William Onyeabor is one of the most unique Nigerian performers of the ’70s and ’80s and also, very likely, the most mysterious. While we covered Onyeabor in our exploration of synthesizers in Africa, the new documentary Fantastic Man, directed by Jake Sumner, makes a valiant effort to uncover some of the visual truth behind the Onyeabor myth. Ultimately no amount of probing can really get to the bottom of the man behind the synth madness, but, the film is a fascinating glimpse at some, at times rather out-there, speculations. Onyeabor had a major hit in Nigeria with the willfully avant-garde “When the Going Is Smooth and Good” in 1985. In more recent years, he captivated British crate-diggers, who found him gracing album covers while wearing sunglasses in front of eight microphones. His outrageously funky and somewhat interplanetary music backed up that eye-catching image. Last year, Luaka Bop reissued some of his classics as Who Is William Onyeabor?
The movie brings in people like Damon Albarn, Nigerian music historian Uchenna Ikonne, the colorful Lagos record store owner DJ Patrick, and Onyeabor’s producer Goddy Oku to try to answer that question, and give their impressions of why his music continues to sound so very special. Among the perhaps apocryphal stories about Onyeabor are that he once took out a pistol in a dispute over unpaid royalties, and that he was supplied with his beloved Moogs through deals with the Soviets. Even Oku and his studio manager, Ferdinand Ohans, seem to barely have known him. What Ohans does say about Onyeabor backs up his legendary image, calling him “a giant,” who ate only once a day–a portion suited for three to five people. Onyeabor always avoided public gatherings, and most people in general. Now that he has embraced Christianity, he refuses to discuss his music at all.
There may be no answers to the mystery of Onyeabor, but perhaps it’s best left that way. At the very least, Sumner’s film is a well-crafted and entertaining chance to re-listen to the music that Onyeabor himself appropriately once titled Atomic Bomb. Watch the movie in its entirety below: