His death was announced on Wednesday by record label Luaka Bop: “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 had died peacefully in his sleep the day before.
Onyeabor recorded nine albums in just eight years (1977-1985). Ground breaking albums, with a unique and other-worldly sound. Often a sound completely unimaginable for the time, given the cost of the equipment and his location of Enugu, southern Nigeria. His use of electronic synthesizers and more traditional instruments are what set him apart.
Repetition of musical phrasing and lyrics with more in common with modern electronic music coming out of Europe than local music of the time, creating something timeless and unique. Writing, pressing and self-releasing under his own imprint, Wilfilms Ltd, you would expect there to be more information about his life and story. So used to having everything at the click of a mouse these days we have forgotten what privacy and mystery means. Furthermore, when the man in question presents himself as a boastful star in the few promotional images that do exist it’s difficult to get your head around his elusiveness, this enigma. Onyeabor however gave up music completely in 1985 and shunned the limelight from then, even going as far as to refuse to so much as talk about the music he had recorded, almost as if it were someone else.
A documentary in 2014 (link below) attempted to track him down and fill in some of the mystery with little result. Those around him at the time have little to shed on the matter either. The majority of information that is available is, at best, speculation. With his life such a guarded secret people filled in the gaps themselves creating some incredible myths. What is known is that he was born to a poor family but managed to finance study in Europe as well as creating his own music and film studio on his return. After quitting music he became a successful businessman and born-again Christian and devoted his life to this. Not entirely surprising given his lyrics and subject matter; often global, political and religious they were also delivered in such a way that it sounded like a plea to all humanity with an almost pastor-like quality. He was also crowned High Chief William Ezechukwu Onyeabor in Enugu and was recognised for his business success with the award of West African Industrialist of the Year in 1987.
Despite all the mystery he has left behind an incredible musical legacy which without doubt will live on for years to come but he has however taken to the grave the big question, Who is William Onyeabor? And will more information surface about his mysterious story in the coming years?