Tom Zé was forgotten in Brazil at the time we started releasing him. Shuggie Otis was dropped by Colombia and hadn’t really been heard from in 30 years when we re-released his album. Alice Coltrane was known as a Jazz master but her ashram music was originally not known or well respected in the Jazz community.
With William Onyeabor, he had already recorded 8 albums, not because people knew who he was and bought them, but because he owned his own pressing plant, recording studio and record label.
In order to put together the compilation, you had to establish a relationship with the mysterious Onyeabor, which involved actually going out to Nigeria to meet him. What was it like working with him and how much did he get involved?
The original idea came from Uchenna Ikonne, a journalist and DJ who runs a great blog and label called Comb & Razor. It wasn't actually until the deal with Mr. Onyeabor was done and we started preparing the release, that we realised he would never talk. And that realisation happened over the course of a few years.
One of the most fascinating things about him (and I think this more than anything speaks to who he was and what he achieved in his life) is that although he lived very far away from us, and lived in way where he appeared somewhat cut off from the rest of the world, he was always in control of us and of the situation. He was incredibly smart. Sometimes he engaged a lot, sometimes he engaged less, but he always made sure he got the outcome he wanted, whether it was by asking something outright, or by playing these invisible chess moves. It was amazing to see, and felt amazing to be in the presence of an artist and person like that.
A lot of what’s known about William Onyeabor is through speculation, it's reported he studied at Oxford, he was a successful businessman, and allegedly had connections in Russia. What do you know about him to be true?
Not so much, actually. I think it was after I had visited him for a few years, that I came to realize I actually didn’t know that much more about him then, than when I started. I knew him better, and our relationship was much better, but I still didn't know if any of those stories were actually true. Whatever I did learn about him, would always come from other sources: In his palace I saw photos with him and the local football team, and was told by others he was once their Chairman. From Sweden, some people got in touch who had sold him his vinyl pressing machines, and that gave me a little bit more insight (and they had some amazing photos from these years too, of when he visited them in Stockholm, and they visited him in Enugu). At his funeral, I met a musician who played on When The Going Is Smooth & Good.
His funeral was one of the greatest and most unusual events I ever witnessed. For many here, he was a very important person who will hopefully be remembered for a long time to come.
For Onyeabor and various other artists, practising anonymity hasn’t impacted their success, in fact it might have boosted it. What do you think about this in terms of modern-day artists today?
I think it's refreshing and can personally also appreciate when you try to go against the norm of what everyone tells you to do, and don't play the game that everyone says you have to. At the same time, I don't think it's for everyone and of course it also depends on who you actually are, and what music you make.
With Mr. Onyeabor, I believe he had this vision all along and whatever level of success he was at in his life. I’ve seen articles of him rejecting interviews in his local newspaper in the early 80s, and many years later personally passed on requests from much bigger newspapers from other parts of the world. It never really mattered who asked, as he always said no.
African music has offered electronic music some of its most exciting and interesting sounds and Onyeabor’s music has been found in the crates and boxes of contemporary DJs such as Daphni, Hot Chip and Optimo. How important is it for labels and DJ's to keep the source and originators of this music alive?
Absolutely. During my first trips to Nigeria, I was often surprised by how few people actually had heard of him, until I came to understand things better locally (he was beloved in the East, but less known in Lagos or in the capital of Abuja, for example). Since the release, we’ve heard from so many people in Nigeria complimenting us for preserving his music and legacy, and every now and then I see this brought up in local media too. All those things really mean a lot. When he died, I remember a person who called into Lauren Laverne’s show saying how they had played Fantastic Man on repeat at their wedding, making it the best night of their lives.
Sometimes on YouTube, I’ll come across people in the comments section reminiscing of when they were kids and how their parents used to play his records at home, and how by being able to listen to this again it is bringing them back to their childhood.
Things like that are amazing. Whenever I could, I tried to share stories from this outside world with him too.