William Onyeabor, one of Nigeria’s greatest yet mysterious musicians, died this past Monday at the age of 70.
The enigmatic artist was largely unknown outside West Africa until music from the series of pioneering synth-funk albums he released between 1977-1985 achieved wider acclaim when a retrospective compilation of his work, ‘Who Is William Onyeabor?’, was released in 2013.
Luaka Bop, the label behind the compilation, announced his death on Wednesday on the artist’s Facebook fan page:
“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. He died peacefully in his sleep following a brief illness, at his home in Enugu, Nigeria.”
Luaka Bop label owner David Byrne also paid tribute to William Onyeabor on Wednesday, praising his “conscious lyrics and messages and his entrepreneurial ambitions.” The former Talking Heads frontman toured Mr. Onyeabor’s music with several other artists in 2014 as part of the Atomic Bomb! Band.
Born in 1946, very little is known about the life of the mysterious artist. However, what we do know is that he not only composed and self-released the music he recorded in his own studio, but he also pressed the albums at his own plant, Wilfilms Ltd. After the release of his ninth album in 1985, he quit music to focus on his business ventures and would later commit his life to religion after becoming a born-again Christian.
But for the persistence of Luaka Bop, who spent several years tracking down and attempting to persuade Mr. Onyeabor to allow them to reissue his work, his music may have remained largely unknown outside West Africa.
In 2014, Vice magazine’s Noisey released the documentary ‘Fantastic Man’ which travels to Nigeria in an effort to understand more about the life of the elusive artist. The 30-minute film features interviews with Damon Albarn and Caribou‘s Dan Snaith, as well as locals who knew and worked with Mr. Onyeabor. ‘Fantastic Man’ is also the title of one of his most well known tracks.