As little as two years ago most of us would’ve simply questioned who William Onyeabor was and why we should care about him and his music. Within a year of that point people all over the country, and indeed the world, were spinning tracks like ‘Fantastic Man’ and ‘Atomic Bomb’ at all hours of the day and the legend of the Nigerian musician had grown uncontrollably. Though there may not have been a continuation of such high praise for Onyeabor’s music, the Atomic Bomb band is still very much going strong and they’re set to appear at this year’s Meltdown Festival. Eric Welles-Nyström of record label Luaka Bop is one of those who drove the whole Onyeabor campaign and shed light on this forgotten electronic musician.
Having been at the label since 2012, Eric began by working on a project based around Brazilian musician Tim Maia, who had a reputation for being a bit of a loose cannon. Eric recalls how difficult the situation surrounding the release was: “Tim has a bunch of kids, none of them are his real kids but they all fight to try to get control of his money.
“When Tim died, he had 120 legal cases against him and for him.” Probably not the ideal first project when starting a new job but at least this would leave him well prepared for any troubles in future projects. “The situation was really similar to Onyeabor in that we had a musician who wasn’t really available." And so began Eric and his Luaka Bop partner Yale Everley's work with Tim Maia. The result? Well, here's a short film narrated by Devendra Banhart that tells the story of the infamous Mr Maia;
And so onto the mysterious William Onyeabor. 25 years after the start of Luaka Bop and Eric was taking on a task most of us would simply have backed away from. "He agreed for us to do his music but he wouldn’t endorse it in any way so it was kind of tricky. I don’t come from a record label background, I’m from a communications and marketing background. it was a fun challenge, in a way, to make something come to life when the artist isn't there because you have to create everything yourself."
Though there are surely plenty of positives when the artist is reluctant to be involved, you're probably an awful lot less likely to encounter temper tantrums and the like, Eric points out that he had to take on the everyday tasks such as promoting the music and putting the band together that you'd often expect the artist to undertake. However, this didn't deter him from his goal in the slightest and the opportunity he needed to spark this campaign into life soon appeared.
"It was fun trying to get people to come to this birthday party for someone who they don’t know who it is. We had to say ‘pay a lot of money for a show that you don’t know what it is and no-one knows who this guy is’."
The party attitude seems to be something that has been inherently invoked by the rebirth of Onyeabor's sounds, particularly in the high-energy live shows which feature all manner of special guests and incredible musicians - the upcoming show at Meltdown festival will see David Byrne perform alongside the likes of Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Mahotella Queens and Ghostpoet along with regular Atomic Bomb members Sinkane, Money Mark and Pat Mahoney.
When first settling into the world of William Onyeabor, Eric and Yale found that they were not dealing with your everyday musician. They were dealing with a businessman. Though his music may have inspired the likes of Sinkane and Damon Albarn, among countless others, it seems as though Mr Onyeabor was not the easiest person in the world to work with - particularly given that he'd taken the advance for the record before signing a contract. "We tried to talk to him and he would just hang up or refuse to say stuff and I got kind of obsessed with that." It seems as though the mystery and intrigue surrounding this forgotten musical genius drew Eric in so much that he became completely blinded by Onyeabor's aura. And, in hindsight, who could blame him?
"First, you become obsessed with the music and then the myth and mystery around him. It comes to a point when you dream about him and even go all the way to Nigeria. You think ‘how can I share this with people’ or give people as close to the experience that I had, knowing that he won’t do anything himself. We didn’t know it then but we suspected he didn’t play it ever."
Whether or not Onyeabor ever actually performed any of his songs live remains to be a bit of a mystery yet with the Atomic Bomb band bringing music to the masses, through live shows and televised performances like the appearance on Jimmy Fallon's show below, a whole new generation of music fans from around the world have been able to sample sounds that would surely have passed them by if it hadn't been for Eric and Yale's hard work. In Eric's own words, "I didn’t expect it to lead to anything, I just thought I had to try because I was talking to people so much about it."
The project has seen them take on tasks from getting graphic artists to create fake Nigerian newspapers to getting to speak to some of the most talented musicians in the world. However, some musicians have been a little less interested in Onyeabor than others - as Eric found out when he was part of a team interviewing Femi Kuti. "We got an interview and we were so excited and we brought a whole crew, got there 5 hours early, spoke to him for an hour and he has absolutely no clue who William Onyeabor is, he’s got nothing to say about him. He’s just pissed off that we’re not asking questions about himself or Fela. It put into context who Onyeabor was."
Fortunately others were significantly more transfixed on the legend of Onyeabor, none moreso than the current leader of the Atomic Bomb band Sinkane. "I was on a hunt for anyone related to music to talk to about Onyeabor. Especially Sinkane. I would hang around a bar for 5 hours just to talk to certain DJs but I walked up to Ahmed just to say what we were doing and he was like ‘shit, Onyeabor has changed my life’." Anyone who has seen the band perform live will see how in control of everything Sinkane is and his presence on stage as the symbolic master of ceremonies seems to control the situation from becoming a musical free-for-all. That being said, the performance would be a very different affair if it weren't for the individual creativity of the performers - Money Mark in particular leaves a lasting impression on the audience with his cheeky grin and excitable on-stage antics.
Eric recalled that Young Fathers were among the artists who he has most enjoyed getting involved with throughout the lifespan of the project: "I really loved working with Young Fathers, they were so eager and they really worked hard just to make the show and they would rehearse when they were on tour and they really made it their own song."
"I think that’s what's really different with Yale and Luaka Bop compared to other labels. Other labels would just let this be one of many releases in a year and to push it out with just a bit of liner notes. They probably wouldn’t even bother making their own cover because he has some already."
Though Eric isn't sure how much further the project can be taken, he still sits with a beaming smile on his face when he talks about the project and it seems as though his life has been enriched by taking on this experience and helping to make the name William Onyeabor known countless times over. What's more, he thrives on the fact that something that he has been so heavily involved with is making so many people happy.
"The ultimate thing is the live shows when you see people enjoying it live together with their friends and family. Otherwise it just exists in your own head. I personally had such a rich experience from listening to his music, trying to work out who he is and telling people about it."
See Atomic Bomb! at David Byrne's Meltdown at Royal Festival Hall, London on Thursday 20th August - find out more here.