Lagos. 20 million people. Perhaps even more.
At one end is the sprawling Atlantic Ocean its mouth being stuffed with sand to build the elegant and suicidal Eko Atlantic city. At the other end, well, there is no end.
Lagos, gluttonous as its denizens, has bitten too deep into the state of Ogun. The invasion is as deep as Shagamu. Think about it. Ojodu Berger is not quite a border town anymore. What about Arepo and all the Lagos journalists living there? Magboro, the prayer city? How about Ibafo and Asese all the way down to Redemption Camp in Mowe?
Lagos is hungry, like cancer, metastasizing at the speed of light.
So, how do you sing about such a phenomenon? Many have made attempts; think about Chris Ajilo, circa 1950, recording the resplendent horns of his hit, Eko O Gba Gbere. Or think even far deeper into history, to that popular folksong about the dodo and moin-moin seller and the epic Lafiaji fight. How about odes, eulogising in song, Lagos Island or more fittingly, Isale Eko or Lagos and its pomp and pageantry best embodied in the Eyo Masquerade – that all-white je ne sais quoi swagger topped with a bowler hat.
The rumour about the Benin outpost called Eko is that it has always been an expensive city. No one tells you it is also an explosive city. Cyprian Ekwensi wrote about this city in his book, People of the City, and quite expectedly, his major character is a highlife singer and journalist.
Music has always been an integral part of the city. It is there in the rhythmic sweep of feet in unison as hustlers head to and from work; in the gruff destination calls of the prehensile bus conductors; the muezzin’s falsetto calling faithfuls to Maghrib in the shadow of the settling dusk, eyes set to Mecca and bodies languid under the weight of prayers.
Let Fela segue in – Shuffering and Shmiling. This was the soundtrack to the Lagos I was born into. Bring in the horns after the Chief Priest’s monologue. There is no better way to appreciate Lagos but with the blow of horns. Think Lagos and think horns – from the shrill cry of the little baby that will not be pacified by his mother’s teat to the raucous shriek of the Okada rider’s horns; high on Tramadol and blasting 50 Cent loud as he cries “make way, make way” his fingers glued to his horn.
The streets of Lagos are like dancehalls; the playground of performance artistes, vaudeville acts high on kitsch and sleight of hand.
Pristinely piebald in appropriate places, once you turn into your street of abode, the municipal madness takes over. Untarred roads that have been marked ‘tarred’ in Government documents. Cars double-parked precariously by the edge of smelly gutters. Fish entrails, pepper seeds and tomato skin peels filling up small cauldrons seething in wait for the stray mongrel that will become rabid someday.
Always nearby, there is a beer parlour WO-manned by a lady – Bobrisky-light by choice. She is plump and fashionable. Her body carries the weight of many promises made at full moon without fulfilment, yet her frame doesn’t shrink from this weight. She wears her Sunday best every night because every day is Sunday. The sun shines, at the very least, and her loyal customers always show up.
She is still learning that credit is entrepreneurial hara-kiri because even good men drink beer. She also knows the way to make toes flay and stomach curl from beans that know the way into indigestion. Forget the happy fart she lets rip when she’s unsettled, the happy fact is the money men part with. Her daughter has countless uncles who filch joy from her puberty. Her son learns the way(ward) of the world.
Drinks on me, the city announces with aplomb, like a Banky W song because ain’t no party like the Lagos party. And when Lagos parties, we bother everybody: the pennywise and nosy landlord who inherited property from his in-laws; the church workers praying hard for the ship of their destiny to berth; the politician’s wife for whom night vigils are talismans against her husband’s concubines; the undertaker who prays that the rich fall and die; the pastor whose recurring phrase ‘fall and die’ is aimed, directly, at the church Treasurer whose wife he is plumbing her depths.
And so Fela sings – through Jesus Christ, our Lord, amen amen amen.
Pamphleteers on a distribution spree, the Lord’s Chosen, liveried proselytisers, garbed in reflector vests like traffic wardens pointing the way to heaven. Their spiel is straight-forward, simple as a mustard seed. Take the word. Plant it. Sing it into existence like Sugar Girl. Pray that it fruits like mangoes in season.
Sugar girls. What do they know about the night? Lagos is an insomniac who has forgotten how to fall asleep. But there are different nights – Ikoyi sleeps to the genteel hum of electronic inverters. Lekki sleeps to the low rumble of diesel generators. Yaba attempts to sleep, but like Tekno sang, “generator wan burst her brain” because in the crook of her armpit lies the ghetto called Makoko and hoodlums who make a living out of the night.
Ilupeju sleeps to the drum heavy sound of Indian music. It is no different for Maryland where the angelus from the Catholic church at Mende chimes with the worship songs emanating from Jesus of Oyingbo as wayfarers pray to beat the hive of police checkpoints that meander from Mobolaji Bank Anthony all the way to Allen Avenue.
Allen Avenue, sung into legend by Weird MC who posed a question – Allen what? If disbelief finds amazement, a red light will wink at you. More than twenty years later, Somi comes to town and sings “Brown Round Things.”
The Red Light District of Ikeja will be forever grateful to Somi, for insight and to Ambrose Akinmisure whose punctuating horns are like milestones. Hear the piano keys dance on bodies like the torchlight of a venal policeman barking -Pull-over!.
As men and women exchange Brown Round Things for Brown triangles in a public hide and shag!
This is Lagos that many will never know except the self-appointed Ministers of Night. This Lagos of Balogun Bus stop, overlooking the sedate Airport Hotel. That cul-de-sac with its vendors of jollof rice, stewed beef, fried fish and the glistening snail. Drug dealers stick to the back of the street, bags of condiments hanging from their necks. In these bags hang Tramadol capsules, Rophynol tablets, Skunk spliffs, Crack Cocaine rocks, Amphetamine, Speed and anything that can get you high. Call the substance and the price will answer.
Here, broken men have taken to broken guitars, singing pitiful songs set in the Key of Regret. “I no know say; I no know say, Ekaette carry belle” a broken man sings an elegy in broken English to memories of wild oats sowed.
Obey once sang about Paulina and the Marina while Victor Uwaifo waxed nostalgic about brazenness and the Mermaid. How do you sing about Lagos without singing about love, especially of the restless kind that leaves you fleeing the angry chick and side chick without shoes or purpose? How do you make sense, like Brymo sang, of the tides, the waves, and the torrents that wash over you with affecting and restive relentlessness?
Adjectives have nothing on Lagos.