Luaka Bop’s “Who Is Jordan Pedersen?” compilation is not forthcoming.
It’s tempting, understandable even, to compare “world” musicians to artists from the English-speaking world. It plays into a trait us music writers are notorious for – name-dropping – and it helps us grapple with unfamiliar sounds. “This thing I don’t understand sounds like this thing I do understand.”
But if it’s understandable, it’s still lazy. At best, comparisons are shorthand. At worst, they marginalize the originality of the artist.
Sure, the music of mysterious Nigerian synth pioneer William Onyeabor sounds something like the freaky-deaky psychedelia of Parliament-Funkadelic. And you can hear some of his deviously inventive keyboard work and his rhythmic sense scattered throughout the works of bands like Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, and, of course, Talking Heads.
But to drown in a sea of forebears and takes-afters is to miss the joy of the music itself, and William Onyeabor’s music has so very much joy to offer.
The music on Luaka Bop’s excellent 2013 compilation Who Is William Onyeabor? shimmies, quakes, and slinks infectiously. Devendra Banhart said that “Atomic Bomb” was so catchy that “the world might be better off not hearing it…when it gets in my brain, I can’t sleep.” And when he’s not luring you onto the dancefloor with that Cheshire Cat grin on tracks like “Body and Soul,” he’s inviting you to a tent-revival rave-up on “Fantastic Man.” He became a born-again Christian later on, but here he’s who you’re supposed to worship.
David Byrne and a cadre of Onyeabor acolytes, including Money Mark, Sinkane, and LCD Soundsystem’s Pat Mahoney, did their version of “Fantastic Man” on Jimmy Fallon last week. They were there to promote “Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor,” a pair of shows featuring these guys, plus members of Bloc Party and Hot Chip.
Byrne and co. do justice to the track, but their masterstroke is putting seminal Nigerian vocal duo the Lijadu Sisters front and center. It goes without saying that Taiwo and Kehinde have gorgeous voices. But their real asset is their stage presence, an enviable chemistry they’ve forged over a lifetime making music together. To see them exchange flirty sidelong glances with Byrne is nothing short of euphoric.
Onyeabor’s music may lead you down an Afropop rabbit hole. Let it. Nigeria and Ghana produced some of the weirdest, wildest, most original music in the 1970s, and record labels like Soundway, Luaka Bop, and Strut have done an impressive job pushing it into the public consciousness.
Grab a comp, pick a name you like, and start exploring. It’s a great way to get lost.