FANTASTIC MAN: The mystery and magic of William Onyeabor
December 16th 2014
One of the more eyebrow-raising announcements for Sydney Festival 2015 is Atomic Bomb: The Music of William Onyeabor, featuring a host of big names including Gotye, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, LCD Soundsystem’s Pat Mahoney and The Rapture’s Luke Jenner.
With so many electronic artists coming together to pay tribute to a relative persona incognito – it begs the question: who is William Onyeabor? Well…
… he’s an International Man of Mystery.
Seriously. Who Is William Onyeabor?
“My brothers and sisters, I thank God for creating me the way he did. My name is William Onyeabor. Live a good life. Do the word of God. Read your Bible. I’d like you to read Kings 1, Verse 22-25. Do the word of God and live a good life. I love you all. Bye for now.”
That’s all the Vice documentary Fantastic Man managed to get on film from William Onyeabor. The man is a complete and utter enigma. No one interviewed was prepared to say anything definitive about William’s early life, let alone how he was able to build his own music studio and bring all those sweet synths back to Engugu, Nigeria. Nevertheless, rumours of Soviet apparatchiks, Oxford scholarships and ruthless business tactics abound. Nor could anyone give an answer to perhaps the biggest question: why he turned his back on music to become a born-again Christian.
The truth is, what we now know about William Onyeabor is probably all we will ever know.
… he’s both a gateway into, and the highpoint of, one of music’s most creative eras.
The music scene of 1970s West Africa – and particularly Nigeria – was one of incredible creativity. The blending of funk, RnB, psychedelic and prog-rock stylings from the Western world with traditional African instruments and polyrhythmic percussion resulted in an infectious, energetic and extremely-danceable (often politically-charged) wave of music, which captured the spirit of optimism and liberation in early post-colonial Africa. Labels such as Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory Records, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop, and crate-digging labels Analog Africa and Awesome Tapes From Africa have done wonders in highlighting the diversity of this period and bringing its sound to new audiences.
William Onyeabor’s music stands out as arguably the most innovative, progressive and inspiring of this era. While songs such as “Body And Soul” and “Atomic Bomb” reflect the sound of his contemporaries, they still do not fall as neatly under the banner of “Afro-Funk” or “Afro-Beat” as, say, Fela Kuti or the Funkees. Other tracks – most notably the zany “Good Name” – contain a level of experimentation that is uniquely his.
Onyeabor’s mastery of analogue synthesisers was well ahead of his time, and not just in Africa.
… he has an incredible list of admirers.
Aside from the litany of artists coming together for Sydney Festival, other noteworthy fans include: David Byrne, whose Luaka Bob label has re-released much of William Onyeabor’s work; Damon Albarn, who has branched out into a number of African-influenced music projects over the years; and Dan Snaith a.k.a. Caribou/Daphni/Manitoba, who has regularly included Onyeabor’s “When The Going Is Smooth And Good” in his DJ sets over the years.
… he’s more relevant now than ever.
William Onyeabor’s last album was released in 1985 — almost thirty years ago. Yet the music sounds fresh today.
The resurgence of Onyeabor’s music seems to be both a product of and a factor in the ever-proliferating electronic music scene; particularly here in Sydney. It’s a long bow to draw, but with local producers such as Wave Racer, Ribongia and Basenji seeking inspiration from further and further afield, it is hard not to find that their eagerness for experimentation and appetite for the exotic is to their contemporaries what William was to his.
… his music is art for art’s sake.
To borrow from Terry Southern, “it is a refreshing moment indeed when one comes across an area of human endeavor absolutely sufficient unto itself, pure and free, no strings attached—the cherished and almost forgotten l’art pour l’art”.
Such is the experience of listening to William Onyeabor in today’s music world — a world ruled by narcissism, mass media and carefully-constructed public personas.
Something truly wonderful happens when you hear about, then listen to, William Onyeabor for the first time. The anonymity of the music is all out of proportion to its obvious greatness, and yet the overriding sensation created by all those knobs, keys and microphones is pure, unadulterated exuberance!
There is something both wonderful and unsettling about music that is both complex and precocious, but still carries the feeling of a child banging away on a drum or toy piano for the first time. To “discover” an artist who himself no longer wants to be discovered, who contained within sound what he could not contain within himself.
WHAT :: Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor
WHO :: Gotye, Sinkane, Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip), Pat Mahoney (LCD Soundsystem) & more
WHEN :: Friday 16 & Saturday 17 January, 2015
WHERE :: Enmore Theatre
TICKETS :: $85 ($77 concession) thru Sydney Festival
FBi Radio nights (tickets up for grabs):