In a way William Onyeabor lived several lives.
Born into a Nigeria grasping towards, and then wrestling with, it's own independence, his continually probing mind took him towards music as a means of expression.
Finding fame in his native land at the end of the 70s, the musician fused rising Afro-funk sounds with rattling electronics to create a truly inspirational mix.
Releasing a string of studio LPs from 1977 onwards, William Onyeabor then escaped the machinations of the music industry, finding solace in religion.
His output, though, was too good to simply fade into the background. A new generation of crate-diggers unearthed his legacy, exposing it to Western ears.
The documentary Fantastic Man fused the music with the myth, attempting to track the musician down for what would have been his first ever interview.
Around the same time the Atomic Bomb! Band came together to bring William Onyeabor's music to audiences across the world.
Sinkane's Ahmed Gallab was tasked with becoming musical director, helping expose Onyeabor's work to countless new fans in the process.
Sadly, William Onyeabor died a few days ago in Nigeria, at the age of 70. Here, Ahmed Gallab writes for Clash about his memories of working with the musical pioneer.
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I was 23 years old when I first heard William Onyeabor. My friend Evan put me on to a new compilation of psychedelic African funk music released by Luaka Bop called ‘World Psychdelic Classics Vol. 3: Love Is A Real Thing’.
The compilation completely changed my life. For the first time I related to music that felt so much like my experience. The songs were distinctly African but wore an American influence so earnestly. They sounded excited and energetic, but best of all the songs had a message. In particular a song called ‘Better Change Your Mind’ - when this song came on everything around me went into slow motion, and I can still smell the room I was in. The meandering synths, hyper-compressed drums, the omnipresent tambourine (something I've taken and used on damn near all of my songs)... and the words. The amazing universal message that Willy has come to be known for. It took over my soul and I became obsessed with this music.
Several years later, Sinkane got the incredible opportunity to play with Femi Kuti at NYC Summerstage. It was a beautiful day and, after our set, I spent my time catching up with some friends backstage. In the corner of my eye I saw a bright, young Swedish dude bouncing around with a camera crew. He had an ear-to-ear grin and was relentlessly trying to get to Femi for an interview. He came up to me and said hello. I noticed his T-Shirt read "ONYEABOR" in big, bold block lettering. It made me happy and I complimented him on it. "You know who he is?!" he asked me. "OF COURSE! I LOVE HIM!" I responded back. This was the first time I had met Eric Wells-Nystrom, Project Manager of Luaka Bop records.
Later that week I met up with Eric and Luaka Bop Owner Yale Evelev for lunch. They wanted to talk to me about working on a new project. We met at Café Collette in Williamsburg and the two of them started telling me about a new project involving William Onyeabor's music. After several years of painstaking efforts they got hold of the elusive man himself and they were going to re-issue his music. Along with the re-issue they wanted to put on a show. Sadly, Willy didn't want to be involved but they had his blessing to construct a show on their own.
"We want you to be the Music Director," Yale told me. "Money Mark and David Byrne want to be involved…”
I was completely shocked. "Me?! Who the hell am I?! You want ME?!" They both smiled and nodded and I said, "Yes".
The following six months proved to be challenging. I was writing my album ‘Mean Love’ and listening to Willy's songs non-stop. I dissected every single element of his music. Sinkane guitarist Jonny Lam charted out the tunes then we'd talk about the arrangements. The four of us in Sinkane spent two months rehearsing, breaking down the songs, learning them inside and out. You might think that Onyeabor songs are simple but, let me assure you, THEY ARE NOT! This was a challenging task but fun all the same. Simultaneously Money Mark was sending me video clips of him learning the songs and pics of the synths he found to authenticate the music. We would talk on the phone and laugh about how crazy this was going to be. When we finally met and played together something special happened - we realized just how powerful this music was, how far this could go.
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Our first show was at The Barbican in London on April 1st, 2014. It was absolutely amazing. The moment we started ‘Body & Soul’ everybody in the audience stood up. The energy was so live and I knew that it was on.
Every show that we have played has been unique. Different guests give each song a unique energy and flavour. Some guests like Jamie Lidell, Charles Lloyd and Luke Jenner have become staples. It has been amazing to see just how many artists have been influenced by Willy's music.
Eric and I went to Nigeria last May and I got to meet Willy. The experience felt like I was in a movie. 10 years, almost to the day, that I had heard his music I was finally going to meet the fantastic man himself. I entered his house and he kindly introduced himself and gave me a glass of water. I couldn't help but stare at everything. All of his gear, the pictures, the vibrant and enormous furniture. It was just so astounding! I would come to his place again three times that week. He would invite Eric and I up to his ‘VIP’ room and we'd talk about God and how positively his music has influenced our lives, and the lives of others.
It was a dream come true. When it was time to leave I kindly asked Willy (or ‘Chief’ as he was often called by the people close to him) if we could take a picture together. He looked at me, smiled and said: "Maybe next time".
Because of William Onyeabor I have been able to play onstage and make lasting friendships with my idols. I got to travel the world with my best friends and connect with thousands of people. I became a better musician and a better person through out it all. Thank you, Willy, Yale and Eric for giving me this opportunity. And thanks to the fans for helping keep Willy's music alive.
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Sinkane will release new album 'Life And livin' It' on February 10th. Catch the band at the following show:
29 London Dome