William Onyeabor: The JD Salinger of electronica

William Onyeabor released eight albums and then disappeared. As Damon Albarn and others bring his sound to a new audience, where is its creator? 

The title to one of last year’s most influential albums ended in a question mark: Who is William Onyeabor? Released by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, it was one of Time’s top 5 albums of 2013, just behind Kanye West and Vampire Weekend. Onyeabor’s fans include Damon Albarn, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Beastie Boys producer and hip-hop pioneer Money Mark, and Mercury-nominated British electronica star Ghostpoet.

They will all be participating in two special gigs next week, when Onyeabor’s music will be played live for the first time. But Onyeabor will not be there. All his admirers know about him is that, between 1977 and 1985, this Nigerian self-recorded and self-released eight albums of unprecedented electronic music. Almost no one outside Nigeria heard them then. And nothing has been heard from their creator since.

Even when last year’s documentary about Onyeabor, Fantastic Man, tracked him down to God is King Palace, his vast residence in woods isolated even from his obscure home town, Enugu, its subject only let himself be filmed for one minute, and stayed mute. Electronic music has, it seems, found its JD Salinger.

Listen to his music, which Albarn calls “eccentric... very intelligent, and incredibly funky”, and your need to know more starts to burn. It bears little relation to the Nigerian funk, soul, high-life and psychedelic rock being made around it, or to his contemporary Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. Nor does it sound like Kraftwerk or the subsequent synth-pop made in Europe. It is urgently, irresistibly danceable, with superfast polyrhythms and raw, scrabbling guitar, made in a parallel electronic music universe unique to the man who played every note. Ahmed Gallab’s New York psychedelic funk group Sinkane discovered just how unique, during two months of solid rehearsal to be the upcoming gigs’ house-band. “There’s so much going on that you don’t fully grasp,” Gallab says. “He does a lot of really complicated things that seem so natural and seamless. He did it all himself, and you can really feel that when you try to break it down. Playing it’s the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my whole life.”

In New York, Luaka Bop spent five years negotiating by phone with Onyeabor to release his music. Last year, with every other hurdle cleared at last, they asked their subject when he’d be able to speak about his life for the album they intended to call "This is William Onyeabor". The voice on the other end of the line simply asked: “Why would I want to do that?”

Luaka Bop’s label manager Eric Welles-Nystrom was tasked to go to the woods outside Enugu, and meet their elusive signing. When he arrived in Enugu, he was directed to a vacant office, empty but for a plastic chair and tables, and a waiting woman who thought he was from Russia. On discovering he was here to see the man she called “the Chief”, she nervously drove him to Onyeabor’s palace. There, he was left alone in another empty room. “It’s so quiet there,” he says, picturing it, “and there’s a fan, and you can hear an electricity generator going on and off. It feels like you’re in a film.”

When Onyeabor made his entrance to this tense scene from a Graham Greene novel, he proved to be so massive that a watch brought as a present wouldn’t fit around his wrist. He was imposing in other ways. “He’s always the boss,” says Welles-Nystrom. “He had this immense aura around him.” As the two men sat watching nothing but Christian TV in the days that followed, Onyeabor inched the door open to his mysterious past. “He travelled a lot in the Seventies,” Welles-Nystrom reveals. “He spent time in the UK, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, and New York, to learn about record manufacturing, and buy the equipment to press them in his own factory. He went to Russia to make films, and he was a man of the world. But when you speak with him now, he doesn’t leave the house.”

“We’ve been trying to get him to come over for these shows,” Welles-Nystrom says. “On the phone, he said: ‘No, no. Now isn’t the right time. But when I come over, I want to wrestle in the ring with Hulk Hogan!’” Next week’s gigs will be followed by prestigious US ones in May, with David Byrne among the musicians. Welles-Nystrom is sorry his enigmatic friend can’t be persuaded to hear his remarkable music’s live debut. “It makes me sad,” he says, “because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Even after several visits to the palace, Welles-Nystrom has more questions than answers. The biggest gap in a life that doesn’t yet add up is Onyeabor’s refusal to explain his extraordinary music. He sees himself as a businessman and man of God these days, not a musician. But just occasionally, when his wife brings his old LPs out to indulge his guest from New York, there is a glimmer.

“He will look at the records one by one,” Welles-Nystrom says, “and it feels like he hasn’t looked at them for a very long time. He will tell me: ‘I did everything myself. I even did the shrink-wrapping in my factory.’ And then he’ll start looking at the songs. And sometimes it’s like he doesn’t remember what they are. But then sometimes, he’ll start singing them, and playing along with his hands, like there’s a keyboard there.” In those moments, the William Onyeabor being celebrated next week is found at last.

‘Atomic Bomb – Who Is William Onyeabor?’ is at the Barbican, London, on 1 April and Colston Hall, Bristol on 2 April