William Onyeabor and the loss of good old Nigerian music

William Onyeabor died at 70 on Wednesday 18 January, and as the news of his departure filtered into the social media space in Nigeria, people familiar with his work began to speak about how brilliant he was.

William Onyeabor
William Onyeabor

Of course there were others perplexed that the death of a  musician they did not know was attracting such attention. And this can’t be blamed on the usual inability of Nigerians to appreciate culture. Many younger Nigerians are familiar with the tune and words of 'When the Going Is Smooth and Good', yet his name is almost never connected to the song in their heads.

Last year featured the departure of several culture legends (like David Bowie and Prince) around the world and, at the risk of sounding callous, this kind of mass departure of artists loved by people was long coming. There are personalities loved and appreciated by baby boomers who are now reaching the twilight of their lives. But their works remain fresh to everyone because their lives and art have been preserved for generations to view and appreciate. This isn't so for a lot of the artists who were beloved in Nigeria in the 1970s.

The resurgence of Onyeabor’s work in recent years was due to the efforts of David Byrne’s Luaka Bop. The record label also broke the news of his death to the world. Onyeabor, whose music career bloomed in the 1970s, was a music maverick whose name left the musical conversation in Nigeria due to his departure from the public eye after he became born again. His electro-funk was brilliant then as it is still, but also very much part of the culture space even to the early 1990s. If not for the efforts of Byrne’s record label Onyeabor’s death would have been just a footnote in Nigerian music history.

A lot of artists like Onyeabor are now at that age when their works, far removed from a younger generation, are easily forgotten in the wave of new sounds and the recognition it brings young artists. But there’s as much inspiration to be gotten from Nigerian music of the 1970s and its verve and inventiveness as there is in the pop and alternative sounds of the present. Thanks to YouTube, the work of these artists long departed from the public view is available to those who know what to search for, but there’s still a tinge of sadness in how much we lose due to our inabilty to remember them.

It took King Sunny Ade's 70th birthday celebration last year for a lot of the history surrounding his legend to become part of public record again through essays, peformances in his honour, and the auction of his guitar. But KSA is lucky in that regard, for he is the exception not the rule. A lot of his colleages, equally as talented, are fading away without attention paid to them and their art.

A large chunk of the past is probably lost now, and will take dedicated, concerted efforts to recover, but the present is still with us. This makes the works of those who critique and document music important—in spite of the protest of the artists who will rather dodge criticism. What is not written is lost, no matter how brilliant it is in a moment. There are undoubtedly many more Onyeabors to come out of the current era of young artists whom, hopefully, we won’t need the rescue efforts of the Byrnes of this world to preserve as part of our culture.


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