Lagbaja is a superstar with a mission to put his own imprimatur on contemporary African music.
Lagbaja’s name in real life is Bisade Ologunde. The young man born and raised in Lagos began his music career in 1991. He is one hell of a Yoruba man whose real picture posted on the Internet to suggest he is not up to something criminal or cynical to always want to hide behind a mask on stage gives little clue about the man of steel he truly is. He has built a unique identity for himself in two decades of a music career that has catapulted him to recognition as the originator of Afro-Calypso in Nigeria.
Most people think, and I concur, that he has to be an “Ijebu Lagosian” whose lineage can be traced back to Ijebu or Egba without any question. You can tell this from most of his attire on stage which bears a striking resemblance to that usually worn by Ijebu masquerades with little modification here and there. He is the leading vocalist in his band and he blows the saxophone with the breath-taking dexterity of a Fela Anikulapo. His movement on stage in that funny attire and those masks lends credence to my presumption that he probably had a fascination with Ijebu masquerades as a young boy. I came to that conclusion by picking his Ijebu accent from some of his songs and lyrics which have become his trade mark as an international entertainer. I present in this write-up a picture of him in one such attire, that tells the story far better than I could ever tell. I appreciate the young man for his resilience and creativity.
Lagbaja is a superstar with a mission to put his own imprimatur on contemporary African music, just like Fela Anikulapo Ransome Kuti whose music is now making waves on Broadway, long after his death. Fela like American musical giants Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson to mention a few, is arguably making more money today in copyright fees and royalties than he ever made when he was alive. The world has come to appreciate his creative genius as a musician. The same could happen to Lagbaja some years down the road as people look back on his career. Many Nigerians used to think of Lagbaja as a copycat of Fela’s brand of music. It didn’t take long before the same people, myself included, began to realize that Lagbaja was up to something totally different from Fela. He is something special in his own right and has all the scars to prove it.
I can tell from Lagbaja’s verbiage and his rich historical perspective that the man is well educated. Lagbaja is not your average Nigerian musician who probably dropped out of school to pursue his passion. He demonstrates a lot of talent and creativity in the design of the attire he wears on stage. I cannot imagine any Nigerian tailor making those designs without some input from the man who would wear them. Mr. Lagbaja prefers for fans to pay to watch him perform in a concert setting rather than go around from one funeral wake-keeping or social party to another to entertain people, like most Nigerian musicians do. He is a breed apart in that regard, and I respect him for it. There is no telling what the guy is going to do “when he gets to where he is going” to borrow a cliché from the awesome country-music idol, Brad Praisely in his once-in-a-life time song titled “when I get to where I am going.” From what I see, the sky remains the limit for Mr. Lagbaja .
The man adopted the appellation “Lagbaja” meaning a faceless commoner in Yoruba language or the moral equivalent of the “unknown soldier” in military parlance. The man appears on stage wearing his attire and mask that basically hides or disguises his face leaving him enough room to see and enough access to his saxophone. The costume or attire makes it difficult for his fans to really get to know the enigma behind the mask because he wants you to focus and judge him by his music and not the mask he is wearing. He would tell you that the hood does not make Monk but if the hood appeals to you enough to make you want to come to see him live, you are more than welcome. He leads the Band and he knows the band is built around him but he really wants to keep his true identity close to his chest while the other members of his band are allowed to flaunt their own.
You have got to give the man credit for wanting to be so different in a country and society where “change,” the only constant in nature and “being different” are not considered virtues. People want to blow their own trumpets if nobody will blow it for them. Lagbaja remains the quintessential bundle of talent as a musician and a saxophonist with so much to give the world in his march to self-actualization as an international performer. He treasures the anonymity he gets from being different from many of his peers and colleagues in the music and entertainment business. In a country of more than 150 million that is something to be expected. The more of such rebels we have, the merrier!
Lagbaja has named his own brand of music Afro-Calypso. It is a derivative from the traditional high life music of the 60s made popular by the likes of Victor Olaiya, Roy Chicago and Adeolu Akinsanya to mention a few. His music is a departure from Juju, Fuji or Apala music which thrive on singing the praise of people for the purpose of extorting money or creating an unhealthy rivalry that does more harm than good to the rights of those musicians to engage in healthy competition which ultimately promotes excellence in more developed countries. It is true that Lagbaja uses contemporary issues and events like his campaign against bad leadership and Corruption in Nigeria as I will show in comments on a few of his songs and releases that have captured my imagination as I try to write this piece.
