William Onyeabor, Reclusive African Electro-Funk Pioneer, Dies at 70

Mr. Onyeabor “I only compose the type of music that will help the world the way it counts,” he once said. Credit Luaka Bop

Charles Onyeabor, a Nigerian musician whose self-made African electro-funk albums of the 1970s and ’80s were major hits in his country and then a prized rediscovery for musicians and disc jockeys in the 2000s, died on Monday at his home in Enugu, Nigeria. He was 70.

His eldest son, Charles Onyekachi Onyeabor, announced the death. He did not specify the cause.

Mr. Onyeabor (pronounced OWN-yah-bore) released nine albums from 1977 to 1985 that sounded like nothing else in African music. His songs relied on multitracked synthesizers and programmed, metronomic rhythms, yet the tracks were also infused with unmistakably African highlife, funk and Afrobeat grooves.

Mr. Onyeabor wrote and produced all of his music and played nearly all the parts himself. He sang in a gentle, often otherworldly tenor, with lyrics about romance, current events, easing political strife, ending war and worshiping God.

“I only compose the type of music that will help the world the way it counts,” he told a BBC Radio interviewer in 2014.

Charles Onyeabor said: “He wasn’t doing his music for the money. He was trying to tell the world how he felt and what he thinks.”

William Onyeabor never performed live, and he shunned publicity. When the Nigerian Television Authority asked him to make a video for the song “When the Going Is Smooth and Good” in 1985, he made only cameo appearances. And when a Nigerian journalist approached him for an interview in the 1980s, all he would say was, “There is the difference between the musician and his music.”

After the release of his final album, “Anything You Sow,” in 1985, Mr. Onyeabor abruptly turned away from music to devote himself to other businesses and to Christianity. But his music found a second life decades later in the West.

Mr. Onyeabor in an undated photo. He wrote and produced all of his music and played nearly all the parts himself.  Credit Luaka Bop 

William Ezechukwu Onyeabor was born on March 26, 1946, outside Enugu, in southeastern Nigeria, and grew up in a “poor family,” he told the BBC in 2014. Yet by the 1970s his various businesses had made him wealthy enough to follow his ambitions abroad.

He went to Russia to study cinematography and to Sweden to learn how to manufacture vinyl records. Returning to Enugu, he recorded his first albums, “Crashes in Love” and “Atomic Bomb,” at a studio there before he completed his own production complex.

He imported synthesizers, 32-track recording equipment and vinyl disc-pressing machines and started Wilfilms Limited. Its technology was more advanced than that of the major labels in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, and it drew musicians to Enugu to record. Mr. Onyeabor also built himself an elaborate estate, Ezechukwu Palace. (Ezechukwu means “God is king” in Igbo.)

He released his nine albums in eight years, including two versions of his 1977 debut album, “Crashes in Love” — one with standard instruments, the other more electronic. He could play every instrument. He constructed his songs in the studio he had built and pressed his albums and printed their covers on his own machines.

His distinctively electronic songs became hits across Nigeria, played everywhere. Their messages were by turns romantic, topical, admonitory and devout, while the music was hypnotically danceable.

But Mr. Onyeabor set his own music aside. “I was a sinner who repented and gave himself 100 percent to Christ,” he told The New York Times in 2013. He turned instead to other business interests, including a flour mill (with equipment imported from Italy), an internet cafe, a construction company, a gas station and rental properties. They were successful; in Enugu, a city of 700,000, he has a street named after him.

His music found a new audience in the West among fans of rare funk and electronic music. “Better Change Your Mind,” a song from “Atomic Bomb,” was reissued on the 2001 compilation “Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970s Funky Lagos” and sparked increasing interest among musicians and disc jockeys. Surviving vinyl copies of Mr. Onyeabor’s albums became expensive collectors’ items, commanding as much as $1,000 online.

The label Luaka Bop, founded by David Byrne, persisted through years of negotiations to license Mr. Onyeabor’s music. In 2013 it released a compilation, “Who Is William Onyeabor?” That was followed the next year by reissues of his entire catalog on CD as well as on vinyl LPs.

Hailed, sampled and sometimes remixed by younger electronic musicians, Mr. Onyeabor’s music reached a broad new audience. As the reissues appeared, his songs were taken on tour worldwide through a tribute project, the Atomic Bomb Band, which frequently featured guest appearances by Mr. Byrne and included members of Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem in a band directed by Sinkane.

In addition to his son Charles, Mr. Onyeabor is survived by his wife, three other children and four grandchildren.

In his 2014 BBC interview, Mr. Onyeabor said he was working on new songs with a gospel message. “This time around,” he said, “I’m talking strictly about Jesus Christ.”

Source: nytimes