Atomic Bomb: Who Is William Onyeabor? - gig review

Barbican, London

William Onyeabor is one man we know won’t attend the live debut of the extraordinary electronic music he single-handedly composed and recorded in Nigeria, 30 and more years ago.

He remains an impish enigma living in a woodland palace, feeding his legend with his absence. It’s left to guests including Damon Albarn and Kele Okereke to testify to the growing influence of music he abandoned for God long ago.

It takes 15 musicians to bring Onyeabor’s lone recordings to life, authoritatively led on keyboard by Ahmed Gallab, aka Sinkane, who also matches the composer’s high, pacific voice. So does Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, with his almost ethereal delivery of the kindly spiritual ethic, which helps make Onyeabor’s restless polyrhythmic funk so alien yet wonderful.

Everyone puts on a real show for their absent ringmaster. Ghostpoet, lanky and stetsoned, adds drawled rap, while Albarn is in pumped-up pop mode for “Fantastic Spirit”. Its thick yet limber layers suggest this music is some sort of culturally universal dance equation. Co-keyboardist Money Mark’s Cossack dancing as the fully stoked crowd whoop for more adds to Onyeabor’s long-distance triumph.  

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