I thought we’d write a very long back story about this album from Eric and I for you to perhaps read if you have the time some evening when you’re done with the day’s doings. It goes like this:
Yale: In the late 1970’s I worked in a record store in Soho, NYC with a lot of musicians when Soho was a very arty neighborhood full of the Byrne / Eno’s of the world and in fact – Byrne and Eno. John Zorn, who also worked in the store, and I used to go out to the African Record Center on Nostrand Ave in Brooklyn waaay before that was an arty borough to buy records for the record store. I bought as many African funk records for myself as they would get, which was not a huge amount by any means. Nonetheless I had a collection of what I imagined to be the very small world of African funk.
In the late 1990’s I was now working with David Byrne at Luaka Bop and I suggested we do a compilation of African funk as no one had paid any attention to what I thought was a minor side light to Juju, Apala, Highlife, Soukous and the more mainstream rivers of African music. He liked the idea and I started on getting clearances as these things take forever to get the rights. This was going to be the third in Luaka Bop’s series of psychedelic music from places other the than the US and the UK. When we started this series with Os Mutantes, people we told we were working on a collection of psychedelic music from Brazil all said “Really?! That exists?!” (Shuggie Otis was number 2 by the way.)
Right when we had all the clearances, including the very first license of Poly Rythmo de Cotonou, and were about to put out our album a record came out from Strut called Nigeria 70! It was put together by Quinton Scott and Duncan Brooker who had lived in Africa and had assiduously collected records there. Our two compilations had no tracks in common, (so I guess there was a bigger world out there than I thought). Though we were annoyed it came out right then, we really loved the record and talked to Quinton about adding a few of the tracks he had collected. He generously put us in touch with whom he had cleared the rights from and we licensed a few things including William Onyeabor, and added them to our album.
In 2009, after I had been working on our Tim Maia album for 7 years, (World Psychedelic Classics 4) and it was still not near to coming out, I was approached by Uchenna Ikonne, a Nigerian writer who runs the the blog Comb and Razor. He said you have one William Onyeabor track on your Psychedelic African compilation, would you like to do a whole album with him? I said Yeah! Great he said, I am going to Enugu, Nigeria where me and William Onyeabor are from for three months and if you give me money for an advance and a contract I will license the tracks for you. Nine months later Uchenna returned to the U.S., the advance paid but no signed contract. Not a perfect situation.
This lasted three years! At which point Uchenna asked a lady friend of his to go to Onyeabor’s house. She told Onyeabor she was not going to leave until he signed the contract. 5 hours later he did!
A few weeks after getting the contract I called up William Onyeabor and talked to him for the first time. “Hello Mr, Onyeabor it’s so great we are going to do an album with you! I have hired a well known Nigerian novelist, Chris Abani, who is also from Enugu, to write liner notes and he will call you and talk about your history and how you made the music you made.”
William Onyeabor said “Why would I want to talk about that? I only want to talk about Jesus.”
And then he hung up.
Hmm I thought, is this a negotiation?
Another year goes by, (I waited this long I might as well see if anything develops.)
Onyeabor asks Uchenna, “When are they putting that record out.”
Uchenna says, “They are waiting for you to talk about your history,” to which Onyeabor says, “I guess it will never come out then.”
At this time Eric Welles-Nyström started at Luaka Bop. Since we were going to now put out the Onyeabor album with no real information Eric started doing deep research. What he discovered was that all the information he could find, most often in the user comments on blogs or on YouTube, about Onyeabor really came down to the same handful of sentences. That’s interesting we thought and began to wonder where even those sentences came from. The ‘known information’ was:
William Onyeabor was born in Enugu, Nigeria and studied film making in the Soviet Union. He returned to Enugu, made a movie called “Crashes in Love” and released a soundtrack. The soundtrack did better than the film and he started a recording career. No musicians were credited so perhaps he played all the instruments. He released eight albums on his own label, opened a pressing plant and a recording studio before becoming born again and leaving music. He currently lives in Enugu where he has been made a high chief of his home town and has a few businesses, like a flour mill, and an internet cafe.
After a few months while Eric was researching we licensed a track to a Danish company for a Christmas gift, an album of African music they were giving to their friends and suppliers. I told Uchenna I had some money for Onyeabor and asked how I should get it to him, (save actually going there). He asked Oyeabor and told me Onyeabor was thinking about it. After a month or so of no answer I called Onyeabor and asked him directly. He told me that he wasn’t sure yet and we had a very nice conversation. So all full of good feelings I asked him, “Mr. Onyeabor, how did you end up in Moscow studying film making?”
Onyeabor said, “Film production?”
“Sure, yes, film production.”
This is what followed:
30 seconds of silence.
“Is this an interview…? I don’t want to go back to that time. I just want to talk about Jesus.”
