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LAGBAJA: Still Unmasked

The opportunity finally came to have a chat with the very busy and highly elusive masked one, after several months of waiting on a long list. While we sat face to face in the serene and breezy ambience of his popular Motherlan’ in Opebi Street, Ikeja, Lagos in that peaceful evening, Lagbaja spoke passionately and nostalgically to Ramon Oladimeji, on his music and the nation in general.

This interview was conducted in 2009 for Searchlight Magazine, Independence Hall, University of Ibadan

Here is the excerpt:

What is the difference between these two personalities: Bisade Ologunde and Lagbaja – the masked one?

I am Lagbaja and Bisade Ologunde is my producer. To really know the difference between the two of us, it means you have to track Bisade Ologunde down as well to interview him because I can only talk about myself as Lagbaja. All I know about Bisade Ologunde is that he’s my producer.

Your family background

Ah, Lagbaja is Lagbaja. If you look at the history of Lagbaja, his father is Tamedo, Tamedo’s father is Lamorin, Lamorin’s father is Lakasegbe, Lakasegbe’s father is Laado. That’s the history I know about Lagbaja; anything beyond that, involving removing the mask from Lagbaja is not my business. That’s up to you to go and determine and find your stories if you wish.

So there’s a distinct difference between Bisade Ologunde and the masked one – Lagbaja

I’m telling you I don’t know anything about Bisade Ologunde beyond him being my producer. So, don’t put words in my mouth. I am Lagbaja and that’s all I know. Anything else concerning anybody is not my business, but definitely sometimes I take off the mask and somebody is behind that mask but that doesn’t mean that my producer is the one behind that mask. Me, I’m still Lagbaja and that’s all that concerns me.

Brief recollections of your childhood

Childhood was great, I must tell you; and that is part of the reasons why one feels sad by what is happening in the country today.

There has never been perfection, and there would never be perfection; and nobody is asking for perfection or what we call utopia. That’s not what one is asking for, but if one could get even half of what we saw in our own childhood… if you get it now, this would just be a great country!

Everything just changed. It was as if some madness just entered the so-called leadership, but one must appreciate what the old leaders did that made us have a very good childhood at that time.

Truly we had a blessed childhood and the more reason why one feels that, haba! this country deserves better than she has now; minimally she should be able to give to today’s generation, the kind of childhood she gave to us.

Your educational background and how it has contributed to your present status as a renowned musician.

Well, I went to school like every other person that had the opportunity at that time and definitely it contributed a great deal. I didn’t study music directly, but school is an experience and that’s the whole essence of school.

It’s much more than what is your course of study. As a matter of fact, back in school in those days, we had what they call GES 101, GES 102 – some general studies that everybody had to take.

The nature of school is to make you a whole person, to teach you the concept of using your intellect, to teach you about researching and finding data and information, to teach you about studies.

So I didn’t have a direct course of study in music, but the whole experience of school was so wholesome that definitely it imparted on me as a person; and the more reason why I always advise young people when I go to give talks in schools and young people are saying, for instance, “I want to be a musician or a footballer; I don’t have to go to school.”  And I’d say, well, it helps to go to school, if you can.

No matter what your profession is, going to school makes you a wholesome person.

Names of the schools you attended

(Laughs) School sha; I just go school sha, for this same Naija sha.

When and how did you enter into the world of music?

When: My first album was 1993, you could say that was when I really entered the music world. I had been doing music all along but 1993 would be a professional landmark.

How: I kind of made up my mind eventually, it took me a long time though, because at that time people looked down on musicians, they still do up till now and also you were a bit scared that, can you make a living from music? Even though you hear all the big names and everything but realistically, can you make a good living? For every big name you hear, there are probably a hundred others who have not made a success of their careers. So, one was scared about being a musician and so that delayed the process but eventually when I was able to speak to myself in my quiet times that,

“this is your first love; this is your passion; this is what you really love, go ahead and do it, even if you don’t make money out of it. If you can make a good living, that’s good enough”.

That’s what delayed the process; but that’s the slow process that eventually culminated in my career.

What were some of the challenges you faced while building your career as a musician?

One is the environment itself. In terms of making a living from music, it is tough for people like us who tried a different style of music. It even used to be tougher. It was easier for you to fall into a category that everybody knew and that big category then and today is still praise-singing.

As a culture, we have parties all the time; people have marriage ceremonies, birthdays and stuffs like that and musicians are always there to perform, but then you are expected to sing people’s praises, you know, something like “chief Ramon se kinni kan, o segba, o s’awo, o se koko baba isaasun and everything”.

