Obituary for William Onyeabor

William Onyeabor, Nigerian disco pioneer, technicolour wizard and all-round genius has died aged 70. Despite self-releasing eight studio albums in a frenzied seven year burst of creativity into relative obscurity, his influence has lived on, and grown and grown, winning his music plaudits from the likes of Damon Albarn, David Byrne and Carl Craig. It’s amazing to think of how an unknown musician, to all intents and purposes removed from Western influence musically-speaking, created proto-techno, proto-disco, funk, psychedelia, on his own in a studio in Nigeria.

The man Onyeabor is a mystery. In a poor country (at the time) like Nigeria, it was nigh-on impossible to get synthesisers and microphones, let alone the huge arsenal that he had. Some say he got them from the Russian government, or whilst studying in England at Oxford University. Rumours and mysteries swirl about him like any great artist, and these will hopefully go unsolved.

For many, Onyeabor came to fame in a fantastic Vice documentary, which I highly recommend you watch, which tracked him down and resulted in the statement from the man himself that he only wanted to “lead the way of God and lead a good life”; in my book this would have meant carrying on releasing the best of the best of wistful reserved disco but there we go. He wanted to stop playing music and only preach the way of God, although he did, in his words, “love [us] all”.

The music that he released in his relatively short tenure is warm, and comforting, and possesses a kind of hymn-like quality. Every track he released has its merits but songs like ‘Atomic Bomb’, or what I deem his masterpiece, ‘When The Going Is Smooth And Good’, are perfect examples of a musician unhindered by what was happening at the time, or what had happened before. It’s a hackneyed aphorism, but his music did come from the heart.

Despite stating in a one-off interview with BBC 6 Music he was planning on releasing new music, the legend of William Onyeabor goes on unchecked. He belongs to an elite class of artists, like Lou Reed, Michael Farneti, Picasso, Laurie Lee, Nick Drake or Sixto Rodriguez, that created art that is at once instantly familiar and comforting, whilst remaining completely other-worldly and impossible.

Will Ainsley

Image: Steve Hoffman Forums

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