In the early 1980's, William Onyeabor was traveling the world. He was establishing his own record company, Wilfilms Limited, in his hometown of Enugu, Nigeria, and wanted to service every aspect of the record manufacturing business—from recording and record pressing, to printing and shrink-wrapping the covers. The “Wilfilms Laboratory” and “Wilfilms Music Complex” was to be the greatest manufacturing plant in all of West Africa, and he wanted to have the best equipment the market had to offer.
He visited the offices of RCA in New York City and their pressing plants in Minneapolis; and, as I’ve shared with you before, he went to Sweden to get the best pressing machines of the day. He also traveled to Italy where he purchased his amazing Elka synthesizers (as well as the best tractors available at the time for Katapult, his semolina factory—a man of many interests!). In Milan, he found the best supplier of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which is used to make vinyl records. (In some inexplicable way during this period he also made the highly remarkable album Good Name!!!).
Whenever I speak with Mr. Onyeabor today, it seems like it’s these business ventures that pride him the most. He was a businessman more than anything, and the fact that he “did everything” within the business—not just for his own music but also for the other artists on his label—feels like the only thing from his past that he is willing to talk about (though he does so in such a vague way). Whenever I am with him, he will never speak about a particular song or album, but he will proudly point to the logo on the back of an album baring his own name, look at me and say, “I did everything, Eric. I even did the shrink-wrapping in my own factory.” Although he is one of the worlds' utmost music pioneers, it’s this incredible business mindset that always gets me.
It is also from these business ventures that he appears to have one of his life's greatest regrets. I don't know much about it, but what I've understood is that he is trying to find an old friend and business associate in Milan.
He can't remember the name of this person and he doesn't have any contact details for him, nor would he consider giving me much to work with—after all these years he still considers the matter "secret business information." All he was able to tell me is that the person was the Managing Director of the Ambrosio Plastic Company from 1984-1986 and that he was always very sincere and genuine. He told me this story:
"Once, he invited me to his home in the city of Milan, where he had beautiful living room, with a piano and a lovely white couch. He offered me to sit down and served me a glass wine, but I don't drink alcohol, so I had to decline. The Italians drink a lot of wine, but I don’t,” he said, and chuckled. "Years later something happened that I don't want to speak about… a business matter. I would like to amend it. I have to find him.”
For a man that doesn’t say much, he has told me this story many times, whether we are speaking over the phone or in the great living room in his palace. When I visited him this past February, he showed me an old delivery slip, xeroxed on pink onion skin paper, torn and dirty along the edges. He held onto the paper firmly, explaining, “This is a business document, I can not give this to you of course”. Always very secretive, I knew he would pull it away any second. I frantically began looking for a name or some kind of clue (speaking Italian, I figured I might see something he might not have detected earlier). In the top left corner was the sender’s address, printed with typewriter and stamped “1984”. Below was the Italian V.A.T. number, a very important clue, but far too long to try and memorize. “The Managing Director,” he said looking at me, pointing to a signature scribbled in faded black ink at the bottom of the paper. It was impossible to make out the name. “It is the Managing Director you have to find, Eric.”
He then pulled the paper away and put in on the big couch next to him. “Are they still in business do you think? Can you find him for me?” he asked.
A few hours later we said goodbye for the day and I jumped into the backseat of a cab to ride back to my hotel for the evening. I urgently pulled a small piece of paper out of my bag and scribbled down whatever I could remember before it was too late—knowing he would never show me that paper again.
As you might have heard, we have been organizing tribute concerts for him around the world: London, NYC, Los Angeles and a few summer festivals to date. It has been a beautiful thing—William Onyeabor’s music performed live for the first time ever, with some of the most incredible musians around. Everyone seems to be having the best of times—musicians and fans, alike!
After each show I call him and try to explain how the show went—he never played live himself, so I can tell it doesn’t really translate clearly to him, but he is always pleased to hear it's going well. Of course, I would like nothing more than if he would attend one of the shows, but each time I ask him to come over, he says that he can’t consider coming until “the Italian issue” is resolved. I know there are other issues as well, and that even if I were to find this man it would not guarantee his attendance, but I'm committed to giving it a shot.
Wish me luck!
PS: If you would like to read or share this story in Italian, here is a piece that Jovanotti wrote for us in the weekend edition of Il Sole 24 Ore