William Onyeabor, World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who Is William Onyeabor?

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 11.05.13 in Reviews

The afro-funk compilation that originally contained it may be lost to the mists of time, but the ten-minute existential slow-burner that hooked me on the enlightenment of Nigeria’s William Onyeabor is eternal — especially now that it’s the centerpiece of Luaka Bop’s dazzling distillation of this mystery man’s work. “Ladies and gentleman, everybody listen,” he sang knowingly on “Something You Will Never Forget,” and I did. “I want to tell you something you will never forget/ About this world…/ One day you’ll be lying dead.”

Late-’70s Nigerian afro-funk from a cosmically knowing one-man studio wizard

William Onyeabor has an affinity for Big Ideas. He blends nuclear warfare with orgasmic megatonnage in the irrepressible “Atomic Bomb,” discovers spiritual fulfillment in the disco grooves of “Body and Soul,” and conjures an electroclash sermonette in “Why Go to War?”

But where afro-funk usually evokes big bands, often augmented by bonus dancing babes, Onyeabor was a one-man studio wizard, comparable to early Todd Rundgren or Paul McCartney, who self-produced and -released a handful of solid and spacious sci-fi funk albums between 1977 and ’85. Judging by the elegant stripped-down simplicity of his drums, guitar, saxophone, organ, and striking Moog lines, he played and sang everything himself except for some dynamic female backing vocals. His closest Nigerian equivalent was probably Julius Adeniyi “Biddy” Wright, the multi-instrumentalist/producer of the Lijadu Sisters’ enthralling late-’70s albums.

Onyeabor eventually renounced his musical career for a life of business and Christianity. His albums await reissue in full, the sooner the better. And if Luaka Bop — or anyone — were to reissue the 1979 Onyeabor-produced N’Draman Blintch record Cikamelé, a low-down Moog screamer for the ages, I could rest in peace.