When you chose not to do that and you chose to just play more like a concert style, that was new to Nigeria at that time. It was only people like Fela who were doing that.

Once in a while somebody would come in the pop world and make a big hit, play for a while and go, but people like Fela were stable for a long time and it was few people like that who were doing that.

The only way to make money and income for survival was to perform at parties. So, that was one of the hardships that one had to endure, but gradually one was able to create something along that line; like finding a place to play so that those who love to hear your music would come, not necessarily because there’s a party.

And yes, we get calls to play at parties too from those who just want entertainment and don’t expect you to praise o segba, o s’awo, o se koko baba isaasun, you know all that kind of a thing. That’s one major one.

Another one, which is still huge till today was piracy, but it wasn’t even as bad as it is now. So, it’s even a bigger issue right now, where you can’t make much from your own works because the pirates have taken control of the market and there’s no one who is safeguarding your interest.

Those are mostly the challenges I faced. The other things are just the natural rigours of any work that you have to do well; you have to put all your labour into it.

What song “sold you out” and which is your most preferred work?

Hmnnn… I would say our real first hit was Coolu temper and Show colour.

That was our real first hit, but funny enough, after that, the first album before that now became a hit afterwards. And after that you’ll think that that was it, but then Konko below, Nothing for you, Kilewashe, Surulere and all that Gra-gra, came in another album that took the tempo to another level that was very explosive.

And the last album took it to even a higher level with Skentele and Never far away. So, I would say that right from our second album the tempo has been like that, with each of the albums blowing the market. It’s been going on like that. Favourite… hmnn… my favorite is probably the next thing I’ll be releasing.

It’s always like that, I tell you, because I’m always evolving, dreaming up new things.

You often use the word or should I call it a cliché, ikira, what does it mean?

I actually heard the word ikira from my band members who were using it in a different way in their church.

It’s something like e kira fun baba o, hee! Then I came to a show and I just spontaneously said ikira! And there were “hee! Hee! Hee!” from the crowd. So I think it was a way of saying give thanks and praise to God. That’s how we use it.

Your awards

(Laughs) I really don’t count awards but I’ve won quite a few.

Mention some of them

I deliberately want to steer away from that because young people need to understand the idea of awards and the danger of linking your career with awards. So, don’t let me emphasize on that. The essential thing you need to learn in anything you do is to be true to yourself and once that is done, you’ve done half of it.The next half is knowing that what you’re doing is being appreciated by the people for whom you are doing it, be you a lawyer, a doctor, an architect or whatever.

Those award things have been turned into a scam. But I’ll still keep going for them o; yeah! When they call me, I’ll collect them; but I’d love to advise young people to understand the concept behind it. You know, they could call me in your school now to come and collect an award so that I can come and play for free later. That is the scam that awards have become everywhere.

Most of the time your songs revolve around politics, love and humour; what inspires your songs?

The society. Like I told you earlier, when you had a wonderful childhood and you could walk to school because every school in your neighborhood was a good school; you didn’t have to go by three, ten bus-stops to get to school.

When you had such an experience, there’s no way you won’t feel motivated about the socio-politics of the land and how things need to get better. And anyway, that’s the whole essence of Lagbaja’s mask.

In terms of love, you know, there’s nothing more beautiful than love, both the deep-hearted kind of love, as in friendship and support and the man-woman love thing. There’s nothing more beautiful than that but unfortunately, because of our problems we spend more time singing about “oh corruption this, bad leadership that” and all that.

We should be singing about the beautiful things of nature. Generally, society and people, that’s my greatest interest.

Aside the fact that you sing Afro genre like Fela Anikulapo, did you really have anything to do with the late maestro?

No.

In what ways do you miss Ego?

Hmnnn… both musically and personally. And don’t misconstrue my personally beyond the fact that everybody in my band was and is still important to me. You know, the camaraderie, doing things together; when you travel, “gisting”, exchanging ideas, what’s happening in town and all that kind of a thing.

Nigeria has returned to the democratic rule since 1999, are we moving in the right direction? What have got right and what have we not?

The major thing we have not got right, I’ll put in two perspectives.

One is the need to build institutions, and not individuals coming to use Nigeria for experiments. We are exactly fifty years old since independence. The people who created the kind of childhood I lived through had done this before; they started in the 50s, the Awolowo and co.

Please, go and do your research, the Cocoa House in Ibadan was once the tallest building in Africa, Liberty stadium was the biggest stadium in Africa, the so-called NTA today, the first TV station in Africa was formerly WNTVNWNBS, Ibadan.

