Apr 19, 2010
Lagbaja - Interview 2001
Afropop Worldwide's Adam Wasserman caught up with Lágbájá from Nigeria after his show at BB King Blues Club and Grill in New York City, August 2001.
Tell us about the mask.
I chose to use the mask as a symbol that represents the facelessness, the voicelessness the seemingly lack of identity of the common man. And I thought since I felt they were faceless the best thing to communicate that would be to use a mask. I wanted a name that would communicate the same message. The Yoruba word Lágbájá means nobody in particular, and depending on the context of its use, it could mean anybody, somebody.
Tell us a bit about your story; were you raised in a musical family?
I basically grew up listening to music, going to festivals of traditional Yoruba music. As I grew in my consciousness, I started to understand that music is not a thing you see in isolation. The most important thing is your understanding of people and life itself. But the music itself has been in me through the years, listening to big ensembles of drummers, performing at festivals. That is the core of the whole thing.
How did you get your start professionally?
I just put the band together and we started rehearsing, performing, and we went to the studio and started recording.
What about the story-telling element of your songs? Is that central?
That is something that was there from the very beginning. That's something that the whole concept was all about. You hear about our socio-political situation, what we go through as a society or as a people. There is not so much space for love songs because you are dealing with everyday issues, stories about our situation.
Out of all the problems facing society today, do you feel that it is your duty as a musician to bring these issues to the forefront?
That is what Lágbájá is all about. Not only just talk about sometimes solutions, that is just my point of view, but let my point of view be known. Because your voice is heard you are probably able to influence other people that are listening to you.
What do you see as one of the biggest problems facing any society today? More specifically your society.
On my new album called WebeforeMe, we have been moving away from the traditional institutions that put community at the front of society and grew up knowing that you were part of a bigger community and that you were supposed to contribute to its growth. But over time, especially when we started having dictatorships and corruption started to grow, individuals in power started looting the treasury and corruption became a very big thing, and then everything turned into a very selfish individualistic thing. Far from what things used to be. I believe that album says that we should go back to the way that things used to be, where I was my brother's keeper and we were all part of a society, and we placed the interests of the group above the individual personal interests.
So it's a call for humility for us?
Not just humility, but to recognize yourself as part of a bigger whole, and not only to do what will benefit you. It's the same story here as we hear as they talk about all aspects of life. Environmental problems: you destroy the trees, you need them for things today, but then years in the future you talk about the ozone layer being depleted. You create new projects for the future. It's a simple problem where we consume what we need today and not think of a bigger global picture. You can see the same picture from ethnic nationalism. When you see ethnic groups fighting each other, groups that have lived together for many years now killing, maiming and looting, you are not thinking about we.
What is the legacy of afrobeat in Nigeria?
Afrobeat is a big legacy because Fela contributed a lot to our understanding and having a global view of our position as an African. That was a big influence of everyone of my generation. People perform that style of music. That and other styles of music like highlife exist side by side. But many of them have borrowed one way or the other from Fela's afrobeat.
If you could tell me where your music comes from, do you see it as an amalgam of all of these things?
I have so many influences, but the major one is traditional Yoruba drum rhythms. That's why most of the band is made up of drums. That is the core of my music.
What inspired you to write the song, Simple Yes or No?
Usually I don't even know because its not like I sit down and start writing. The song just comes according to the particular situation. It was inspired by the politicians because they never give you a straight answer. But then I expanded it to apply to everyone, because no one ever gives a straight answer to anything.
On the album the song "Vernacular," we hear you having a conversation with Fela, how did that come about?
Through the use of technology, I strung parts of his voice, sentences, phrases, syllables together, to make the message that I wanted to communicate.
What makes you decide what language you want to sing in for a certain song?
Its how the song comes, it just flows from one language to the other without a straight demarcation. If it comes in Pidgin, I sing in Pidgin, if it comes in Yoruba I sing in Yoruba, if it comes in English, I sing in English.
What of note is happening in the Nigerian music scene today?
There are lots of great musicians. There is fuji, which is really very big. There are lots of them playing that style. Fuji is probably even the most popular music of the Yoruba right now. It is a very dynamic music scene back home.
What are some of the reactions that you are getting from people that maybe have never even been exposed to your music?
Most of the time I just see them get excited, move their bodies. Most of the gigs on this tour were festivals, and from the very first note to the end were just dance.
Is there a certain presence, or deity or feeling that you would like to evoke when you use Yoruba drums?
I approach it from the point of view of how I am musically motivated. It is a very rich source of heavy rhythms. It was Yoruba rhythms that gave rise to the music of Fela and afrobeat. Fela is a Yoruba man, Yoruba gave rise to King Sunny Adé...the same Yoruba music gave rise to fuji. It is a source of rhythms. It is a rich cultural base that has been taken in different directions to form different styles by different musicians. All the styles have come from the same direction of Yoruba drums. I don't try and evoke one particular style or groove, those grooves just come from traditional Yoruba grooves. That is how I have been influenced by the Yoruba culture itself.
What is your opinion of the status of where popular American music is where they find themselves having roots in the Yoruba tradition?
I have a very personal opinion. As far as I am concerned, those styles of music are basically African in influence and can be traced back to the history of slavery. So a music like reggae performed by Jamaicans, there is a lot of African influence in there. In Afro-Cuban music, calypso, you see the same thing, that the music was developed by Africans. The same thing is true of rhythm and blues, soul, jazz, hip-hop, rap. The main difference there is that they are using instruments that were developed from the west to perform. But the music still has a lot of the attitude that is totally African. The history of groove itself, the history of funk, comes from African drums playing together. It has come from ancestors that have come 400 years ago from Africa. Now the music has grown from other influences from the environment that is this environment here in America. Music is dynamic and it can't just stand still forever. So there was interaction between new music. But the basic spirit of the groove was still there. All of African-American music is full of heavy rhythms. The drums play a less significant role in European music than what came from Africa.
Do you think that these (New World) types of music that are amalgams are still recognizable to Africans as having been influenced by indigenous African music?
It has grown beyond the influence and new forms have developed. Back home I asked myself, why does nobody know Bruce Springsteen, and why doesn't anybody know Guns N Roses? But all African-American music becomes big back home, in the days of James Brown and soul it was big, and the same for jazz and funk. Today the same thing is true; the smallest rap artist is big back home in Africa. Nobody plays rock, or country; it just doesn't court our radio. I think that it has to do with feeling it, it just has to do with the rhythm and the beats that they hear. I think that it is a natural thing that people listen to that music and communicate with it, without really thinking about what the source or history of it is. So I concluded that you cannot recognize the influence of Africa on those rhythms, but the history of it can be traced back to the African influences.
What about the future?
I think the more that the western world is exposed to African music, the more likely they are to appreciate that there is a mighty world of rhythms that have found their way into contemporary arts. People will create new directions, and people will be inspired in different directions. That is only possible when there is exposure to all those rhythms and all those grooves. I think what we are doing is one way of exposing that, and then using what we have learnt from the sophisticated Western harmonies and melodies. I think eventually it will reach more people, and it will be taken in all different directions. There is no harmony structure that is more sophisticated than traditional jazz.
Do you eventually see African music being able to appeal to everyone?
It is tough to say that. I have visions of seeing that happen, but it is a tough task. It is more a matter of economics and marketing than arts. Everybody wants something new. But I think when the exposure is possible; I think it will be easier to be universal. I want to be at the forefront of this happening by just doing what I do. I want to be a step and a means, and then I want people to take it from wherever we are so that it can grow.