Lagbaja: Digitalizing the African drums

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‘200 million mumus can’t stop me’

By TOSIN AJIRIRE and TONY OGAGA ERHARIEFE

With many albums to his credit, the masked one, Lagbaja, has thrilled music lovers with various songs and established himself as a force to reckon with not only in Nigeria but also in Africa. His first album, Oriki was released to national acclaim in 1993.

And since then, the musician has continued to fascinate with his unique brand of African music, a product of various influences ranging from traditional Yoruba talking drums, bata, chants, Western instruments, especially the saxophone, and he describes this pot pourri as Africano. In this encounter with TS Weekend, the multi-instrumentalist and award-winning musician, who recently unveiled his 9th album entitled, 200 Million Mumus, spoke on his kind of music, the Nigerian predicament, and the reason Ego Ogbaro left his band among other issues.

Excerpts:

Lagbaja, where have you been and what have you been doing all this while?

Good things like these are what we have been working on for quite a while, including my software for African drums and the gigs we have been playing and growing our Africano concept. Software for African drums?

Are you sure if you have a software for African drums it will sound like the original because some white people have been trying to do this but have not succeeded?

(Laughter) Praise God! You have heard them and you have said it that they have not been successful. But the reason why they failed was that they were white men doing it and that is the difference. Things have changed now. I am in a very unique position because I know the music, I know the drums, I know the sound, I know the theory of music and then I know the technology to put into the software.

So, right now, I am in a position to do what Whites could not do and it will be a surprise to people. What you’re saying is that you have been able to digitalize African drums, including bata, gangan and all the rest? I started this work in June 2008. As a matter of fact, when I checked my computer recently I was surprised to see that we started so long ago but I have learnt a lot. If I were to start afresh today I could do it in three months.

I only have been able to do gangan (talking drum), which is very popular in our street music like fuji, juju and Africano. Gangan is one instrument that is easily recognised in the Western world and that’s why they call it talking drum but in actual fact, every drum in Yoruba is talking; whenever bata is being played, it is talking. But we are using that which they know to start with and eventually hoping that I will include bata and sakara one day.

Wouldn’t that be taking bread off the table of professional talking drummers?

No, it wouldn’t and that’s the beauty of it. It will keep more people interested because we are introducing them to possibilities. People will now say ‘okay, maybe if this one can sound this good on the computer, how will the original one sound? Let me find the original’.

The difference could be playing a keyboard that has piano and a real piano. So, eventually this will get a lot of people interested in our culture, I mean those young people who make music with computers and who are not interested in working with our instruments because they have forgotten how to learn to play music since they rely on the computer.

Now they can use our own instruments and our own drums and eventually it will open up the concept of learning more about our own culture.

In 2008, you came out with a double album but nothing was heard of those albums. They did not make the impact that your previous works made? And some critics were saying that Lagbaja’s time is gone. What’s your reaction to this?

Lagbaja’s time can never be gone, never. And that’s why we are still here today four years after. What happened with that album had to do with promotions.

The way the music industry works today is different; it’s no longer about creativity but promotions and that’s the bottom line. Any song can be made popular by heavy promotions not to talk of a song by Lagbaja. If you notice very well, we did not promote because I am too restless trying to make music and I was looking for somebody who could handle promotions. I found somebody but we did not agree on the style of promotions so we did not make the desired impact. My brother, everything is about hype.

They also said that it was because Ego had left you and you were trying to find your feet?

No, that’s not the case; there is no truth in that. Not at all, it couldn’t be. Okay, today you introduced to us two girls who are new members of your band. Are you trying to recreate the Ego magic with these girls? No, let me explain a little history.

Again because I don’t do interviews and I don’t talk much people don’t know the history. I am the only band in Africa that started having other people as lead vocalists in their bands; it’s my concept. Even before Ego, we had other singers.

At a time there was a singer who was doing more lead vocals than Ego but Ego was the one that had the wisdom to stay long enough and because she was there long enough it got to a point where she was singing all the hits songs.