“Kulu Temper” the first track in that album of 14 tracks was something special to listen to. The heavy percussion in the music and the way the rhythm or chorus “Simba Simba” was arranged gave it a distinctive flavor of his own that most Africans would enjoy. The same thing is true of the second track titled “Afro-Calypso.” Mr. Lagbaja uses the track to trace the origin of Jazz, Reggae, Calypso and the Blues to Africa as the cradle of civilization. These kinds of music according to Lagbaja, were transported from Africa to America and the Caribbean by the African slaves. Lagbaja did it in a way that has some resonance with me as I can see a correlation between what Lagbaja was saying in the album and the views brilliantly captured in one of the poems of the late Maya Angelou titled, “I know why the caged bird sings” where the presidential poet explains that the African slaves were the original and architects of much of the music and inventions their slave masters have adopted and improved upon.
Those slaves are the “caged birds” that Maya Angelou spoke so eloquently about, and they all had to sing and make music in remembrance of where they came from and not allow their adversity and deprivation as a people become a permanent inhibition to their right to self-determination and freedom and their yearnings to overcome adversity. Like the caged birds, the African slaves remembered who they were, and where they came from. Instead of allowing their situation completely depress and perpetually keep them in mental bondage and torture, they all resorted to being happy in the face of adversity. The tune “We shall overcome” came from that consciousness and that was how some of the music they brought to their new home away from home like negro spirituals became the foundational pillar from which other brands of music like Jazz, Reggae and Calypso developed as time went by. Lagbaja in that particular track was more or less reaffirming the Maya Angelou hypothesis that “the body can be enslaved but not the spirit.” Lagbaja actually used the exact statement in that track in what some might label as a Freudian slip even though it is the truth.
Lagbaja used the next track to comment on the havoc the AIDS epidemic has wreaked on the world at large. He stated in fluent English that “a man is still walking the street does not mean that the man is well.” He went on to link the government's inability to deal with the epidemics, to bad leadership which he described as a disease that has to be confronted and defeated.
I could go on and on analyzing each of the 14 tracks mentioned earlier. They all have a central message for society. They all include a track titled “Show your color” “Ajo ma gbadun, a jo ma rocky”, “Eko Akete Ile ogbon, Eko o gba gbere rara o” “Mo m’ololufe dele, ko lo ki mama” and “Oro mi ti dayo” all rendered in beautiful music and rhythm. I am not going to waste your time doing that. But I am going to underscore how each story put into a song by Lagbaja has tried to mirror the general problems of society in a way that draws attention to those problems and how to go about solving some of them. There is no question that Mr. Lagbaja has, by and large succeeded in using his music to create a narrative and awareness that highlights the positive role of music in the human experience in a way we all can relate to. He is therefore doing a marvelous job in that regard quite apart from entertaining us.
I cannot help but agree with him on how boring most human life would have been without music as a relaxant to keep the human race going. I think that Shakespeare, one of the greatest minds of all times was expressing pretty much the same sentiments when he described music as the “food of Love,” that most human beings in their right mind can hardly do without. That explains why music has been called the universal language of life that every race or nationality can appreciate and relate to even when such a music is completely alien to their own cultural values, We all as human beings seem to have some psychic and emotional connection to music regardless of where the particular music comes from.
I never heard about American country music until I came to America. I fell so deeply in love with it that I never pass up a chance to go on an annual vacation to Nashville, Tenenssee, the city of Music. I go watch a concert at the Grand Opry the central shrine of country music in America. That is how powerful music can be to those who have the ears. It could be a rallying point for peace and world unity.
Some look at music as a spiritual thing that can often bring the best out of people. Musicians for that reason are seen as an indispensable group of people that the world cannot do without. They make a big difference to every nation and their contributions are universally appreciated by the rich and the poor, the young and the old in every society. A good number of them have made their mark in Nigeria. As a music lover, I have had cause in the past to pay special tribute to some of those musicians I know in Nigeria.
I recall doing a tribute to Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson who dominated Nigerian music at one point in the late 50s and early 60s. I have done the same for Victor Olaiya, I.K.Dairo, Wale Glorious, Victor Uwaifo, Osita Osadebe, Bobby Benson, Kennery King Orlando Owoh, Commander Ebenezer Obe. King Sunny Ade, Baba Gani Agba Haruna Ishola, Anigilaje Ayinla Omowura, Ayinde Barrister and Fela Anikulapo Kuti. I am more than happy to add Mr. Lagbaja to that honor roll for his creative genius.
I take off my hat and throw my salute.