FANTASTIC MAN, MYSTERY MAN
Jake Sumner’s documentary Fantastic Man can be called Mystery Man. Only the new title would fail to capture the forward looking brilliance of musician William Onyeabor, the film’s subject.
Quite popular decades ago, Onyeabor’s music was peculiar for its liberal use of synthesizers, an entirely unfamiliar sound from music on the continent at the time. Years later, hits having dwindled and stopped, William disappeared. Left to Nigerians, this ordinarily should be the end to his story—we are not given to digging up old stars.
It just wasn’t left to Nigerians. In the way of translatable art, his music had, thankfully, crossed borders and found a foreign audience shocked by how much like them he sounded—the Nigerian historian Ed Keazor, one of the film’s interviewees on camera mentions Onyeabor in same breath as German band Kraftwerk.
Luaka Bop, a record label based in the US, that meddlesome land, sought to release a compilation of the man’s best work. Trust the US to find a way of capitalising on any hobby and in a while rub it just enough to coax funds out of it like a magic lamp. It is call capitalism for a reason. The record label has done this for years, mastering the procedure. They get the rights, transfer to compact discs and release the album with a little bio of the singer. With Williams Onyeabor, the first two were easy-peasy; but couldn’t find information on the artist. The reasonable thing to do is also the easy thing: let it go and release the disc anyway. But these are Americans, romanticised in a thousand movies for their doggedness. So two guys get on a plane to Nigeria, to Enugu to find out about the man.
Sumner’s Fantastic Man shares a soul with Searching for Sugarman, the Oscar winning documentary about Sixto Rodriguez, an obscure US singer with a massive following in South Africa. It reverses the inquiry geographically—with Sugarman South Africans go hunting in the US for their hero. In Fantastic Man, the Americans come to Africa. Yet while the search at the heart of Sugarman is fuelled by worship, Fantastic Man‘s is propelled by curiosity.
The cast of characters met and interviewed in Nigeria by these curious Americans do not see the irony of their position: learning of their neighbour only through the efforts of a foreign crew. Perhaps the country has become inured to the discovery of gems in its land by foreigners. At least here it isn’t plundering—not quite anyway.