Eric: Well, after I had worked on things intensely and kind of ‘lived Onyeabor’ for half a year, I personally felt like I had to give it a shot and try to visit him. At this point I’d spent countless nights scavenging the internet for clues, gone down various rabbit holes trying to find solid information and asked what felt like hundreds of people about him, many times waiting hours outside a club or venue waiting for a certain someone to finish playing or come off stage. At one point I even dreamt about him and one of his songs.
So, I tell Uchenna that I want to go see him and he says that’s the most stupid thing in the world, that he probably won’t want to see me or maybe just ‘break my neck’. I insist, and for a few weeks Yale brings up the idea to Onyeabor in some way and tries to explain that I will stop by for a visit, making things up like ‘I happen to be in the country’, and casual things like that. He doesn’t seem too keen on the idea of course – and not even when we suggest I bring him the money from the Danish license.
So I think ‘fuck it’, I’ll just see what happens and go there – not expecting anything at all but just feeling like ‘I can’t not ‘not go”. However, I soon realize that going to Nigeria isn’t the easiest thing in the world – visas, vaccinations, booking flights and hotels are so difficult and costly – many times because you just cant do business in Nigeria, and with the frequent security issues and news coming from over there – you constantly question why you are doing this.
Anyways – I get over there and plan a one week stay in Nigeria, starting in Abuja (where Susana Baca is recording!) and Lagos, and eventually making my way east to Enugu, not knowing what to expect or without a clue how it will be out there. When I get there, I realize how remote and rural this place is. There is one flight per day from Lagos, and I’m the only white person onboard. The airport is minuscule and getting into town takes a mere ten minutes, and you’re driving on dirt roads and along small villages. I’m just amazed that Onyeabor is supposed to be from this place.
The next day I go to the address Onyeabor has given us, and what happens next I will never forget for the rest of my life. I arrive at a place that looks like an empty storefront or a shut down business of some sorts. The electricity is off and inside there is a woman sitting on a plastic chair by a plastic table. There is nothing inside besides for some old computers stacked in a corner and a clock that’s frozen on the wall. She asks me if I’m there to see “the chief”, and, then, as if it were scripted, “are you from Russia?”. When she says this it’s like time stops for me and I actually can feel my jaw drop. I’m stunned.
We then get into my taxi and she then takes me outside of town to where Onyeabor lives. We drive through deep bush and into the countryside for 30min, and eventually arrive at his house – a beautiful 1970s palace hidden in the woods, with a lovely courtyard, an old (non-working) fountain and a silver old Mercedes parked out front. I’m welcomed inside by his wife and immediately see lots of film and music equipment scattered around the house. She sits me down to wait in a huge living room built to host 30-40 people. There are paintings and photos of him everywhere and everything is super modern for the mid 80s – when it looks like time stopped. There are huge doors everywhere and I have no idea what behind them. As I wait, I remember feeling how anyone could appear from anywhere in this huge place, and like, maybe, someone is even watching me from somewhere.
The wife then comes and gets me, and I’m lead upstairs to a second room which she calls “the VIP room” where I get to meet him. The six months of living this whole thing intensely flash before my eyes – and all of the sudden I am there — at his house in Nigeria — meeting him in person. It was truly magical and among the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced.
Question: Where is he coming from, what is his story back in the days he was releasing music? How did he came to this synth-filled electronic club sound?
Yale: We don’t know.
Question: How did he find the money to buy the very expensive synths he’s playing on?
Yale: We don’t know. Someone once told us he was the Moog representative of Nigeria, however we haven’t been able to confirm that yet.
Question: Was he a successful musician or more like a curiosity in Nigeria?
Eric: This is really hard to say. Different people said different things. The only impact he had outside Enugu, if any, was through his last record, Anything You Sow, and his song “When The Going is Smooth and Good”. I spent a week with him in Enugu but we just watched religious television as he was not interested, even with me there, in answering any questions about his musical life.
Question: What is he doing today? Is he really a born-again and a business man and a village chief.
Eric: He is a born again Christian and was at some point in his life awarded the “high chief” title of his village, for the success he had in business and for the work and food he provided for his community.
Question: Why is this compilation the hardest reissue Luaka Bop worked on in 25 years?
Yale: As I alluded to earlier, all of these sorts of albums take a hell of a long time to sort out. Our Tim Maia release took 10 years! But it was not just the time these things take, or the mastering difficulties, it also our mind set. For one thing, until Eric started working at Luaka Bop and did a tremendous amount of research figuring out that there was no real information about Onyeabor, I really struggled with putting out an album without any facts or commentary from someone about how this music came to be. It just seemed shoddy. However when we realized that the same few sentences of information were posted everywhere and that there wasn’t any information about him, we thought, what an incredible thing in this day of hyper information to find someone who, though he is alive, is known in his community, has numerous businesses, has put out eight albums, had his own label, film studio, pressing plant (and who knows what else), is somewhat of a blank slate of information.