Atomic Bomb: Who Is William Onyeabor? at the Barbican
During the 70s and 80s, the African electro-funk music scene was vitally important – probably the finest ever in terms of originality, sonorities and avant-garde. In particular, Nigerian electro-funk has produced significant artists and great records: starting with Fela Kuti and Tony Allen, this genre quickly became popular and known worldwide.
Despite this reputation, it has always been incredibly complicated to find the records of these and other minor artists, but nowadays – thanks to people like Awesome Tapes from Africa and the web – they are easy to find and largely accessible. Luckily for us, in this big ocean of African musicians, few of them are still unknown. The most famous of these unknown musicians is William Oneyabor. But who is William Onyeabor? Apparently the only correct answer should be a Fantastic Man.
Thanks to Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab, the perfect leader of a stage full of famous musicians and singers, on April Fool’s Day at the Barbican, the audience learned about this mysterious musician from Nigeria. What we know for certain from this show is the excellent quality of William Onyeabor’s music.
Body & Soul is a ten-minute-long hypnotic acid funk mantra with psychedelic synth solo and balearic moods, while the following Why Go to War is a colourful explosion of afro beat à la Allen and Kuti with a powerful chorus and lyrics. For the third song, Atomic Bomb, Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip comes onstage, giving a little electro twist to Onyeabor’s show, which becomes a musical journey through ages, time and space.
Love Me Now from the stunning record Tomorrow is sung by Ghostpoet – it is a ten-minute love letter (“I like the way you smell, I like the way you walk, I like the way you talk”). Bloc Party’s Kele sings Heaven and Hell from the record Crashes in Love and the music becomes a proto-reggae dub, while the Lijadu Sisters sing on Life Gone Down Low, turning the stage into a disco owned by Sly & Robbie/Grace Jones in 80s New York.
Finally, the most famous of all Onyeabor’s fans – Damon Albarn – comes onstage for the superb Fantastic Man, a radio-friendly, massive dance pop song. The magic of his music is this: it is 40-years-old, but sounds absolutely up-to-date. His use of synthesisers are so clever, so modern; this must be the reason why all other musicians are so curious about this giant of electro-funk.
It is time for the encore – two more songs: Better Change Your Mind and Smooth and Good, where all the musicians and singers came onstage to celebrate this great genius. It’s true that at the end it became a little bit too cheesy and tacky, but it is also true that the enthusiasm of the musicians onstage is entirely down to the delightful and marvellous music of William Onyeabor. Bravo!
Photos: Keith Sheriff
For further information and future events visit William Onyeabor’s website here.
Watch the video for Fantastic Man here: