A tribute concert in Brooklyn honors a living, but reclusive, Nigerian funk master

The World
Breakdancers liven the set at the Onyeabor tribute concert.

Breakdancers liven the set at the Onyeabor tribute concert.

Mirissa Neff

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, Nigerian musician William Onyeabor recorded several albums worth of infectious Afro-futuristic dance music. But then he became a born-again Christian, and stopped making songs.

At the time, few missed him: Onyeabor never performed live, and even in his native Nigeria, barely anyone had heard of him.

That changed about 10 years ago, when a couple of his catchy synth-laden songs appeared on African funk compilations, sprouting fans throughout the world, including the likes of David Byrne and Yale Evelev, founders of Luaka Bop Records, the label which worked tirelessly for five years to establish contact with, and ultimately release Onyeabor's songs.

These days, Onyeabor leads a reclusive life in the Nigerian city of Enugu, and has no interest in performing, much less talking about, his music. But this fall, Luaka Bop released a collection of his songs titled "World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor?," and co-produced a stellar documentary about him.

These moves set the stage for the Atomic Bomb Band, a star-studded ensemble named for one of Onyeabor's songs, to perform two nights of sold out shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

Under the direction of Ahmed Gallab (band leader of rising indie rock act Sinkane), the group's members included the modern synth great (and Beastie Boys collaborator), Money Mark, jazz heavy Joshua Redman, and David Byrne himself.

"I think all of us would really like to see this music be performed live," said Gallab, "so it feels really exciting to be the people that are doing it."

He also expressed his hope that one day Onyeabor might join them, and perform his own songs. But absent that, Gallab just wanted to do one of his heroes justice. "When I took on the music director role," he said, "I made a point that I wasn't going to sell it short."

He needn't worry. With the capacity crowd on its feet from the start, Friday's show was a raucous celebration. Replete with two drummers and a full horn section, the Atomic Bomb Band – joined on stage by a breakdance crew, roller-skaters, and a rotating  cast of singers including Nigeria's legendary identical-twin vocalists, the Lijadu Sisters – clearly didn't want to be just an Onyeabor cover band.

They sought to blow his songs out. So doing, they blew the roof off of BAM's stately opera house.

It's hard to say what the reclusive Mr. Onyeabor would have made of the explosive night. But here in one of New York's top venues, his joyous admirers gave Onyeabor's music new life. "If you find yourself feeling happy," he once sang, "Better come and dance my music now." This band, and a few thousand others, did just that.

(Also, be sure to check out Marco Werman's story about Onyeabor from a few months ago here.)