William Onyeabor, one of the most important – and mysterious – figures of 70s and 80s Nigerian music has passed away at the age of 70 in his home in Enugu, Nigeria.
The musician and businessman – known locally as ‘the Chief’ – composed and self-released nine classic albums from 1977 to 1985. These were recorded, pressed and printed in his own pressing plant Wilfilms Limited in southeast Nigeria.
When he wasn’t releasing groundbreaking electronic-funk, he was also running a semolina mill, internet cafe and gas station as well as being chairman of the local football team, The Enugu Rangers.
He’s probably best known for When The Going is Smooth and Good, which sounds as low-fi as infectiously fresh.
The life of the cowboy hat-wearing dapper gent is shrouded in mystery. There were rumours that he was a filmmaker educated in the Soviet Union – or in the UK or France – but whenever anyone asked him about his past, the great man would answer half serious, half tongue-in-cheek ‘I only want to speak about God.’
He never performed live in his life, despite tribute concerts after the album Who is William Onyeabor? was reissued in 2013 by Luaka Bop, the world music label started by David Byrne. Artists like Damon Albarn, Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke and Pat Mahoney of LCD Soundsystem fame performed because the Chief refused to give interviews or play music. It was the label which announced his death with a press release:
‘It is with incredibly heavy hearts that we have to announce that the great Nigerian business leader and mythic music pioneer William Onyeabor has passed away at the age of 70…
‘William Onyeabor would never speak about himself and for a long time refused many of the interview requests that came his way. Having become Born Again in the latter part of life, he only wanted to speak about God.’
Now his music will be your only chance to discover who exactly William Onyeabor is.
Have a listen, it is great.