Atomic Bomb: Who Is William Onyeabor?, Barbican, London – review

Like a Nigerian funk version of Waiting for Godot, the main attraction didn’t turn up. William Onyeabor was present musically at the Barbican, but the man himself was several thousand miles away in south-eastern Nigeria, where he apparently devotes himself to business and evangelical Christianity.

It was left to a group of mainly UK and US-based musicians to play his songs – hypnotically sprawling Funkadelic-style jams originally released in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s before Onyeabor quit secular music. These recordings, obscure even in Nigeria, were rediscovered by Luaka Bop, the New York label set up by David Byrne, which recently released the compilation Atomic Bomb: Who Is William Onyeabor?.

A sold-out concert hall testified to the recognition that Onyeabor is belatedly enjoying; not that he gives any indication of actually enjoying it. Misgivings grew with the arrival at the show’s start of an African preacher, a man in a blue suit who encouraged the metropolitan audience to shout out “Amen!” and “Give a clap of faith!”, which people did – at first weakly, then with patronising gusto and titters. As Onyeabor apparently sees Christianity as a bar to making music, the routine was ill-judged.

Then the backing band struck up, and the evening entered a more rewarding groove. The musical leader was Ahmed Gallab, leader of US worldbeat band Sinkane, joined on keyboards by ex-Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark, who was tasked with recreating Onyeabor’s spacey Moog synthesiser solos. Joining them were two drummers and two Nigerian percussionists, a horn trio, guitarists and a succession of guest vocalists.

Nigerian duo the Lijadu Sisters, crossover Afrobeat stars in the 1970s, made their first London appearance in 30 years, singing a scrappy but entertaining version of their own song “Danger” as well as tracks by Onyeabor. Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke, whose parents are Nigerian, sang a sweetly lilting vocal to the ska-tinged “Heaven and Hell”. The half-Nigerian UK rapper Ghostpoet drawled over fast jittery funk in “Love Me Now” as images of Lagos street life appeared on a screen, the contrasts in the music echoing those between the city’s skyscrapers and shacks.

It didn’t always work. On 1978’s “Atomic Bomb”, Onyeabor’s biggest Nigerian hit, the chemistry between Hot Chip crooner Alexis Taylor and the Lijadu Sisters was more fizzle than flare. Damon Albarn showed how it should be done on “Fantastic Man”, leaping around, serenading the sisters and commandeering Money Mark’s keyboard.

It was a shameless attempt to steal the show – outdone, however, by a member of the audience, a woman whose dancing skills were rewarded with a call-up on stage, where she proceeded to perform a dazzling variety of moves, including a jaw-dropping pair of splits. I suspect the devout Onyeabor would not have approved. But her unofficial cameo was in the free and unique spirit of his African funk.

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