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Album Review: World Psychedelic Classics, Vol. 5: Who Is William Onyeabor? by William Onyeabor
Excellent, Based on 6 Critics
AllMusic - 90 Based on rating 9/10
The title of the fifth volume in Luaka Bop's World Psychedelic Classics series is perhaps the most aptly titled one. Nigerian musician and entrepreneur William Onyeabor is a bit of an intentional cipher biographically. He released eight albums and two singles on his own Wilfilms label between 1977 and 1985. After becoming a born-again Christian, he renounced his past and musical career.
In 2005, David Byrne’s globe-trotting label Luaka Bop—after investigating the sounds of Brazil, Cuba, and the like—released World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love's A Real Thing - The Funky Fuzzy Sounds Of West Africa. Along with the likes of the breathtaking Éthiopiques series and Strut’s relentlessly funky Nigeria 70 set from 2001, the compilation helped spur a revival in African music from the continent’s “Golden Age,” that time in the 1960s and 70s when European imperialism was for the most part eradicated, artists and culture flourished, and before many of these nations’ leaders turned despotic. That renaissance has continued on into the present moment, from the work of imprints like Analog Africa, Soundway, and Awesome Tapes from Africa (to name just a few of many active reissue labels), even as Africa’s embarrassment of riches has turned into a glut of sorts, a decidedly First World problem to have.
As the latest instalment in a series that’s introduced the wider world to the likes of Os Mutantes, Shuggie Otis and Tom Maia, a new release on Luaka Bop’s occasional offshoot carries expectations of a major discovery. Enigmatic even by the standards of those previous artists, Onyeabor is the great mystery-man of Nigerian music. Having self-released eight albums between 1978 and 1985 he became a born-again Christian and disappeared, disowning his previous career and refusing to speak about himself or his music again.
To answer the title: He's an Igbo chieftain from Eastern Nigeria who produced eight funky, spacey, handsomely strange synth-disco LPs in the late Seventies and Eighties before embracing Christianity and ditching his career. The catalog gets cherry-picked here for a killer party mix that combines Fela Kuti's extended-groove trance states and soulman call-and-response vocals with old-school drum machines and synths. And songs like "Why Go to War" and "Atomic Bomb" suggest he's probably still a hell of a preacher.
After the success of bringing back the likes of Os Mutantes, Shuggie Otis and Tim Maia from the depths of oblivion, Luaka Bop – a label that specialises in world music – paid homage this year to another fascinating artist, this time from Nigeria's funk age. Barely ten years after the Nigerian civil war, which claimed the lives of three million in three years, William Onyeabor built a musical career in his hometown of Enugu, the ephemeral capital of the Republic of Biafra. Between 1977 and 1985, a time of political tumult as his country flitted between attempts at democracy and military regimes, Onyeabor released eight self-produced albums.
William Onyeabor has put body and soul into preventing the release of Who is William Onyeabor?, a compilation of songs plucked from his infectious synthesizer-driven pop records released between 1977 and 1985, during the golden era of Nigerian funk. After four long years of painstaking persuasion, David Byrne’s world music label Luaka Bop has finally managed to release it, playing up to the mysterious theme of the record in their video trailer: “Synth Virtuoso, Russian Film Scholar, Oxford Law Student, sinner or saint?” Nigerian ex-pat blogger Uchenna Ikonne made contact with the cult musician in 2009 and – in the “toughest ordeal I had ever endured in my life” – got a signature on a Luaka Bop contract. But after four years of painstaking attempts to follow up with the elusive septuagenarian, Luaka Bop boss Eric Welles-Nystrom had to fly to Nigeria to track him down himself.