Costumed in statement traditional garb, and mysterious behind a signature mask, Lagbaja is a real-life superhero. As is the way of superheroes, after awakening to musical superpowers of Ayan (the talking drum), the saxophone, and the ways of the ancestors, Lagbaja embarked on a quest to fulfil the distinct purpose of musically restoring post-military Nigeria.
In order to understand and appreciate Lagbaja’s role as Nigeria’s second democracy superhero, one must return to another place and an earlier time, when people flocked to be entertained by another musical enigma—Fela (Fela’s musical influence on Lagbaja is clearest in the latter’s handling of the saxophone). However, while Fela’s political reality forced him to use music as a weapon against the Nigerian government, Lagbaja had the responsibility of easing society with his music. Fela’s music thrived against the military government in the 1970s, but Lagbaja’s music came to prominence at a time when the military rule in Nigeria had almost come to an end, and it climaxed during the democracy era from 1999 through the 2000s. While Fela’s music spurred the people to political anger, created the desire to protest in them, Lagbaja’s music, still as conscious, calmed and reflected a people appreciative of a battle well fought and won—both musicians being exactly what Nigerians needed at their respective periods.
A Hero beyond His Time
‘After many many years of waka for bush,
Eventually we enter democracy,
If democracy go work,
We must get patience small.’
Lagbaja’s music is a symbolic bridge that connects the old to the new; the dangers, apprehension, and injustices of the military era to a new age of democracy and hope. The most important part of this symbolic bridge is Lagbaja’s eternal musical humour, a quality found abundantly in Fela’s discography as well. Lagbaja understands humour and its role as therapy in music. By the time Lagbaja’s music reached its prime, Nigerians had gone through eight military coups and a civil war. The country had witnessed gross abuses of power and human rights violation in every section of the nation. At the turn of the century and the beginning of democratic rule in 1999, the country, although hopeful, was largely unhappy with itself. The Nigerian people had spent so much of their lives afraid and politically subdued that they were willing to take anything democracy offered, as long as it was not summary execution. Enter Lagbaja, the musical humourist.
Lagbaja became successful as a humourist because he recognized that his audience—ordinary Nigerians—use comic relief as a safety net to help wrestle with the years of political instability. Whether in a closing sentence, or in an opening sentence, or as a musical refrain, humour is ever-present in Lagbaja’s entire discography. ‘Vernacular’ (Abami, 2000) finds Lagbaja mocking the Nigerian obsession with the use of the English language. In the track, he demands the literal translation of the Yoruba phrase ‘E kuule’, which can be mischievously translated as ‘die at home’. In ‘Gra Gra’ (We, 2000), Lagbaja warns that loudmouths who have no substance to back their pompousness should steer clear of him: ‘You better mind yourself (and) no do gra gra for me’, he repeats throughout the track. ‘Nothing For You’ (We, 2000) embodies the travails of the Nigerian ‘toaster’ who is made to go through hell by the girl he fancies before she agrees to be in a relationship with him. Ever since he appeared on the musical scene in 1993, Lagbaja has had more than enough time to (almost) singlehandedly bring some turnaround to the depressive state that military rule had imposed on Nigerians.
In the Voice of the Talking Drum
Lagbaja’s humour draws the audience in, and after, they begin to search for more gold. This is when they find Ayan, the talking drum, reminiscent of Ayangalu, who is believed to be the first Yoruba drummer. The greatest strength in Lagbaja’s relationship with the talking drum is his understanding that the drum is not a vessel for the drummer, it is in fact, the reverse. The talking drum only speaks through whoever holds it. This musical understanding is expressed every time Lagbaja summons the talking drum. Rather than viewing it as a musical instrument to complement his music, he personifies it; calling it by its first name, Ayan. Through his use of Ayan, Lagbaja acknowledges that the talking drum can simultaneously speak and make music. This hypothesis is confirmed in the tracks ‘Ilu Re O’ (We, 2000) and ‘Lulu Fun Won’ (Paradise, 2010), tracks that appraise and pay tribute to the talking drum. In these tracks, Lagbaja allows Ayan to speak as fluently as he wants. Ayan opens and closes the tracks, eulogizing himself and his conduit, Lagbaja.