All those Bodija estates in Ibadan were dreamt up, the University of Ife, now OAU had its temporary site at what you now call Polytechnic Ibadan; that was their temporary site before they went and took six miles by six miles in the middle of a forest and built a master piece as a university.

All these, there was no oil; no oil absolutely! It was all from cocoa. Cocoa was the sweat of the individual farmers whose products were bought by the government, they sold and had their income from that. But that was the visionary leadership. Today it has become individuals trying to act like they are messiahs.

Somebody would come, he would do this one experiment, he would cancel it, another person would come, do another experiment, he would cancel it.

I mean, it is sickening!

There’s no way we’ll ever go forward if we don’t build institutions. That’s the first major one.

Number two is everybody needs to join the fight for emancipation.

We love to sit back and watch our leaders go and suffer. There are many names I can mention. It’s important to join our leaders when they need us. The change is for our own selves and for our children.

Most of those leaders have already been successful in their endeavors, better for them not to worry, but because they are enlightened and they know how things can be.

You can never imagine, I am telling you, in Sultan Bello Hall, in the University of Ibadan, you won’t believe me if I tell you that you could eat with ten kobo or something as ridiculous as that, oh my! They would serve you ice cream as part of your Sunday meal in that cafeteria; and I’m sure they’ve closed it now. Can you imagine ice cream as part of your ten kobo meal!

It was subsidized because the government was trying to develop the minds of the young people; because the future of any country is based on the minds of its people, it’s based on education. And they didn’t want a situation where it was only the children of the rich people who could go to school. So they subsidized everything.

Anyway, there’s a lot that needs to be done and it can be done. There’s no “babara” about it.

What does religion mean to you and to which one do you belong?

Without the mask, I am a Christian.

What roles do you play in the church?

(Laughs) No roles… even the idea of the church itself has been bastardized. It has been turned into money-making machinery, but that doesn’t stop me from going to worship. I am wise enough to see the difference between who I am worshipping, why I am in the church and what exactly is happening in the concept of churchdom, so to speak.

We’d like to know about your wife; when and where you met her and how she came to be your wife

As I always say, if it won’t bore you, my wife is my tenor saxophone, the big one while the child is the soprano saxophone.

Your philosophy of life

I really have not put it into words, but I have several things. Should I say phrases I like, that I think are very impactful?

For example,

wide and broad is the way that leads to destruction but narrow is the gate that leads to salvation.

That is one thing that I hold quite dear. Also, when Jesus said,

seek ye first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and all other things shall be added unto you,

that is another powerful one. Now, when they say generally,

do unto others as you want them to do unto you

or when Christ said that,

the first law is to love the lord, your God with all your heart and the second one is like the first, to love your neighbour as yourself

All those things; I can’t say a particular one is my philosophy, and don’t say I'm quoting from the bible. No, it just happens that those are the ones that came to my mind. There are some powerful ones too in the Yoruba proverb line; they’re not just coming to my mind now.

All those things I find very motivational.

How do you relax?

Books mostly.

What is your choice of books?

What I love most about books these days are autobiographies and biographies.

Like of?

For example, I’ll recommend for anybody who really wants to appreciate the history of this country to go and read You Must Set Forth at Dawn.

That’s Soyinka

Yes. Everyone needs it. As a matter of fact, in those days when you had visionary government, I’m sure they would have recommended that book to every secondary school student to read, to appreciate the history of this country, to open up your mind about the country.

Apart from the literary genius of the writing, there are some incredible parts about which you will be laughing and shouting and some real serious gist and real adventures that would grip you as if you are watching an action movie and there are those parts of the book that would make you think.I love powerful books like that.

I've read autobiographies of great musicians like Michael Jackson and Barry White. I love basically to read about people. Although biographies are not always exactly what happened. Some are, you know, won f’iyo die si and everything, but by and large I found out that gradually from my days of starting with novels and fiction, I just ended up with this non-fictional, motivational works.

Message to Nigerian students

Two major things –

One is: Have faith in the future because the future is bright, but it will be hard work to realize it.

For example, you coming all the way from Ibadan to Lagos to conduct this interview, you have a target, you have a plan; and if you don’t go out or work towards it, nothing would happen.

The second thing is: it is important to avoid violence. Being a student is like passing through some kind of intellectual purification.Students are intellectuals, therefore they should be leaders of thought and not leaders in terms of violence.

These days, one hears so many stories among students that shouldn’t be so. There is more to life than these things. Students should remember that their stay in school is just for a very small portion of their life, there’s a whole life after school.

So why destroy the whole life ahead during the brief period in school!

It’s been very nice chatting with you

You’re welcome, anytime.

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