Fantastic Man – William Onyeabor

Fantastic Man – William Onyeabor
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A tall, septuagenarian Nigerian man, clad in a traditional African Boubou, stands smiling and unassuming in front of a decadent –  if slightly decrepit – ex-colonial Nigerian mansion. This mysterious figure is William Onyeabor and the image comes from the recently-released biographic documentary about him, Fantastic Man. Onyeabor is a former Nigerian musician who found fame in that country in the late-70s with his utterly unique music, best described as a heavily synthesised take on Afro-funk. After thirty years of silence, his music was resurrected last year and spread like wildfire across 6 Music's eclectically-minded music shows, originally championed by Lauren Laverne. In late 2013, New York-based record label Luaka Bop released a retrospective compilation of his music, Who is William Onyeabor?, which rose to #4 in TIME's top ten albums of the year. But as the popularity of Onyeabor's music grew, so did the questions about the man himself: Who is he? Why are we only just hearing his music? And where is he now? Yet all those queries were left unanswered. No one knew. The burgeoning myth was further fed by the highly-contradictory emerging rumours about his post-music past: he was a Russian-funded film-maker, a British-based lawyer with a degree from Oxford – the list goes on. All whispers, but no one had any remotely authoritative explanation.

Directed by Alldayeveryday's Jake Sumner and presented by You Need to Hear This, Fantastic Man covers the attempts to find Onyeabor and answer those unrequited questions. It starts with talk from a variety of respected talking heads, from Damon Albarn and Caribou's Dan Snaith to Femi Kuti, all discussing the rebirth of Onyeabor's music and the pioneering way in which he used synthesizers to create electronic music that was far ahead of its time. The scene then changes as the film is taken to Nigeria as its makers attempt to unearth the character behind the man, interviewing local record shop owners, 70s Nigerian musicians, music historians and Onyeabor's ex-industry colleagues. What emerges is an introspective, isolated individual with an abrasive – even allegedly aggressive – personality, who actively shunned the limelight and eventually turned his back on music to become a born-again Christian pastor. Onyeabor is finally tracked down to a decaying colonial mansion in the suburbs but, rather disappointingly, he declines to be interviewed. However, he acquiesces to the shot of him standing outside his house, accompanied by a short audio message in which he recites scripture, telling us to live a good life and do the word of God.

The ostensible failure of the mission, however, doesn't detract from the quality of what is a charming and engaging documentary. Throughout the film you are subtly, if not overtly, prepared for the disappointing finale. As such, the concluding shot of Onyeabor serves as a surprise bonus to an edifying overall viewing. In fact, the ending to this Sugar Man-esque tale only serves to enhance the mystery and intrigue surrounding Onyeabor, perhaps convincing us that his story isn't just another passing fad to which we will ultimately be de-sensitised by a plethora of commodifying performances at this year's summer festivals. Onyeabor has never played live, he's not going to start now.