As an entertainment contributor eager to impress her editors, this writer spent most of 2019 tracking all the latest film and music releases. I inevitably came across the trailer for Abba T. Makama’s sensational 2019 release: The Lost Okoroshi. But it wasn’t just the fantastic and hilarious scenes that kept my eyes riveted to the screen; part of the appeal was that the last few minutes of the trailer had me dancing and laughing to a song I didn’t know. It was while I was researching the life of William Onyeabor this morning that I realized the track I was grooving to was ‘When the Going is Smooth & Good’, one of Wiliam Onyeabor’s most famous tracks till date. If you want to know what I’m talking about, watch and pay careful attention to the background music from the second minute of The Lost Okoroshi’s trailer.
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The late Mr. Onyeabor was a pioneer of his time. Considered by many as an ‘extraordinary artist’, he composed and self-released 9 albums in 8 years – between 1977 and 1985. William Onyeabor produced all of his music himself and played almost all the parts of his music. His records were pressed and printed at Wilfilms Limited, his personal pressing plant in southeast Nigeria, and these are facts that are so impressive, they are often repeated in articles about the mythic funk legend. After his last album in 1985, William Onyeabor retreated to face other kinds of business, and with the same magic he used to create infectious electronic music, he built two food processing ventures that earned him West African Industrialist of the Year in 1987. Photos from the personal blog of David Byrne, a good friend and music associate of Mr. Onyeabor, show Mr. Onyeabor in his studio, as well as the massive recording and manufacturing studio he created.
Much of Mr. Onyeabor’s influence would have been lost to contemporary music and this present generation (Millenials and Gen Z) if David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label hadn’t spent 5 years trying to convince Onyeabor to let them license his music. In 2013, they released an album titled Who Is William Onyeabor? And the album was so well received, it led to a worldwide tour and a series of tribute concerts for Onyeabor’s music. Onyeabor never attended these shows himself, he never performed live, rejected interviews, and resisted having a public persona; so much so that his celebrity was ‘shrouded in mystery.’ On William Onyeabor’s personal website, his producers revealed: “this mythic image was at times so deeply ingrained, that we often encountered people who were convinced that he didn’t actually exist.”
After the release of Who is William Onyeabor? in 2013, Alexis Petridis (a renowned music journalist and critic from The Guardian daily newspaper in Britain), appeared in a video on the newspaper’s platform, talking about ‘Why Who is William Onyeabor? is the one album you should buy this week.’ “The music is fantastic,” he said. The next year, Luaka Bop reissued William Onyeabor’s entire music catalogue on CD and vinyl LP’s. William Onyeabor’s music was brought centre stage before a whole new audience. Since then, his music has been sampled, featured and saluted by many young artists and musicians: just as it was used in The Lost Okoroshi.
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William Onyeabor passed away on the 16th of January, 2017. But you can still listen to his music, and groove.
Featured Image Source: The New York Times
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