Who the Hell is William Onyeabor?
And why do we have a fascination with “lost” songwriters?
Over the past few months, You Need To Hear This have become obsessed with the music and life of William Onyeabor. Above is an exclusive premiere of his latest video "Atomic Bomb". In 2014 we'll have a number of exciting Onyeabor projects, including a brand-new documentary. But we begin with this look at his story and our fascination with lost songwriters.
Die-hard record collectors Caribou, 2ManyDJs, Four Tet, Devandra Banhart and Damon Albarn adore him, but it’s only recently that William Onyeabor, the man behind eight albums worth of exhilarating afro-beat released between 1977 and 1985, has become a name known outside of the South-Eastern Nigerian city Enugu.
A result of a five-year effort spent tracking him down by Nigerian writer Uchenna Ikonne, the last few months has seen the words William Onyeabor catapulted out of Enugu’s streets (and crate-diggers moth-ridden libraries) and onto the pages of British broadsheets, culminating in the release of compilation record Who Is William Onyeabor and a subsequent William Onyeabor Experience event at Rough Trade. So who then, is William Onyeabor, and why are music fans and critics only now fascinated with an artist that hasn’t put out a piece of new music in almost 30 years?
The first question, who is William Onyeabor, isn’t easily answered. Even now, with reams of press littered across the internet, information remains scarce. He may have studied cinematography in Russia, he may have self-financed his own movie and he was probably a titan of the flourmill industry in his native Nigeria, but no one knows for certain. All we know is that he self-released eight albums in the late 70s. These records rarely breached obscurity outside of his hometown.
The records are magnificent. They come from a time-period situated between the departure of European imperialism and the arrival of despotic leadership, when African culture flourished in a way unlike any other. The sound of excitement, discovery, and most of all freedom, breathes beyond the wax upon which the songs were layered.
But the quality of his music is not the only reason people are talking about William Onyeabor. Recently, there’s been an online infatuation with discovery of lost talents, people’s stories who may have gone noticed, given worldwide publicity by one or two unlikely enthusiasts.
Onyeabor’s story is not dissimilar to that of Sixto Rodriquez, the Sugarman, who became the subject of two South African fans’ mission to find the 1970’s songwriter from Detroit. Beloved by almost everyone situated on both sides of the Zimbabwean and South African border, Rodriguez was unaware of his status as a modern-day cultural icon until recently, despite the fact that his hits have played from the stereo at every Cape Town braai ever since At The Best went (unbeknownst to him) platinum in the country in the late 70s.
The sound that Rodriguez has resonates with every South African. To them, it is the sound of “I Wonder” and “Sugarman” that soundtracks family vacation road-trips, imprinting its sonic into the make-up of young Joburgers and Zimbos. He is another one of their all time greats and, at a time when television was banned in South Africa and few artists ever played there, they thought he was as big as Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Neil Young. But the audience that Rodriguez has attained since the airing of the 2012 documentary Searching For Sugarman are not South African. His music is, of course, brilliant, but having listened to him both at Glastonbury Festival this year, and every night for several months in Zimbabwe last year, surrounded by people that have been in love with him for decades, the two are separate experiences.
At Glastonbury, it was as though the audience expected Rodriguez to be a legend, despite the patronage not being privy to the cultural prerequisites that had made him such. It was almost as if, in an age where all the great rockstars will be dead soon and no one is stepping in to take their place, Rodriguez’s new-found fans have substituted him as their new-age icon. The same, perhaps, is true of Onyeabor.
Modern day mystiques, like Jai Paul and Jay Electronica, are such because of the lack of information that surrounds them. It is the polar opposite of the information age, where Twitpics spell out secret studio sessions, Wikipedia tells a life story, and Reddit allows anyone to ask an artist anything. The music by both Jai and Jay is excellent but their mystique can oft wrongly magnify their brilliance.
William Onyeabor and Sixto Rodriguez go above and beyond this. Their temperament increased ten-fold by the notion that they’ve been around for several decades making really good music and OMG how did we not hear all about them and aren’t they amazing? It is FOMO to the musical extreme.
But the truth is that neither William Onyeabor or Sixto Rodriguez are legends, at least not to us. In the communities that were infused with their music, they might have touched souls. But to the rest of us, they’re just musicians with an abundance of talent and a paucity of opportunity. We should be thankful that their music has reached us in unexpected ways but refrain from forcing them into the frameworks of our music heritage.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanBassil