Nigerian Musician William Onyeabor Dies at 70

William Onyeabor
Courtesy of Luaka Bop

William Onyeabor

Nigerian funk pioneer William Onyeabor has died at age 70. The death of the electronic-funk performer was confirmed by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, which released a compilation of the enigmatic synth player's music in 2013, World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor? 

"It is with incredibly heavy hearts that we have to announce that the great Nigerian business leader and mythic music pioneer William Onyeabor has passed away at the age of 70," read a Facebook post from the label. "He died peacefully in his sleep following a brief illness, at his home in Enugu, Nigeria. An extraordinary artist, businessman and visionary, Mr. Onyeabor composed and self-released 9 brilliant albums of groundbreaking electronic-funk from 1977-1985, which he recorded, pressed and printed at Wilfilms Limited—his personal pressing plant in southeast Nigeria.The musicians who self-released nine albums between 1977-1985 before stepping back from music, reportedly died peacefully at home."

The 2013 compilation featured such beloved Onyeabor tracks as the rubbery "Body and Soul," the Motown-like shuffle "Atomic Bomb" and the propulsive "Why Go To War." Though Onyeabor shied away from publicity and promotion of his music in the 1980s, his legend continued to grow in his absence. "In the late 1980's, he was awarded West African Industrialist of the Year and given the honorary title 'Justice of the Peace,'" read the Luaka Bop tribute. "In the early 1990's, he became the President of Enugu's Musician's Union and Chairman of the city's local football team, The Enugu Rangers. For many in his hometown of Enugu, Nigeria, he was simply referred to as 'The Chief' and known for having created many opportunities for the people in his community."

His hypnotically alluring music was granted a new life with the release of the 2013 Luaka Bop compilation, leading to media coverage around the world and the 2014 documentary, Fantastic Man, as well as the tribute concerts "Atomic Bomb! Who is William Onyeabor?" with such guests as Byrne, Joshua Redman, Money Mark and Jamie Lidell.

"Still, William Onyeabor would never speak about himself and for a long time refused many of the interview requests that came his way," according to Luaka Bop. "Having become Born Again in the latter part of life, he only wanted to speak about God. We would like to send our deepest condolences to his family and thank each and every one of you who has helped share the love for his music around the world." 

For more about Onyeabor, check out Fantastic Man, featuring commentary from Damon Albarn, Caribou, Femi Kuti and Martyn Ware, among others.