The Music Of William Onyeabor

Watch David Byrne lead an all-star performance honoring the music of the innovative Nigerian funk master.

By Andy Kahn Jan 16, 2022 7:30 am PST

Today marks the anniversary of the death of William Onyeabor, who passed away on January 16, 2017, at age 70. Below is an article originally published on October 11, 2015. At that time, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne was helping to bring attention to the music of William Onyeabor, which once you hear it, is something that you will never forget.

The music of William Onyeabor has been given new life recently, in large part due to David Byrne and the record label he founded, Luaka Bop, which has reissued many recordings by the innovative and enigmatic Nigerian funk musician. Byrne recently curated the Meltdown Festival held at London’s Southbank Centre, and along with Luaka Bop staged an Atomic Bomb! performance featuring the music of Onyeabor performed by an all-star lineup, footage of which is the focus of this week’s Sunday Cinema.

Little is known about Onyeabor, whose life story is shrouded in rumor and conspiracy, but undoubtedly includes a pioneering body of recorded music that stands out among early electronic funk producers. Here’s how the Meltdown Festival described Onyeabor:

Born outside Enugu – a small, rural town in Eastern Nigeria – William Onyeabor created his own genre of African electronic funk in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

According to rumours, he left home following the Biafran War and went to study cinematography in the Soviet Union, returning in the mid-1970s to start his own film company and record label, Wilfilms. From 1978 – 1985, he self-released eight remarkable records, writing and producing all of the music and playing every instrument himself. Then, at some point, he denounced his earlier music, deciding it was something he would never speak about again.

Today he is reaching cult status, with a growing list of admirers including Damon Albarn, Hot Chip, Carl Craig and Madlib. Onyeabor has been likened to a prototype LCD Soundsystem, or the Kraftwerk of West Africa.

Byrne and Luaka Bop built a core band featuring the Talking Heads frontman as well as Sinkane, Money Mark, Sarah Jones and Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Mahotella Queens and several special guests including Charles Lloyd and Amadou & Mariam for the Meltdown Atomic Bomb! performance. Held on August 20 of this year, official footage of the complete 90-minute, synth-powered, funked-out set has been made available for viewing.

Southbank Centre
Atomic Bomb! Who is William Onyeabor? (See 2 videos) , Sinkane (See 25 videos) , Money Mark (See 4 videos) , Sarah Jones , David Byrne (See 21 videos) , Alexis Taylor (See 2 videos) , The Mahotella Queens and Charles Lloyd (See 2 videos)

Here’s footage of Byrne leading Atomic Bomb! through a rendition of William Onyeabor’s “Fantastic Man” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Watch the performance from April 29, 2014 below:

Luaka Bop
David Byrne (See 21 videos) , Atomic Bomb! Who is William Onyeabor? (See 2 videos) , Money Mark (See 4 videos) , Pat Mahoney , Sinkane (See 25 videos) and Lijadu Sisters

For more about the life and career of William Onyeabor, watch this 30-minute documentary film featuring Damon Albarn, Femi Kuti and more produced by Noisey:

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