Who is William Onyeabor? – A Retrospective

Editor’s Note: The full title of this album is World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who Is William Onyeabor?, but that is a mouthful so we will call the album Who is William Onyeabor?

Let’s talk about “world music” for a minute. I don’t really dig on it.

Yep that’s it.

A wiser man than me once told me that it is impossible to hate a whole genre because someone is out there making shit you like, no matter what style of music it is. And that I find to be true.

I think what I mean is that generally is that there is a whole world out there. And that whole world that is NOT the U.S. is making music. And a ton of that (just like a ton of US music) is also crap. To phrase it another way, the music held up by alot of world music fans I either find boring or just, for whatever reason, cant engage at that wavelength. As the cherry on top, a ton of people I know that are world music fans are annoying as shit. That probably doesn’t help.

Enter Luaka Bop.

Started by the Patron Saint of Flava David Byrne, its a world music label, even if it tries not to be or says it isn’t. Its not out here to publish any random artist from Latin America or Africa. It has a definite curation, voice, and pop focus. While there are artists who release exclusively to Luaka Bop, the label’s biggest contribution is the “classics” collections. They are basically making Punk-O-Rama for the world music set. Which is absolutely needed. Its an easy way to digest a massive volume of music.

So from time to time, I check in on the latest Luaka Bop collection. And there is some good shit in there from time to time.

About 15 or so years ago, I just moved to the Bay Area and had seen traffic on a message board (or whatever was en vouge at the time) about the latest Luaka Bop collection. So, I found a record store that had it, and listened to it on the way home. There are great tracks on there but what blew me away was this one incredible just incredible synth track.

Blew me away. I put it on playlists that year. Etc. That was one of the main songs that defined my first year in California.

Then, many years later. Luaka Bop cut this record. I didn’t even know William Onyeabor had more stuff. I didn’t bother looking. I assumed it was like alot of the label’s collection artists, and you couldn’t get more of their shit outside of their home country. Well, I heard about it via its stellar reviews. The album got some traction and promotion and hell they built a band just to play that music.

For me, discovering William Onyeabor is the best thing Luaka Bop ever gave me, and this one release is their best single artistic statement. Lets dive into it.

I would describe my reaction when I first heard this record as visceral. I LOVE this fucking sound. Twangy guitar. Sparse drums to help fill in the gaps. And the layers of synth work. Its really all about the synth work. If you don’t like that sort of early-DEVO type sound in your synths, you wont dig on this as much as I do.

Also, every song is a jam. The lyrics themselves bring home a point and don’t over stay their welcome. An allegory of love’s power to nuclear annihilation, dope. I’m in. But its the music that pulls it all together. This weird african synth-funk.

I think for my take, I like completely unique sounds that still have a bit of groove. William Onyeabor checks all those boxes.

In a way, much of William Onyeabor’s music sounds like lo-fi synth if that is even possible. Like an indie artist but synth instead of guitar, bass and drums. It’s sparse in production, but with these perfectly mixed layers of synths.

I’ve also heard some people describe it as pre-video games, video game soundtracks. You can really hear it on songs like Good Name. Again, lyrics are straight forward, don’t ruin your Good Name by selling out. A thousand punk rockers already hammered this home.

But the punk rockers didn’t think of turning that ethos into a synth funk opera. The fucking synth solo half way through is just glorious. It takes alot of work to get in there and know exactly what sound you are shooting for.

Lets do one more.

Its just so god damn funky. For as paranoid and jerky as his music can be, this is a remix away from being a club banger. It’s a smooth jam. I don’t know if that is a real saxophone or a synth one, but its just so damn FUNKY. I love it.

There isn’t a bad track on this joint. Every single one is great. So you may be asking, does the album have any problems. Well if it does, it’s that it should be 2 CDs. Cause we are missing some stuff. Not just the track from the previous best of. That is to be expected. But we are missing some of Onyeabor’s weirder stuff like Hypertension and When the Going is Smooth and Good.

Luaka Bop did cut a full box set of everything he ever did, and that is out on Spotify or your chosen service. And I have listened to it a few times all the way through. I think there is about one other CD of shit that is absolute must haves that should have also been on this best of.

That being said….for the regular fan, this will be all you need. Cause its all amazing shit. And hell, we should be grateful that all this music had another life Nigeria. That Luaka Bop managed to get the rights and make this great shit. I am sure there are other great artists out there who don’t get this lucky. Well we have it and its better than we all deserve.

4/4 – All killer, no filler. Nothing sounds like William Onyeabor. Got damn it is funky as hell. Rock on fantastic man.

© Church of the Holy Flava 2016 - 2021