Once upon a time, in the Lagos of our recent past, specifically the 90s and early noughties, there was a musician whose sound held sway in the city.
Let’s say his music was the soundtrack of the city, his rhythm segued seamlessly into the livelihood of people, the quotidian minutiae of their existence. Of course, it was not Fela; it was Lagbaja.
Lagbaja was a concept well-ahead of its time. Mix English mystery and French je ne sais quoi with Yoruba adoration of masquerades and what you have is the masked one, his regalia done in fanciful tropical colours, mask frilly around the head like a tree and his unmistakable love for sandals. That was Lagbaja, which in Yoruba could mean, “somebody, anybody, nobody in particular”.
Besides being a fancy marketing strategy for his biggest clients, the bourgeoisie howling under the economic deprivation at the time, the 90s was a time fraught with difficulties accompanied with freedom of speech.
It was the Abacha era of hitmen assassins, of kangaroo tribunals and judicial murders—and every so often, a writer would go missing, be blown up or disguise to sneak out of the country through its porous borders.
Lagbaja’s music, which he called Afro calypso was hard to describe. Obviously Fela’s Afrobeat was an indelible influence, but so was Yoruba drumming, jazz, soul, R & B, calypso and highlife.
Lagbaja, whose birth name is Bisade Ologunde, a graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University, started his music career, first as a producer before he surrendered to the higher calling of making music, wielding the saxophone, arranging symphonies and managing a band.
Fela was mortally ill and plagued with frivolous drug-related charges by stooges of the government of the day. It was around the period when Abacha was seeking transition to become a civilian life-president—and had organised a 2 Million March in Abuja, with a concert involving some of the biggest musicians at the time. Lagbaja maintained his Motherlan’ band, playing regular gigs at his Motherlan’ nightclub in Opebi, Ikeja.
This was a time when nightlife was dangerous. Armed robbers were on the prowl, writing letters to Estate Associations in rotation, to forewarn them about their visits. Ritualists were also in dire need of body parts, complicating the grim possibilities of a human disappearance.
Lagbaja’s music was the melodious backdrop to this gloomy existence. At the time of political repression, his highly energetic and theatrical performances was an aside. His handling of protest songs were occasional; rather, he concentrated on mundanities, class differences and most successfully, about love. With his co-singer Ego, whose soothing vocals would dash up impressive octaves, Lagbaja could play out the different iterations of love. Lagbaja’s thematic concerns were similar to pre-Afrobeat and early Afrobeat Fela, especially the strong affiliation with Jazz.
As time waned and the music industry began to grow as a result of the nascent democracy of the millennium, Lagbaja’s music became jaded perhaps due to his brash criticism of the polity. His disregard for the growing fusion that will later be misnamed Afrobeats was also not helpful. Fela had died and his biological son, Femi, had become the new king, diligently doing his work and establishing what would be a contemporary re-enacting of his father’s musical empire. Then Lagbaja lost his beloved vocalist, Ego. Then, he disappeared into the diaspora.
Today, Lagbaja’s sound hardly encapsulates the Lagos experience. The Afrobeats explosion has found its footing and the sound has found a dubious anchor to that elephant in the room, Fela. But there was a time when if you switched on your radio while speeding down the edgy Third Mainland Bridge, you could be blessed with the unmistakable cooing sound of Lagbaja Omobaba Mukomuko imploring you to coolu temper or telling the world of football that Nigeria’s Super Eagles “no get respect.”