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Nine Months In Nigeria, One Brilliant, Difficult Funk Musician

Dec 15, 2013

Yale Evelev, head of world music label Luaka Bop, digs up information about great-but-forgotten musicians for a living. His quest to compile and release the work of Nigerian funk legend William Onyeabor, though, was a unique challenge.

"I was going to call the record This Is William Onyeabor, up until the point we realized we didn't know anything about him," Evelev tells NPR's Arun Rath. "And then we changed the title to Who Is William Onyeabor?"

In the 1970s and '80s, Onyeabor put out eight albums of layered, wildly imaginative synth-funk. But he halted recording in the mid-1980s and converted to Christianity. Since then, if you mention his life in music around him, he stops the conversation dead.

Naturally, rumors rushed in to fill the vacuum: Onyeabor had gone on to run a flour mill; he went to film school in Soviet Russia; he went to study law in London. His legend grew and grew. Evelev called the man and tried to get him to confirm if any of the rumors were true.

"And he said to me, 'Why would I want to talk about that? I just want to talk about Jesus.' And then he hung up the phone," Evelev says.

Most artists are thrilled when Luaka Bop comes calling. For Evelev, this went beyond eccentricity; Onyeabor became a nightmare.

The Plan Was Simple

The idea for the compilation was brought to Luaka Bop by Uchenna Ikonne, a Nigerian writer, DJ and record producer and an expert on his home country's music.

"I originally had planned to put the project out myself, but then I decided that it was bigger than I could handle at the time," Ikonne says of his decision to pitch the idea to Evelev. "The issue was to get the rights to the work, and I said I would be able to do that, as I had already made contact with Mr. Onyeabor."

Evelev agreed that his label would take on the project, and Ikonne headed to Enugu, Nigeria, where both he and Onyeabor are from. With a contract and some advance money from Evelev in hand, Ikonne planned get approval from Onyeabor to do the compilation. He'd be back in the U.S. in a month.

"And somehow, I ended up staying there for over nine months," Ikonne says. "And I came back without the deal."

Evelev remembers the moment well. "Uchenna comes back to where he lives in Boston," he recalls, "and says, 'You know, I'm kinda embarrassed, but I gave him the advance money because he was going to go to the bank that day. I was supposed to go back the next day to sign the contract, but the next day never happened. So he has the money, but I don't have the contract.' "

'When He Turns, He's Hard'

Three years would pass before Onyeabor would sign off on the project. What happened during Ikonne's nine months in Nigeria is a story all its own.

Ikonne knew he was in for a bumpy ride. He'd heard the rumors of Onyeabor's legendary temper, that he was "wicked," "unpredictable" and "evil." And the musician's Enugu home is far outside of town, off dirt roads.

"He always makes reference to his 'palace.' He doesn't say 'home,' " Ikonne says. "You know, the average person might say, 'You know, I'm tired, I think I wanna go home.' He would say, 'I'm tired, I need to go back to my palace.' "

The artist seemed nice when Ikonne first met him. "He's funny; he can be very warm. But he can turn. When he turns, he's hard," Ikonne says. "After I finished dealing with him, I didn't listen to his music for maybe two years, because just hearing his voice would almost give me an anxiety attack. "

Negotiations was were slow-going. At one point, Ikonne says, Onyeabor accused him of being an agent of Satan. But it was important to him not to quit.

"It's worth it in that I was able to deliver the executed contract to Luaka Bop," Ikonne says. "I'm a man who keeps his word. And I knew they were probably thinking at some point, 'So some Nigerian guy calls us up and says, 'Send me some money so I can get you this contract" and we just sent it to him!' ... It was important to me to deliver, to prove that I was not some guy who writes emails claiming to be the son of a king — you know, that whole deal."

And this year, it finally happened: Luaka Bop has released the first legitimate compilation of Onyeabor's music in October. It's called Who Is William Onyeabor? — a question Evelev never got him to answer.

"He said to me, 'Yale, you can sell my music,'" Evelev recalls, "'but don't sell me.'"

William Onyeabor declined to be interviewed for this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Once again, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

I'd like you to sit back now and let us take you through a detective story, a weird kind of musical mystery. It starts with a record label trying to compile the work of a '70s and '80s Nigerian funk legend.

YALE EVELEV: I was going to call the record "This is William Onyeabor," up until the point we realized we didn't know anything about him. And then we changed the title to "Who is William Onyeabor?"

RATH: That's Yale Evelev. He runs Luaka Bop, a pretty famous name in world music. Evelev digs up information about great forgotten musicians for a living. And even he couldn't find out much about this William Onyeabor guy. To this day, we're not even sure exactly how to pronounce his name.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

WILLIAM ONYEABOR: (Singing) When I play my kind of music, I'm playing for your body and soul. When I sing my kind of song, I'm singing for your body and soul.

RATH: William Onyeabor put out eight albums of some pretty amazing synth funk. It's fun, layered and madly imaginative, kind of like a Nigerian George Clinton. But he halted recording in the mid-'80s and converted to Christianity. Since then, if you mention his life and music around him, he stops the conversation dead.

Naturally, rumors rushed in to fill the vacuum: Onyeabor had gone on to run a flour mill. He went to film school in Soviet Russia. He went to study law in London, maybe a combination of these things. William Onyeabor's legend grew and grew. Yale Evelev called William Onyeabor himself and tried to get him to confirm any of this.

EVELEV: And he said to me...

ONYEABOR: Why would I want to talk about that? I just want to talk about Jesus.

