He leaves behind a wealth of brilliant music, as well as a story that remains shrouded in mystery.
The legend of William Onyeabor is unlike any other story in modern music. The Nigerian musician most known for the forward-thinking albums he put out in the late '70s through the mid-'80s died in his sleep on Monday, as revealed by Luaka Bop, the independent label that released the 2013 compilation Who Is William Onyeabor?, which generated a surge of renewed interest in his incredible body of work.
Onyeabor was noted for his use of the synthesizer, which he melded into inventive compositions of funk and afrobeat. The electronic equipment he used was thought to have been wholly foreign to Africa at the time. There are rumors that he studied film in the Soviet Union and law at Oxford. He made soundtracks to films that may not exist. He would not speak on any of these stories, nor would he shed light on his music career, when the press tried to reach him after his music experienced a sudden renewal in popularity far outside of his hometown of Enugu.
In fact, Onyeabor was known in his hometown as "The Chief," but he is famous there more so for his role as a prominent businessman and community leader. In the '80s, he earned honors like West African Industrialist of the Year and Justice of the Peace. He became a born-again Christian in 1985, which basically marked the end of his music career.
He never achieved much fame when he was making music, but surviving copies of his records eventually became the stuff of lore. His synth-driven sounds became revered by all kinds of artists, especially house and techno DJs and other collectors in the electronic music world. The idea that such technologically innovative, psychedelic, and dancefloor-ready music could be made at such an early time in a Nigerian small town was astounding.
Who Is William Onyeabor? as well as the fascinating Fantastic Man documentary that was released a year later via Noisey did much to spread his music, but little to shed light on his story. He did not participate in any promotion for his reissued music, and he was reclusive when it came to press inquiries. In the rare instance that he was tracked down, he refused to speak of his music, usually saying, "I only want to speak about God."
"We would like to send our deepest condolences to his family and thank each and every one of you who has helped share the love for his music around the world," writes Luaka Bop.
Rest in peace William Onyeabor. May his great enigma live on. Listen to some of his choice tunes below.