Don’t forget that I write all those songs and produce them; they are my creation, my ideas and each time Ego was singing there were other female singers that were also singing but they were never patient to wait long enough so people don’t get to know them.

After Ego left, I have had at least three other female singers to date; I mean very good ones but they don’t stay for long enough. Tamara, the girl that came second at Naija Sings was in this band for at least two years and people did not notice her when she was singing beside Ego because it was Ego they knew.

We have had Vivian Stevens, another great singer and we have had the lady who came third at the last Project Fame, Ese, who was our singer here. But if you’re not here long enough, people will not see what you can do with a band. So, it is not like I am trying to replace Ego, no it’s been my concept from time because I want to be hearing female voices. I love the female voice. For me, it’s the most beautiful thing to hear so what I love I put in my band. You don’t change the winning team.

You and Ego struck a very strong chemistry. Why did Ego have to leave?

Naturally, every person will aspire to grow; you cannot hold unto an employer all your life. If you have a drive in the artistic world you want to also be an employer, you want to explore your own art. So, it was a natural progression. Ego had to leave. Don’t forget that she was with us for more than 10 years. So, what else do you expect? There was no fight. In fact, I had been encouraging her to do her own songs long before. If she had stayed, I would have been happy but when she was going I was happy too. I said ‘okay, but you have to wait till the end of the year so we can have a party for you’. And so, we celebrated her here at our last show before she left. It’s a natural growth; you can’t remain in one place forever.

You will want to do your own thing. However, as an employee, how much can you earn compared to when you’re an employer; your own boss?

No matter how good you are, you can’t earn what I am earning because I am the one paying you so, you’re limited. But I think because Ego had a great success with the band, people believed it was impossible for her to go. Many people have left this band but they were not noticed. Her leaving was just a natural progression.

Earlier, you said something about man and woman relationship. Would you say marriage took Ego away from you? (Laughs) No. In Ego’s case, it was different because she had spent long enough time but these new girls have not and the day one guy catches their heart that is the beginning of their way out for whatever reason.

The moment Ego left here she hit a big deal. That would not have happened if she was not known and exposed. That is what you gain by being consistent. So, I don’t sign slavery contracts with my girls.

The day you want to leave, all I say is give me notice so I can shop for a replacement. When you leave you’re creating space for somebody else. You heard my girls sing today and I will tell you that there are hundreds of girls like that around looking for an opportunity to explode. So, it’s a symbiotic relationship where these girls gain by working with me and I gain by working with them.

There is no clause in the contract that says they must be here for three or four years. Right now, I am telling my girls that they should start working on their albums and planning their lives because if you don’t do it now, your time is short. In music, it is more difficult for a woman than a man. You performed with George Benson recently, would you describe that as the peak of your career? (Laughs) Its one peak but I have many peaks.

Tell us about the peaks?

One of my most memorable peaks was touring around the world. That itself was like a surprise. I realised that people who don’t hear my language can actually relate to my music and my culture, that was a peak. It was very euphoric to see people moving and singing after me; that was a peak. When they brought Earl Kluh and they called Lagbaja (to jam with him) was a peak.

Setting up Motherlan’, a club where I can do my own thing was a peak. Each album I have released has been a peak. There are so many peaks for me. George Benson was just another peak.

What musical lesson did you learn playing with George Benson?

I would say that I got encouragement and reassurance that I will still be there for a long time because this man is 69 and at that age he is still moving. He played for a long time on stage. As I am now, people don’t have an idea of what my age is. Thanks to the mask. George Benson was jumping around and doing his thing and you forget that he is an old man. I was like ‘wow!’ That means I still have many more years if God blesses me with strength and vigour.

Tell us about your latest album? It is 200 Million Mumus (laughs). Is it a satire? What inspired it?

It is a satire, the inspiration comes from my belief that I have to pass a message that contributes to the national discuss.