A similar instrumental reverence is accorded to the saxophone in the tracks ‘Deja A Mi Gente Quedarse (Amnistia)’ (Paradise, 2010) and Liar-Liar (Sharp-Sharp!, 2009). In the Spanish-language track, he spends most of the song playing the saxophone in the background. What does this offer to Lagbaja’s primary audience—the traditional Yoruba listener or even the average Nigerian listener? In this song, Lagbaja shows off his mastery of the saxophone and how traditional Nigerian musical inflection can mellifluously ricochet through Spanish arias and refrains. Music is a universal language but language itself is not universal and this fundamental truth is what Lagbaja acknowledges and cements throughout his discography.
Chief amongst Lagbaja’s qualities is his ability to understand when not to sing on a particular track; to give room for another element or another entity to take centre stage and shine. Sometimes this element is the vocalist, Ego, other times, it is the saxophone, but usually, it is Ayan, the talking drum. Lagbaja’s understanding of silence and its place in music is transcendental. It is in these sacred moments where nobody speaks a word and he lets the musical instruments take centre stage that we are transported to another period—another time and space that the audience can no longer completely experience. With Ayan, it is to the pre-colonial period in those market squares or the king’s court where everyone must be silent to understand what Ayan is saying; with the saxophone, we are heralded into Fela’s shrine where he speaks defiantly to the military looters.
Music with a Message
Later in his career, Lagbaja questions some of the values of his younger self. In the track ‘Did I’ (Sharp-Sharp!, 2009) featuring Spanish singer Charlotte Serrano, he questions the immortality of love; whether we can truly love anyone, even ourselves, forever. It begs the question that if the certainty of love isn’t permanent, then what in this short life of ours is eternal? Lagbaja croons, ‘Does anything ever last forever? I’m glad enough for this moment. Did I ever say I’d love you forever? Did I? Did I?’
Additionally, Lagbaja asks questions of his own history. How do we explain his obsession with reminding the listener in ‘Africalypso’ (C’Est Un African Thing, 1996) that ‘Some 400 years ago, they took away my forefathers… the body can be enslaved but never ever ever the soul’? Ego’s wailing follows as if in mourning, paying tribute to the Africans captured into slavery. Then Lagbaja completes the song with a summoning of Ayan. ‘Ayan, show them Africa’, and his wise, old, back-up singers plunge the listener into Lagbaja’s eulogy:
Lagbaja omo Lagbaja. (Lagbaja son of Lagbaja.)
Lagbaja omo Tamedu (Lagbaja son of Tamedu.)
Tamedu omo Lamurin (Tamedu son of Lamurin.)
Lamurin omo Lakasegbe (Lamurin son of Lakasegbe.)
Lakasegbe omo Laalu (Lakasegbe son of Laalu.)
Laalu omo Lagbaja (Laalu son of Lagbaja.)
Orin gbogbo (Music galore.)
Ilu gbogbo. (Drumming galore.)
Bo ba ti ba tijo wa, ti a ni (If dancing is a prerequisite, then it is ours.)
Be fe e gbo (Heed if you wish.)
Be fe e ko (Disregard if you please.)
Ti a ni (3ce) (It is ours.)
In this eulogy, Lagbaja not only acknowledges himself as the current mouthpiece of the ancestors, but he also eulogizes all those before him who have gone faceless to encounter the truth, a truth, any truth; to redeem the people, a people, any people. The track embodies the saxophone in its crescendo and it serenades us into the denouement with the repetition of the word ‘Africalypso’.
Those cryptic rhythmic repetitions that Lagbaja makes represent his values—the very values that endeared the older generation to him. However, to reach his contemporary audience, Lagbaja had to embody another attribute; he spoke of modern situations and used contemporary language in his songs, which he interspersed with the language and values of an earlier time period. In this manner, Lagbaja serves not only as a Yoruba musician, philosopher, and historian, but also a generational arbitrator of values. And in this important role, Lagbaja never takes sides. He criticizes the old just as he admonishes the young, sometimes even, in the same breath. The tracks ‘Suuru Lere’ and ‘A O M’erin J’oba’, both from the album, We (2000), reflect this. In ‘Suuru Lere’, Lagbaja admonishes the hypocrisy of both the young and the old and he urges everyone to take part in the governance of the nation. He sings, ‘everybody guilty patapata, nobody innocent o, so make we stop all this hypocrisy, make we get patience small, build better democracy, orin.’ And in ‘A O M’erin J’oba’, he advises (everyone) to be wary of exaggerated praise by retelling a folktale about a tyrannous elephant unsuspectingly led to his death amid praise and fanfare by the whole animal kingdom.
