Onyeabor was a philanthropist. “My father was known to support other musicians, especially upcoming ones,” says Charles Onyeabor. “Besides giving those in need money and food, he also funded scholarships for people in my village and provided the village with borehole water and other amenities. And he hated speaking about himself or the good he was doing. He called doing so ‘eye-service’.”
Onyeabor spent some time in Denmark and later Sweden studying electromagnetic engineering. By the 80s and 90s, he was an industrialist. In addition to founding the recording companies Automatic Record Manufacturing Company (ARMC) and Wilfilms, he also set up a semolina flour-producing company, Catapult LTD. “In 1987, my father won the African Industrialist of the Year Award,” says Charles. “He was an excellent boxer and sprinter. He also drew and sculpted. A sculpture of his still sits at the 82 Division Army Headquarters at Abakpa Nike Enugu.” Thanks to his many travels, William Onyeabor was fluent in Igbo, Idoma, Yoruba, English, French, Italian and Swedish Svenska.
Charles Onyeabor continues to keep his father’s legacy alive in his music. Sometimes, he works with the kinds of sound his father had been at the forefront of birthing; other times, being his father’s son and unafraid to try new things, he does things differently. “My father did so much that my passion for music came from him, from watching him come alive whenever he was around music. And wherever he was, there was music. It is only natural that I carry on his legacy.”
“Who is William Onyeabor?” was the question that led Nigerian-American music writer Uchenna Ikonne and Luaka Bop’s Eric Welles-Nystrom to Enugu to find out more about Onyeabor just before his songs were compiled and rereleased. But even that did not yield much fruit, as Onyeabor rarely spoke of himself.
Following the 2013 album, a 2014 documentary film, Fantastic Man, explored the myths surrounding Onyeabor and there were live tribute events worldwide by the Atomic Bomb! Band – a supergroup that included David Byrne, Damon Albarn, and members of Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem.
He might not have liked drawing attention to himself, but with a talent like his and the albums he left us, it is only natural that the world wants to know more about him. William Onyeabor was an electro pioneer: his work with the synthesiser was revolutionary, and his musical output spoke for itself.
As Charles Onyeabor said at the time of his father’s death, “He wasn’t doing his music for the money. He was trying to tell the world how he felt and what he thinks.” Who was William Onyeabor? It’s all there, in his music.
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