This is not a joke and when it comes to what happens in Nigeria, I think I have a solution. The solution is that we are all mugus and we are contributing to the mess that’s happening here. It is easy to point fingers at leaders but actually, a leader cannot be different from the followers because he was one of us; he came from among us.

The same madness that is happening in the presidency is happening in the local government. Your neighbour who you knew before is now councilor or chairman and suddenly, you’re not seeing changes in the environment but you’re seeing changes in him. He gets fatter and we mumus are grumbling and we are shouting along as if we are not seeing that the solution lies in the fact that we have to address these ourselves.

We shout from the rooftops, ‘ahh, this is corruption; ahh, look at Halliburton; ahh, look at subsidy’. But when you talk about subsidy, the people bringing in the oil did not steal the money on their own. It was with the connivance of civilians and everybody like you and I in the ministries so we have turned it into a game.

Everybody in our own little way tries to solve our poverty issues through the wrong way. We need to have a systemic change. That was the inspiration behind 200 Mumus. If we don’t tell ourselves the truth then we will have problems. This thing that I am doing is one of the most difficult things to do because I am speaking to my people. It is easy for me to be shouting like we have always been shouting and blaming leaders but the truth is that, the leader cannot be different from us so the time has come for us to choose the right leaders.

We need to help our leaders to succeed. We are looking at government as being separate from us so we are always suspecting everything they do and we don’t trust anybody so the question is, are we going to bring Oyinbo to come and rule us? We need to sit down and tell ourselves the truth even though the truth is bitter because the truth is telling you that you’re as corrupt as the person you’re yabing up there so we must find a way to change the system.

You have Redemption Song on your new album. Is it a rehash of Bob Marley’s classic?

Yes, Redemption Song is dedicated to two great people that I love. So, I decided to make a tribute to them. I called it Salute to Two African Soldiers and the two are Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. They are two of my greatest African musicians ever.

One for their philosophy and two for their music and the things they tried to do with their music which was to create social change. So, I took the lyrics of Bob Marley and the style of Fela and put Lagbaja’s Africano in the middle.

Recently, you decided to redefine your music because we have been saying that Lagbaja has not defined his music then you came up with Africano. What exactly is Africano?

The most important element of music that defines it straight away is the beat. Once you hear the beat even without vocals you can tell what genre it is. And these beats actually originated from Africa.

That is why any music anywhere in the world that is driven by beats is from Africa. Look at calypso, reggae, R& B, soul, hip-hop and jazz. Black music is rhythmic music so I am saying the most important element of music for dance especially is rhythm and where is the home of rhythm, Africa. Traditionally, Oyinbo music is more of melody and harmony. Drums belong to us; we own percussions. It is good to learn from other cultures because culture is dynamic so as my young ones are doing hip hop, I am saying fine, let the beat be African and that’s why you see a song like Never Far Away where Ego is singing but the beat is bata and drums.

So, Africano can be any kind of music but it must be propelled by local rhythm. Motherlan’ used to be a bubbling place every last Friday of the month. Now, it looks desolate. What’s the problem?

Hopefully we are doing something here by February and March next year. I say hopefully because I am a very restless person. I can change my mind again. I can’t be tied down because I am always on the move.

The world has become a small village and if you have the kind of opportunities I have, you can’t sit down here. I hope I will be able to stay and play every Friday for my fans to connect with me in February and March. We will be doing 7pm to 11 pm. But my band has been arguing that we should play till dawn but we would resolve that soon.

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2 Comments

  1. Lagbaja, pls tell Nigerians the truth, we are all MUMUs. Our mentalily as Family to Councilor grow with us to President. God bless Nigeria.

  2. Thanks mentor for this interview
    You’re just too much i love every message in it and also i want to thank your interviewer for making me read this am soooooo happy

    Baba thanks for d advice u gave me online d other day it’s made me improve in my playing
    I look forward to talking to u again
    God bless Nigeria

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