31/03/2014 Barbican Guide

Client: Barbican Guide
website | podcast | William Onyeabor

Who is William Onyeabor?

Let's start with the first mystery that is the music. A voice on the other end of the phone tells me, 'when you play this to people for the first time everyone has their own explanation about what it is.' It continued - 'in terms of where it's from and when it's from because it has this electronic sound that could be from before, but there's nothing really like it anywhere, so you can't really put it in any box.'. I'm speaking on the phone to Eric Welles about the music and mystery of William Onyeabor. He's the label manger of Luaka Bop, a record company who already have a track record of bringing us the lost sounds of everything from Samba to Tropicalia, releasing Shuggie Otis and Os Mutantes on to a new generation of turntables and mp3 players.

The second and much bigger mystery is the man. My simple search of the internet reveals he was a funk musician from Nigeria. That wasn't enough though; they needed to know more. To cut a very long story short, after much detective work they tracked him down on the phone. And they wanted to set up a meeting to discover his story. His response? Silence. He hung there for almost a minute on the phone. Eventually he said 'Is this an interview?...why would I want to do that?'

After this incredible initial setback, Eric and the label persevered. 'I started researching him pretty intensely. I heard this. I heard that. Always pretty fantastic things like he studied cinematography in Russia or he was high chief or he was a lawyer that studied in Oxford. Here's this guy from Nigeria in the 70s and 80s and did all these amazing things, and made all this amazing music but there is not any actual written biography for him. That when it hit us - this guy is a true myth. That's when we changed the record title to Who is William Onyeabor?'

At the point where Mr Onyeabor started making cameos in Eric's dreams, he decided something had to be done. Encouraged by some of this artist’s new-found fans- such as a certain Damon Albarn- he decided he had to go to Nigeria. Again fast-fowarding the story a little, he lands and after a slight detour finds himself driven for 30 minutes through intense greenery of Enugu, and finally after years of build-up his dreams seem to come to life before him. The man and myth become real. He finds himself looking on what he describes as a palace or a 1970s hotel resort, with big fountains placed outside that no longer work and an old silver Mercedes. He realises this is where Mr Onyeabor lives.

And what was this man like? As Eric stepped into the room he could tell he was incredibly sharp. He got the impression he had done a lot of things in life. He didn't [and he wouldn't] speak about music very much. It seems he wanted to stay away from people. He wanted to stay hidden. But here's what we do know as we have the evidence: he made eight records between 1977–85, recorded on his own Wilfilms label. And the album World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor? takes music from most of these. For Eric this quest for an answer was an incredible but exhausting experience,  but it has eventually lead to a new obsession, one which we will all get the chance to enjoy:  a concert of his music, where you can encounter the mystery of the man and his music yourself.

Words: Ben Eshmade