RATH: And then he hung up the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSY TONE)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Most artists are thrilled when Luaka Bop comes calling. For Yale Evelev, this went beyond eccentricity. William Onyeabor became a nightmare. But let's go back to the beginning. The idea for this compilation was brought to Luaka Bop by an expert in Nigerian music.

UCHENNA IKONNE: My name is Uchenna Ikonne. I'm a writer and a DJ and sometime record producer.

RATH: And Yale Evelev says Ikonne told him...

EVELEV: Hey, you did this compilation of psychedelic African records and one of the tracks was with William Onyeabor. Would you like to do a whole record of him?

IKONNE: I originally had planned to put the project out myself, but then I decided that it was bigger than I could handle at the time.

EVELEV: I would love to. That would be great. Uchenna says: Great, because I'm from Enugu in Nigeria, and he's from Enugu, and I'm going to go back home for Christmas. And I thought, thank God, a straightforward, easy compilation to do.

IKONNE: From there, the issue was to get the rights. And I said I would be able to do that, as I had already made contact with Mr. Onyeabor.

EVELEV: And if you give me a contract and some advance money, I'll give it to him, have him sign the contract and you can do a compilation.

IKONNE: And I'd be back in a month. And somehow, I ended up staying there for over nine months. And I came back without the deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EVELEV: Uchenna goes back to where he lives in Boston and says, you know, I'm kind of embarrassed, but I gave him the advance money because he was going to go to the bank that day. Then I was supposed to go back the next day to sign the contract but the next day never happened. So he has the money, but I don't have the contract.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Three years went past before William Onyeabor would sign on the dotted line. But what happened during Uchenna Ikonne's nine months in Nigeria? That's a story in and of itself. Ikonne knew he was in for a bumpy ride. He'd heard the rumors of Onyeabor's legendary temper.

IKONNE: He's very difficult, wicked, unpredictable. He's evil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Ikonne traveled to Enugu, way outside town on dirt roads to his rural isolated home.

IKONNE: He lives in a palace. He always makes reference to his palace. He doesn't say home. You know, the average person might say, you know, I'm tired. I think I want to go home. He would say: I'm tired. I need to go back to my palace.

RATH: And when you were interacting with him, is he a nice guy? How is he?

IKONNE: When I met him, I found him to be a fairly nice guy. You know, he's funny. He can be very warm. But he can turn. When he turns, he is - he's hard. I mean, I came away. When - after the period that I had gone through my ordeal with him, for about two years after that, if you had asked me this question, I would've said he is evil.

But I've had time to reflect upon it and, you know, I remember some of the happier times that we've shared. But when he turns, he really turns.

RATH: What's that like? Why would you use the word evil in the past?

IKONNE: He was really hard on me.

(LAUGHTER)

IKONNE: We - things got bad between us. Things got extremely bitter. And I felt that he acted in some ways that I felt were really duplicitous, in a way.

RATH: He was misleading with you?

IKONNE: Yeah, yeah, sometimes. What happened was, somehow I gave him the money, and he didn't sign the contract. And when I asked him for the money, he said, if I give you back the money, the deal's over. Well, let's put it this way. I gave him the money, which he felt was only part of the money. So he didn't sign the deal because he said he wants the rest of the money.

RATH: He was considering basically an advance on - a good faith advance.

IKONNE: Yeah, yeah, I would say that.

RATH: I don't know if you can go on into any detail. It just sounds a lot more intense than a typical negotiation. It just sounds - the way you're talking, it sounds like it was emotional draining for you.

IKONNE: It was. It was. Oh, yeah. Not just emotionally draining. It was emotionally devastating. I mean, I felt that this man completely crushed my soul. I mean, after I finished dealing with him, I didn't listen to his music for maybe two years because just hearing his voice would almost give me an anxiety attack.

I mean, I did talk to him on the phone a few times, you know, over the years after that. But believe me, before I talked to him on the phone, I would have to psyche myself up. Yeah, he did...

RATH: What was he doing, though? What was...

(LAUGHTER)

IKONNE: Some of it I can't talk about. But, you know, at one point, he decided that I was an agent of Satan...

RATH: Wow.

IKONNE: ...yeah, that had been sent to cause confusion in his life. And he would smite me.

RATH: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: That's not something I imagine you've heard from most of the artists you've worked with.

IKONNE: No, not at all.

RATH: Well, you've done these amazing compilations. You've worked with artists bringing out some of this Nigerian funk. And I'm sure a lot of people have not accused you of being agent of the devil.

IKONNE: Yeah.

RATH: Was it worth it?

IKONNE: Was it worth it? It's worth it in that I was able to deliver the executed contract to Luaka Bop. That was important to me. It's - I'm a man who keeps his word. And I knew they're probably thinking at some point, hey, OK, so some Nigerian guy calls us up and says, send me some money so I can get you this contract, and we just sent it to him, you know? So it was important to me to deliver, to prove that I was not some guy who writes emails claiming to be the son of a king, you know, that whole deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD NAME")

RATH: That's Uchenna Ikonne, an expert in Nigerian music. Together, he and Yale Evelev at Luaka Bop have, at long last, released the very first legitimate compilation of this music. It's called "Who is William Onyeabor?" a question Evelev never got him to answer.

EVELEV: He said to me: Yale, you can sell my music, but don't sell me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD NAME")

ONYEABOR: (Singing) I have a good name. I have a good name. And no money, no money, no money, no money, no money can buy my name.

RATH: William Onyeabor declined to be interviewed for this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD NAME")

ONYEABOR: (Singing) Do you have a good name, do you have a good name. Then no money, no money, no money, no money...

RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. We're back again next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.