William Onyeabor: Mysterious Nigerian Synth Master

On May 11, 2014 by Tim Newman

William Onyeabor - cowboy hat and synth

William Onyeabor is certainly not a name I was familiar with before I was pointed in his direction yesterday by the legend that is Mr Orchid. Thanks Orchid. It appears that the number of rumours that surround musician and songwriter William Onyeabor drown the facts by a factor of ten.  If you drew a graph with ‘mystery’ on the x axis and ‘influential’ on the y axis, his position on the graph would be top right.

William Onyeabor - dude

What we do know is that Onyeabor is a Nigerian chap born in the mid 40’s who made some pretty fresh and influential synth music in the late 70’s and 80’s. This music was released on Luaka Bop, a world music label, who don’t know anything about him now, and didn’t know much about him then either:

William Onyeabor - Luaka Bop

Later in life he took to Christianity with zealous zeal and decided to turn his back on music, and his past. He not only refused to speak about his music again, but refused to be found again, full stop. He all but disappeared… until recently.

William Onyeabor - Atomic Bomb

Now for the rumours: Onyeabor is alleged by some to have studied cinematography in Moscow, Russia. After his studying finished he moved back to Nigeria and set up a film company. It seems that film making didn’t go too well and he fell back onto music production. According to other sources he was eventually crowned a High Chief in Enugu, where he still lives as a businessman working on government contracts and running his own flour mill. 

Another mystery is how a man in Nigeria in the 70’s and 80’s afforded to buy and maintain the myriad of synths he appeared to have?

Just to get you in the sunshine 80s vibe here’s one of Onyeabor’s most popular tracks – “Atomic Bomb”:



Onyeabor has released 8 full length albums. Here’s another dance floor filler:



Last year saw the birth of a supergroup called the Atomic Bomb! Band who came together to play Onyeabor’s music at a series of gigs and festivals around the planet of earth. The group includes David Byrne of Talking Heads and Money Mark of the Beastie Boys:

William Onyeabor - Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor

It seems that Onyeabor influenced many, many men. Many, many, many men.

The music website Noisey, in conjunction with Vice magazine, recently released a film about Onyeabor and their fruitless attempts to get an interview with the man. You can watch that here too:



I don’t know about you but I’m a convert. OK… one more for the road…



I’m smiling…

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