Aug 27, 2009
Lagbaja - We Before Me
The first question that is often asked when Lágbájá is encountered is, “Why the mask?” Basically, Lágbájá’s mask is used as an icon of man’s facelessness.
Lágbájá is a Yoruba word that means somebody, nobody, anybody or everybody. It perfectly depicts the anonymity of the so called “common man”. The mask and the name symbolize the faceless, the voiceless in the society, particularly in Africa. Once you see Lágbájá’s mask you are reminded of your own facelessness. This symbolism is so powerful that Lágbájá’s mask has popularized the use of the mask concept by other artistes both in Nigeria and beyond.
Though the concept was developed long before that, his first album (entitled Lágbájá) was released to National acclaim in 1993. Over the years and more albums later, the music continues to fascinate with its unique focus on a core of African drums. His music is a product of various influences ranging from traditional Yoruba music to Jazz. Often the music is purely instrumental- an interplay between traditional Yoruba percussions, drums, chants, and western instruments, especially the saxophone. When there are lyrics, they are primarily sung in Yoruba, English or a blend of the two as is colloquially spoken in Yoruba cities. Many of his songs dwell on serious social issues, while others simply entertain. Some are dance inducing while others pass serious messages in humourous ways.
One thing that links all the songs together is his use of traditional African drums. Traditional Yoruba drums are the most prominent. Four families of these drums are employed in creating different grooves and moods. The dundun/gangan family is the most prominent and at times up to five drummers combine all the various components to create the polyrhythms. The bata ensemble is led by two musicians who alternate between soft high toned driving rhythms with their omele bata, and thunderous loud talk with their mum drum- iya ilu. The general percussionist leads the sakara ensemble. The fourth family, used as the backbone of the groove is the ogido, a derivative of the ancient gbedu. The ensemble of drummers constitute the larger part of the band. Vocalists and western instrumentalists make up the rest. Lágbájá’s groovy fusion has been refered to as afrojazz, afrobeat, higherlife and afropop until now that he himself has christened the music AFRICANO, alluding mostly to the central role of African drums and grooves in his music.
In March 1997, Lágbájá established his club, Motherlan’ in the heart of Ikeja in Lagos. Motherlan’s design is influenced by the traditional African town or market square, where people gather under the moonlight for ceremonies and artistic events like dance, music, story telling, wrestling etc. True to this function, over the years, it has become a place for many comedians to polish their act in front of a demanding audience.
With a serene gorge of beautiful trees and greens as background, the venue merges traditional Africa with the contemporary, creating the ambience of the countryside in the urban city. Lágbájá performs at Motherlan’ every last Friday of the month to a full house of faithfuls.
Lágbájá is fast emerging in the forefront of contemporary African music, rich in the traditions of the continent while cosmopolitan in attitude. He has started to take his music beyond the shores of Nigeria, performing in festivals and venues around the world.
Led by a mysterious masked singer and saxophonist who gives the band their name, Nigeria's Lagbaja mine not only the more traditional sounds of highlife and juju, but add plenty of Afrobeat and '80s funk to the mix. While the ghost of the late Fela Kuti looms large (he's sampled on one track), Lagbaja show more homage to American acts like the Gap Band and Roger & Zapp--even borrowing their trademark vocoder vocal sound on "Gra Gra." But the Yoruba influence also speaks strongly, merging with gospel for the powerful and conscious "Prayer for the Youth." Culled from three Nigerian releases, this makes a fascinating crossover introduction to a powerful band, and the politically potent lyrical mix of Yoruba, pidgin, and English increase its accessibility to Western audiences. Think of Lagbaja as future funk, where today meets yesterday in celebration, and you can think and dance at the same time.
We Before Me is a compilation of three of Lagbaja's Nigeria-only releases. Arguably the brightest hope for Afrobeat at present, Lagbaja is a sax player who is never seen unmasked in public. He refuses to term his music Afrobeat, but he fuses funky rhythms, call and response vocals, big horn sections and Yoruban percussion in much the same way as Fela did. Perhaps even more so than Fela, Lagbaja's use of percussion is integral to his sound and his music features more defined roles for talking drums and bata, as in Nigerian Fuji music. Each track here features elaborate interplay between the lead and supporting vocals, slowly spinning out his well-considered and original subjects - his method is to question rather than preach. The name of the compilation, We Before Me, aptly sums up his views on the individual and society. Lagbaja has a far broader understanding of gender relations than Fela ever did, and he also explores themes in Yoruban society and governmental corruption. Unfortunately, not even this distillation of three albums can hide the fact that his production technique needs work. Most of the programmed beats sounds like B-level Teddy Riley, and the synth sounds are equally '80s-esque. These sounds overwhelm certain tunes to the point of embarrassment. Lagbaja definitely has the substance to make a great record, but someone needs to give greater gravity to da funk in order for him to be taken seriously on the dance floor.
1. Me and You' Be Enemy (We Be Family)
2. Nothing for You
3. Simple Yes or No
4. Gra Gra
5. Gengen (Rumor 1)
6. Prayer for the Youth
7. Konko Below
9. Feyin E
10. Suuru Lere