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Nigerian Funk Musician William Onyeabor Dies At 70

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to take a moment now to remember William Onyeabor, a groundbreaking Nigerian funk musician in the 1970s and '80s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD NAME")

WILLIAM 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.

MCEVERS: Until at one point, he just stopped making music. Onyeabor died this week at the age of 70 according to Luaka Bop. That's the record label that reissued his work in America after a lot of persuading.

With us to talk about Onyeabor is someone who helped convince him to rerelease those old recordings. Uchenna Ikonne is a Nigerian music scholar, and he joins us on Skype from Boston. Welcome to the show.

UCHENNA IKONNE: Thanks a lot for having me.

MCEVERS: So let's go back to Onyeabor's days as a recording artist. What made his music stand out from other artists like, say, Fela Kuti?

IKONNE: One thing that distinguishes his music was that it was largely not band-based. It was studio-based, which was something new at the time. Most bands played live, and then they made records to sort of document their live performance.

He, on the other hand, made records that were conceived wholly in the studio. He was able to integrate a lot of new technology, such as synthesizers, drum machines and the like. So that gave his music a sort of a futuristic feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM ONYEABOR SONG "GOOD NAME")

MCEVERS: And he ended his music career pretty abruptly, right?

IKONNE: Yeah. He stopped recording in 1985. The reasons for that are not completely clear. I have my own theories about it.

MCEVERS: What are they?

IKONNE: The popular mythology right now is that he stopped because he became a born-again Christian. I don't think that's correct. The music industry started to decline halfway through the '80s. And since Onyeabor was strictly a businessman, I don't think he really wanted to involve himself in something that was not profitable for him. But the bigger issue is the fact that he got involved in politics, and being a pop star didn't really jive well with being a politician.

MCEVERS: As we said, you were involved in reviving Onyeabor's music here in the U.S., but to do it, you had to get him to sign a contract first. So you went to his hometown of Enugu, Nigeria. What was he like when you visited him?

IKONNE: Initially, he was extremely warm. But then shortly after that, he became a cold-blooded businessman...

MCEVERS: Oh.

IKONNE: ...And quite a cutthroat negotiator.

MCEVERS: Yeah 'cause at one point, I read that he considered you an agent of Satan.

(LAUGHTER)

IKONNE: I had started to get impatient because at this time, I had been in Nigeria for almost a year. I was getting really tired. I was broke. And I just really...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

IKONNE: ...Had to get the deal closed. And (laughter) he wasn't playing ball. So there was a time that I decided I had to get really firm with him. And he said, you've come over here to disrupt my life and cause me all these problems, and I'm starting to think that you are an agent of Satan.

MCEVERS: With the rerelease of his music, he actually did find this whole new audience here in the U.S. Did he ever consider a tour or making new music? Or was he just going to remain an enigma until the end?

IKONNE: He definitely never considered a tour. He did plan to make some more music. He was supposedly working on a new album. I don't know if any of that was actually put on tape or not.

MCEVERS: Oh, so you're saying there could be some Onyeabor music out there that we haven't heard yet.

IKONNE: Possibly.

MCEVERS: Uchenna Ikonne is a writer and record producer and one of the people who helped bring William Onyeabor's music to the digital age. Onyeabor died on Monday at the age of 70. Uchenna, thank you so much.

IKONNE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODY AND SOUL")

ONYEABOR: (Singing) When I play my kind of music, I'm playing for your body and soul. When I sing my kind of song... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.