From the Nigerian funk scene of the '70s, came William Onyeabor, a mysterious man in a ten-gallon hat with more synths and effects mics than any West African at the time should have realistically been able to acquire. This lavish and adventurous approach yielded a formula of afro-pop that was light-years ahead of anything else around. As a result, it went largely unappreciated and eventually dissolved into history.
Yet, as William Faulkner once wisely proffered, “The past is never dead”. And over 40 years later, a reissue compilation titled ‘Who Is William Onyeabor?’ dramatically surfaced, garnered support from Damon Albarn and Caribou alike, and soared straight into end of year charts across the music press. How that happened, and how the music came to be is something the recently released short film Fantastic Man aims to answer. It follows the journey of the Luaka Bop label heads whocompiled and released this compilation, as they pursue the legend of Onyeabor through Nigeria and into his hometown of Enugu, a place where rumours orbit his myth and refresh themselves daily.
For these determined folk Onyeabor slowly unravelled from mere fascination into a story nobody could have predicted. After the premiere of 'Fantastic Man' (which you can watch below) at London’s Barbican, Clash caught up with the director Jake Sumner, and Yale Evelev and Eric Welles Nystrom of Luaka Bop to shed light on the short film.
So much music must pass through your hands at Luaka Bop. What made William Onyeabor’s records stick out?
Yale: Actually, as we are trying to sign stuff that doesn't sound like what others are releasing, very little that comes our way makes sense for what we want to do. That makes the stuff that is different reallystand out. In the Onyeabor case, this was the only music I had heard from Africa that was made for records and not made to be played live. Right off the bat you could tell something else was going on here. Of course we had no idea how much of a something else it was!
What made you get involved in the project?
Jake: Eric (Welles Nystrom) from Luaka Bop came over to the Alldayeveryday office and played us a bunch of the music. I had never heard of William Onyeabor at this point. I like a lot of West African music from that time period but had never heard anything like this. I was hooked immediately. I couldn’t place the music or compare it to anything I'd heard before and I think the lack of concrete information and answers definitely appealed, but it's also infectious and I don’t think anyone could listen to it and not have fun doing so.
Did you have a plan for how you would tell the story, or did the adventure dictate?
Jake: I learned quickly that you cant really plan on anything if you’re making a very low-budget film in Nigeria, so I let what we found dictate where the story would go. From the beginning of the project I was thinking about the idea of mystery. I think maybe the Internet has opened things up in a way that's given us answers to almost everything. I think now we might be more attracted to things that are unattainable and inexplicable, or the answer exists somewhere out there in the world but it wont be easy to find. I wanted to explore this idea in the film by looking at this mysterious figure, but also the people who have tried and failed to understand William and how he came to make this music.
Was there a moment during your pursuit when you considered just giving up on it?
Yale: In a word, no. The Onyeabor project came along as I'd been in the midst of a 10-year kerfuffle with the Tim Maia estate to release his music. I went in thinking the Onyeabor project would be deliciously easy in comparison. Of course as we know, it wasn't, but it still wasn't ashard as Tim Maia. In the early 1990s we wanted to release a compilation by filmmaker Vijay Anand. It took three trips to India and the hiring of someone there to just wait in peoples’ offices making sure they didn't leave, until I could come by and sign the contracts. It set the tone for me: waiting out what ever the obstacle stood in the way of us doing the albums we wanted to do. Every album is different, they all are more involved and complicated then we expect going in.
What was the most outrageous myth about you heard Onyeabor during the pursuit?
Eric: Sadly, I think it was that this wasn't actually his music and that he had stolen it from others. However, I heard so many other stories that completely contradicted that from people that we unfortunately couldn't film. I think it’s pretty clear that it’s him and only him that wanted to make this kind of music. More than anything, there have been some extremely raremoments where he has sung a few of his songs for us - playing keys in the air and humming the instrumentation. It is one of the greatest things I’ve experienced musically. It’s without doubt him and 'his' music.
Is there another chapter left in the Onyeabor story?
Yale: The last year we've been working on a live show of Onyeabor's music, which is kicking off this spring in the UK and USA, at some of finest venues in each respective country (The Barbican, The Greek). The line up for each show varies, but will include musicians like Damon Albarn, David Byrne, Alexis Taylor, Money Mark, Luke Jenner, Tunde Adebimpe, Sinkane, and the legendary The Lijadou Sisters.
Words: Joe Zadeh
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Damon Albarn, Kele Okereke, Alexis Taylor and more unite for 'Atomic Bomb: Who Is William Onyeabor?' at London's Barbican venue on April 1st.