Fela as Lagbaja Imagines
Lagbaja’s reverence for Fela was cemented with the release of the four-tracked ‘Abami’ album in 2000. All the tracks on the album feature recordings of Fela’s voice from Fela’s music and his interviews. For instance, in ‘Vernacular’, he ridicules the Nigerian preference of formal English over the local tongue, mirroring Fela’s iconic use of pidgin English in his songs. The album also imitates Fela’s criticism of the government. In the track ‘Million’, Lagbaja asks, ‘shey you don see million before (but) dem dey tiff our money in million million dollar’.
Of the poignant and reflective tracks on the Abami album, ‘Put am Well Well’ is the most evocative of Fela’s style and substance. The song opens with the description of a marketplace. This is important because, for the Yorubas, the marketplace is a pathway to other worlds. Almost immediately after, Fela speaks from the other world. The song provides the most direct evidence of how much Lagbaja learned from Fela both musically and ideologically. In the track, Fela’s voice overlays the music at intervals and Lagbaja continually refers to Fela as ‘Papa’. Their ideological exchange on something as mundane as food proves how thorough Lagbaja’s music can be when he chooses. In the track, Fela declares, ‘Africans are different from Europeans, the white man’s food, the white man’s way, is different from the African system’.
In ‘Abami’, the titular track, Lagbaja draws a parallel between Fela and Ṣango. He finally puts Fela safely in the hands of the gods and venerates Fela himself into godhood in his mother tongue, Yoruba, then in Latin, and then of course, in the language of Ayan. Amid the drumming and the confluence of languages, Lagbaja notes, ‘Abami ti d’orisa o yepa!’ (Abami has become a god!). Fela is a nostalgic icon in Nigeria and his image as both a revolutionary figure and as a quintessential radical cuts across every generation. The track acknowledges this and promotes Fela’s status from national hero to god.
An Ambivalent Legacy
Lagbaja’s saxophone did not belong to him and neither did Ayan. It is apt that a talking drum takes the shape of an hourglass, for the time it spends with any of its conduits is temporary. This is what older generations pass on to their descendants—timing is sacred and must be respected. Lagbaja has respected time not just with Ayan, but with all of his associates—Ego and his backup drummers—as well. He accepted and cherished the impermanence of these associates while they were with him.
However, the essence of those supernatural musical entities—the saxophone and the talking drum—still hover around the Nigerian music space looking for someone else to possess, to endow with superpowers. For isn’t this how superheroes are made? Unsuspecting, completely anonymous persons in society who are chosen for something bigger than themselves?
Nigeria needs another type of music icon. Not one who eased us like Lagbaja did and not an unforgiving radical like Fela. We need a perfect balance of both. One who could rouse us to action, not to lead us, but to be with us as we work towards a better Nigeria. Isn’t that what superheroes are for?
Where is Lagbaja’s place today in the contemporary values that his music fought for? How should we approach Lagbaja and his music? Lagbaja took on the responsibility of the greats. Through his music, he steered a whole nation from the military regime’s place of gloom to a period of hope-fuelled democracy. He said with his music that, here, we are home now, you can all rest your blades and laugh and rejoice. We must agree that Lagbaja, although still alive and hearty, has transcended to that memorial space where his ancestors—those who first donned his trademark mask—reside, and where Fela is today. After all, a man who has worn the mask of the ancestors need not die before he can be considered one of them.
The peculiarity of Lagbaja’s rise to artistic legend allows the reverence often reserved for artists no longer with us. We find Lagbaja in Nigerian optimism and humour. We find him in the efforts of contemporary musical artistes like Wizkid and Burna Boy to bridge traditional musical styles with their contemporary submissions. This is what Lagbaja himself did with Fela’s music and philosophy: he took the songs, evolved them, and applied them to his own time. One could argue that Lagbaja and his music should be approached today with the same reverence that Nigerians show Fela. If this is contentious, we could at least agree that Nigerians have not given Lagbaja and his music the appropriate level of acknowledgement. Our second democracy superhero, Lagbaja’s contributions are extraordinary, not only as an artist, but as an activist, a culturist, a political humourist, and a historian⎈