Last week, it was announced that pioneering Nigerian synth-funk musician William Onyeabor had passed away at the age of 70, at his home in Enugu, Nigeria. While he composed and self-released nine studio albums from 1970 to 1985, he stopped recording entirely shortly after, and devoted himself to religion. In the early 2000s, his music enjoyed a newfound surge in popularity, thanks largely to a series of reissues by David Byrne's label Luaka Bop. One artist in particular who was profoundly impacted by Onyeabor's work was multi-instrumentalist and producer Ahmed Gallab, best known for his project Sinkane.
"It was the first time that I had heard music that I felt like related to my personal experience. It was distinctly African, but had this American influence that was so earnest and so honest," recalled Gallab to THUMP over the phone from his home in New York. "It was one of those situations where I first heard it, everything went in slow-motion, I can still smell the room I was in."
In a recent Clash Magazine essay, he wrote about how a chance encounter at a festival several years later lead to him being asked by Luaka Bop to be the musical director of the Atomic Bomb! Band, a touring supergroup with a revolving lineup including Byrne, Damon Albarn, Dev Hynes, Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor, LCD Soundsystem's Pat Mahoney, and more. We asked Gallab to share his favorite songs from Onyeabor's expansive discography, and you can read his picks and accompanying words below.
"Heaven & Hell" (Crashes In Love, 1977)
"I think the first song that hit me was 'Heaven & Hell.' [It] has been an interesting song to learn because, depending on how your brain works, you can hear the downbeat in that song in two different places. Depending on where you hear the downbeat, the entire song sounds differently from how anyone else will hear it. It has such a simple message and a colorful melody, and the horn lines in it are weird, they sound like a mariachi band or South African band.
It's on his first album Crashes In Love, and that album is really amazing, because it's a soundtrack to a movie that never got made. He made the soundtrack first, and then was going to make the movie, and he never did. But he made two versions of the album, he made a regular version with all the songs that you've heard, and he made an electronic version with drum machine on top of everything."
"Poor Boy" (Body & Soul, 1980)
"'Poor Boy' is on his album Body & Soul—the song 'Body & Soul' is also amazing—but 'Poor Boy' is really great. When Eric and I went to meet Onyeabor, we asked him about 'Poor Boy' and he couldn't even remember recording it, he's made so much music. It's the meanest-sounding groove, it's relentless, it goes on forever, the song doesn't even change. If that song was released now, it would be just as relevant as it was back in the late 70s. It's super repetitive and it almost sounds like a dance song.
We always opened up our show with that song and it was really special to me. There's a really important element to the song which is a saxophone, we performed with [jazz legends] Pharoah Sanders and Charles Lloyd and they would open up the show by playing the saxophone, and we would come into the track with them. Pharoah Sanders is the reason why I start playing music as Sinkane, he inspired me so much, so I have this really special connection to that song, all the stars aligned."
"Tell Me What You Want" (Great Lover, 1981)
"'Tell Me What You Want' is the first song on the album Great Lover. If you buy the box set from Luaka Bop, you can hear all the records, but people don't listen to that one as much I think. The album cover is pretty amazing, it's him dressed in a suit with a top hat and he has this beautiful watch on, sitting in some kind of glamorous African lounge room with a bouquet of flowers. Another one of his later ones, the songs are very symphonic, almost waltzy. It's a really beautiful love song."
"Hypertension" (Hypertension, 1982)
"'Hypertension' is currently my favorite song. It kind of sounds like this weird, old-school ska, calypso, but also has this bubbly, funky African thing that he does really well. Hypertension was one of his later records, so it came around the time he started going really hard with synthesizers. When I went to meet him, I asked him what the deal was, and he said around the time that record was made, there was a lot of political unrest in Nigeria. He wanted to respond to it with a song that addressed the political climate, but he wanted to present a positive or an uplifting image, something that would help people unwind and chill. You listen to his songs and you can hear them in a really relaxed way, you can hear them at a party, they make you dance, but they also make you feel really good."
"When The Going Is Smooth & Good" (Anything You Sow, 1985)
"'Smooth & Good' is one of his most popular songs, it was a smash hit in Nigeria. It was on Anything You Sow, which was the last album he made, it's super duper electronic. It's all pretty much a Casio keyboard loop, and then him singing, which is unbelievable. It's really hard to make a good song out of a primitive-sounding thing, and especially after buying all these amazing synthesizers and getting this world-class recording gear, he goes back and makes an album with a Casio keyboard loop.
We always played this song last because it got us the biggest response, people would just lose themselves to the song. It has such a beautiful mantra in the chorus singing "higher, higher, higher higher," which we would all sing together. He kind of raps in the song if you want to call it that and the lyrics are so earnest, it almost feels like he's talking to you like he's your uncle or something. Keep your good friends close, don't fuck around with people who don't care about you, that's pretty much what he's talking about in the song."
Sinkane's new album Life & Livin' It comes out February 10 on City Slang.
Max Mertens is on Twitter.