Pioneering Nigerian electro-funk musician William Onyeabor, who amassed a following among the world’s pop stars but remained reclusive and enigmatic, has died. He was 70.
His record label Luaka Bop announced his death on Wednesday, saying that Onyeabor died in his sleep this week at his home in Enugu, in the country’s southeast.
Before exploding on the international stage late in his career, Onyeabor introduced synthesisers into Nigerian pop and travelled the world to learn do-it-yourself record-making.
From 1977 to 1985, Onyeabor released nine albums of electro-funk, which he recorded, pressed and printed at his personal pressing plant, Wilifilms Limited.
An old photo shows Onyeabor, dashing in a pin-striped suit and a black fedora decorated with a white feather, sitting in a nest of recording equipment with each hand on a different electronic keyboard.
Active in the same years as Nigerian pop giant Fela Kuti, Onyeabor startled many listeners with a sound that independently resembled some of the electronica on the rise in the West.
Onyeabor, referred to as “The Chief,” stopped making music in 1985 when he found religion and retreated to his mansion, refusing to talk about his former life.
But his career made a comeback when Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s New York-based label Luaka Bop, which specialises in world music, reissued a compilation of his hits in 2013.
A film documentary followed along with a global tour in which celebrated pop artists covered Onyeabor’s songs alongside African percussion and horns.
Gigs included US late-night talk shows and London’s Barbican, with artists including Byrne, Blur’s Damon Albarn and members of LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and Bloc Party.
‘Mythical character from Nigeria’
Byrne, in a eulogy for Onyeabor on his blog, described the concerts as “some of the best times I’ve ever had on stage”.
“Onyeabor’s music came to life — it was fresh and transcendent. Everyone felt it. We played it, but he created it,” he said.
Byrne said that Onyeabor’s skills — his development of synthesisers, his meaningful lyricism and his entrepreneur’s sense of how to make records—were “all way ahead of their time”.
“He continues to inspire musicians and fans around the world,” Byrne said.
Onyeabor’s skill set did not extend to live performance. He never gave concerts and declined to take part in the international celebrations of his work late in his life, and declined most interviews.
US psychedelic rocker Devendra Banhart during the cover tour described Onyeabor as a “mythical character from Nigeria.”
He joked that the world might be better off never hearing Onyeabor’s track “Atomic Bomb,” driven by a funky bassline with other-worldly effects.
“It’s the catchiest song I’ve ever heard; when it gets in my brain, I can’t sleep,” Banhart said.
Despite his newfound fame, Onyeabor didn’t speak much in public. Many details of his biography remained mysterious. He was said to have studied filmmaking in the Soviet Union, but alternative histories said he lived in Britain or France instead.
In a rare, brief interview with The New Yorker in 2014, Onyeabor said that his focus was on God but added: “I’m happy that a new generation is discovering my music.”
Luaka Bop said that he was active in his home community. He held leadership roles at a football club and in a musicians union and was elected to a local judicial role.
The label — which described him, despite his reticence, as having a great sense of humour — said he left behind a wife, children and four grandchildren.