Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say, and for some musicians a bit of time away (or even an eternity spent in obscurity) helps to top up not only the mystique but maybe the bank balance, too.
Last night in London was the first ever performance – in the UK, at least – of the music of mysterious Nigerian funk enigma William Onyeabor. He’s a man whose “lost” albums of bouncy, synth-heavy pop produced in the 1970s and ’80s have been plucked from obscurity in recent months to become critics’ favourites. A stellar cast of musicians ranging from contemporary musical magpie Damon Albarn to celebrated veteran Nigerian duo the Lijadu Sisters and Sudanese-American bandleader, Sinkane, were in attendance at London’s Barbican to play tunes such as “Atomic Bomb” and “Fantastic Man”. But conspicuously absent was Mr Onyeabor himself – and nobody expected him to be there.
Onyeabor’s fragmented past seems to suggest that a profound religious conversion and/or the fact that he just doesn’t feel like doing music (or interviews) anymore means he eschews the limelight. That obscurity has only seen his stature grow – Onyeabor’s a lone musical pioneer permanently frozen at his creative peak. Seemingly nobody, perhaps not even him, wants that to change.
Some musicians do actually turn up to their own shows though, which will hopefully be the case when fantasy-prog-pop nymph Kate Bush returns to the stage later this year. She’s not played a gig for over 35 years and the frenzy that accompanied the announcement of 22 shows this summer at London’s Hammersmith Apollo saw all tickets disappear within 15 minutes. Whether those events will match the acrobatic onstage bonkersness of Bush’s late-1970s prime is debateable. But hysterical cartwheels of joy were still definitely the move of the day at the Monocle office when a lucky few got tickets. Bush’s accountant may have been having a similar reaction.
But the real smart move in music seems to be not to make music at all, whether that’s through your own choosing or not. Johnny Cash had his first number-one record for over 30 years in 2003 just after he sadly passed. And last month saw the release of his “lost” album Out Among the Stars, which is being promoted by the very same label that dropped the singer for disappointing sales when he was originally recording that "lost" collection back in 1984. The man, it seems, does indeed come around.
It’s a balancing act, of course. For every mysterious enigma simply waiting for the right moment or hiding away from adoring crowds, there’s 100 other great unsung talents perhaps even more deserving of your time.
I just hope that William Onyeabor is aware that his time seems to be now.
Tom Hall is a writer and sub editor for Monocle.