William Onyeabor won't answer the question 'Who is William Onyeabor?'

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Now, how about some Christian rock from Nigeria to go with that big church? Well, maybe it's not Christian rock. Maybe it's just Nigerian electronic rock. No one seems to know.

[Background music]

Werman: This is William Onyeabor, he's from Nigeria.

Eric Welles: We have this amazing music but we have an artist that actually won't talk about himself.

Werman: And that's Eric Welles, the label manager for Luaka Bob Records in New York. They wanted to put out a collection of Onyeabor's electronic music four years ago. Welles had to find out more about this artist who, briefly in the 70s and 80s, created these futuristic sounds. Onyeabor never became famous, not even in Nigeria, and that made Eric Welles' research pretty hard.

Welles: Any time I'd speak with anyone, even before, I'd be told that's the most stupid thing I can do, to try and go see him. Then you'd speak with...

Werman: Did they explain why that was a stupid idea?

Welles: He first of all won't want to see me, he won't want to speak to me about the things that I want to talk about, and if I... I thought maybe I could like, shower him with love, you know? And tell him, tell Onyeabor, about all the great artists out there that admire him. But I was told that if I do that, Onyeabor will break my neck and ask where the money is.

Werman: [Laughs] Doesn't respond well to flattery.

Welles: Right, exactly. So, I understood that I won't try that strategy.

Werman: There were no articles or reviews about Onyeabor's music. Eric Welles had no formal biography to refer to. All he knew is that Onyeabor became a born-again Christian when he stopped making music in the 80s.

Welles: The first time I heard the music, you know there's something special there. And then you feel like there's a road block, I guess, in the beginning.

Werman: So, finally, Welles did go to Enugu, Onyeabor's remote hometown in Nigeria, to meet him in person.


Werman: Did he want to talk about his music, did he want to talk about the lyrics?

Welles: Not really. I spent a week with him and kind of the pretext of this is that, any time we'd ever try to ask him anything about his music or from the past, he would completely shut off or turn silent. The only time where we touched upon his music was on the last day when I was there, and he gave me some records. Much of what we did was spend time together watching Christian television, Nigerian Christian television, this Nigerian prophet called TB Joshua. The town of Enugu is heavily evangelical, so everyone in this town is basically born again Christian. And when you go around town, if you meet someone somewhere, also most likely ask you if you've been born again.

Werman: Given how little we know about William Onyeabor, what do we do with this album of amazing music without that context?

Welles: I think you should just listen and enjoy, and take time to listen. I mean, you'll feel that there's a kind of a rigid structure, in a way, but then it's incredibly free.


Welles: Listen to a song like "Let's Fall in Love." I used to listen to that when I was out in the west coast driving in the desert, in the spring, and put that song on and it just blew my mind every time.

Werman: The album is, "Who is William Onyeabor?" A great question with apparently few answers, but Eric Welles, thanks for telling us what you know.

Welles: Thank you so much.


Werman: The wild sounds of the reclusive William Onyeabor, from Nigeria, and that'll do it for us today. From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH and Boston, I'm Marco Werman, and on Twitter, @marcowerman. The show is on Twitter, @PRItheworld, and we're back with you on the radio tomorrow.