William Oneyabor, Groove Preacher :: An Unsolved Puzzle

There is a shadow of doubt in Onyeabor’s life story which had never been cleared. All that was known for sure is that he released a few albums, on his own Wilfilms label. Beyond that there were only rumours. Had he really studied cinematography in Moscow? Did the film, for which his 1977 debut LP “Crashes in Love” was the soundtrack, exists? How he found the money to set up a fully equipped studio? Was he a spy for the Russians? Why he never performed live? Who are the musicians that accompanied him in his recordings? Truly, no one shed light on this enigmatic figure. His life remained private and reclusive.

Onyeabor was born, 26 March 1946, in Enugu, Nigeria, into a poor family, but became financially successful enough to travel to Europe to study record manufacturing (?). Some biographies claim that he studied cinematography in Russia. By the late 70s he could afford to fund his own recording studio, record label, pressing plant and film company.

He was later crowned a High Chief in Enugu, where he lived as a businessman working on government contracts (?) and running his own semolina flour mill. His business successes saw him named West African Industrialist of the Year in 1987. In the early 1990s, he became the president of Enugu’s Musician’s Union and chairman of the city’s local football team, the Enugu Rangers.

Onyeabor self-released nine albums between 1977 and 1985 and then became a born-again Christian, deeply religious –later he was ordained as a pastor – and influential in the local community, with a paranoid dedication to secrecy that extended to people who knew him. He lived in a flamboyant white mansion, almost like a temple, apparently unchanged since the 1980s, refusing to ever speak about himself or his music again. Nobody wanted to get on his bad side.

He create unique music described sometimes as heavy rhythmical, driven by funky synthesizers, -no other African musician was using synthesizers back then,- occasionally epic in scope and his conscious lyrics and messages for equality and love or decrying war. Singing, almost preaching sometimes, Onyeabor himself and unknown female backing vocalists. The musicians that participate in his recordings it’s another question. Probably he created an in- house band for his studio.

William was an expert in composing music and inventive in studio techniques. A few other African bands or artists trust him and took part in Wilfilms Records roster, like Ofu-Obi Social Club, Pete Baja, Dibson & Essody, Uncle Victor Chukwu and Anambra Brothers, Jaamike Zeluwa, Obidike International Band. Sometimes he was adding or playing synthesizers in some recordings, like N’Draman Blintch’s “Cikamele”.

Onyeabor’s music wasn’t successful beyond Enugu until his 1985 hit “When the Going Is Smooth and Good,” a playful synthesizer driven jam, sound like a proto-techno gem. Even then, he refused to play live and disliked press attention. It was to be his last record. More vinyl from this mysterious man was hard to find, but some trickled in. A few record collectors and music aficionados knew the music of William Oneyabor.

In 2001 the Strut label featured 1978’s “Better Change Your Mind,” a song whose message is as relevant today as it was then, on its Nigeria 70 compilation. Other tracks emerged sporadically over subsequent years, before the Luaka Bop’s compilation. Most of what we know about Onyeabor is thanks to Luaka Bop’s people, while they were trying to collect around any information for him. “Who is William Oneyabor?” came out in 2013. Onyeabor’s music came to life, it was fresh and transcendent. Everyone felt it, but not himself.

He declined to promote the 3LP compilation, requiring neither money nor attention. For someone like Sixto Rodriguez, – after the documentary “Searching for Sugarman,” – gave him vindication and a second chance. In 2014 a documentary was out, by Noisey, called “Fantastic Man” – A Film About William Onyeabor, named after his song. But for Onyeabor, growing interest in the music he released during his career not moved him at all. Α series of live tribute shows took place, performed by the likes of David Byrne, Damon Albarn, Alexis Taylor, Lijadu Sisters and Ghostpoet.

In December 2014, he stated “I only create the type of music that would help the world” It was his first ever radio broadcast on the Lauren Laverne Show on BBC 6 Music. William Onyeabor has died on 16 January 2017, peacefully in his sleep at his home at the age of 70, following a short illness. His surprising and groundbreaking music, creating anything that sounded similar, were all way ahead of their time. At the time of his death he was more popular and influential than he had ever been but he remained to the end one of music’s most unsolved puzzles.