Nov 19, 2010

Lagbaja’s Suuru Lere: A Double Take

An article by Adebowale Oriku in the Nigerian Village Square, September 02, 2009

I have always found Lagbaja eminently listenable. All right, I must be careful lest this piece should become a puff or a plug for Lagbaja's many masterworks. Not that he does not deserve it - he does. Lagbaja is an artist (not merely an artiste, note the difference). When Lagbaja arrived on the scene I was musically savvy enough to know that the guy was a dynamo of native talent. In those early-to-mid 1990s, there was a posse of clones of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti prancing around in Lagos, striving for the limelight. But you could see Lagbaja was in a class of his own. Although he was doubless influenced by Fela, Lagbaja was able to innovate a destylized, nouveau-trad, Afro-rhythm. He introduced various types of African ‘talking drums,’ especially the bata, that magical voiceful cone-shaped drum, somewhat analogous to the European piano in its importance, symbolism, eloquence and glottal range.

I remember chatting for long with my brother Akin and our mutual friend, Leke Awodeyi, with Lagbaja providing background music. The trio of us were Lagbaja’s soulful listeners (somehow I find the word ‘fan’ inapt here). We found that Lagbaja was constitutively mellifluous and that the songs conduced to bull-talk and beer. The folksy Coolu Temper. Well, the midtempo polyphony of Lagbaja’s songs would make anyone allergic to disharmony anyway. Although his act was grounded on masqueraderie and he could compose gutbucket caprices now and then, it was clear to me that Lagbaja was more of a phenomenon than a fad.

Now this is what I do not want. I intend this article to be no more than a precise aperçu, because knowing how I like a lot of Lagbaja’s songs, this might well become an expansive disquisition on the music and the man - not that I know a lot about the man, though.

A music video of Lagbaja that I have found myself returning to lately had concentrated my mind enough that I imagined it was worth commenting upon. Suuru Lere from the album We Before Me, released in 2001. I bought the CD years ago in the UK here and I must say that, at first blush, the song was one of the two that I thought was not up to scratch in the otherwise brilliant album. Of course I understood what Lagbaja was trying to do, the calm soft-key movement, the incantatory talkiness, the drawn-out elegiac bridges. He was in an admonitory mood, in a pensive, almost pitchless, way he was imploring us to be 'patient' with democracy, to allow democracy to thrive and bear fruits. I had found the advice grandmotherly and superfluous. You simply can’t beg a people to kiss democracy’s ass when the more visible praxists of democracy - politicians - are busy kicking it. I’d allowed what I considered Lagbaja’s overoptimistic, slightly prickly, message to render me tone-deaf to the sublime melodiousness of the song.

A couple of years ago or so, I stumbled upon the video of Suuru Lere (rather late in the day, I suppose), and perhaps still poisoned by my earlier cursory uninterest in the song I didn’t spend more than a few seconds on the video before I moved to something else. But I was drawn back to it just a few weeks ago, and I was hooked. It was a doubletake moment, and then some. I watched the musical over and over again, and I still do now.

I feel no embarrassment to say what turned the song into a reawakened sleeper for me was the cartoonisation of the video. Since Michael Jackson’s primeval Thriller playlet, I had not taken the time to fully soak in any musical video. Although both videos are no more kindred than being storytelling pieces, they have impinged on me in their own their own unique ways. Thriller’s mock-horror novelty, choreography and librettistic perfectness, over against Lagbaja’s Suuru Lere’s narratory, tease-thought-out aesthetic. Both videos might easily be dismissed as kitsch, but then seeing the transvaluation that postmodernism has given kitsch, now we know there is such a thing as good and bad kitsch. Kitsch is no longer a totalisation of badness, of crass tastelessness.

And as far as kitsch goes, Lagbaja’s Suuru Lere video is a good one, better in my estimation than Thriller. Even an overripened hindsight might make me later consign Thriller into the garbage-can of pretty-pretty popular art. But certainly not so for Suuru Lere - at least not for now - the video tells a story that touches a chord rather than play on several chords like Thriller.

Before I go on I must apologise to those who cannot speak nor understand the Yoruba language that Suuru Lere is sung in Yoruba. I am not apologising for Lagbaja for using Yoruba to sing a song, but for myself for writing about it in English, a language in which I must inevitably write and which those who could only enjoy the melodies of Lagbaja’s Yoruba songs would also be able to read. But this is where the Suuru Lere video is a good one, it would be understood and savoured by anyone - Yoruba or not - who could watch it, and the feeling it gives is indeed somewhat paradigmatic of what may be described as ‘visually evoked response’ - a response at once delayed and deep.

The video is mixed-media, a montage of Lagbaja’s crooning, choral background vocals, some drama, and a computer-made animation relating a brief history of Nigeria. As a lover of the arts - any sort of art, including cyberart - it was easy for me be enchanted by the video, the telling of the sad Nigeria story in the form of jerky animation, in the shape of comic make-believe. Besides reading graphic novels once in a while, I still watch a lot of animation - not much Japanese anime to be honest - on TV. I remember using the excuse of taking my daughter to watch Shrek the Third to see it on the big screen. Now we are both waiting for the next instalment (and said to be the last) of Shrek coming out next year. I watch The Simpsons too, once in a while. But Comedy Central’s South Park - the mordant, dry satire on American social and political life - is always for me a tickly delectation. The flat, foul-mouthed, lilliputian characters in South Park never fail to raise the hackles, and sometimes chuckles, both on the right and left of America’s deeply divided socio-political life.

When I saw the first frame of Lagbaja’s Suuru Lere, it brought to me the figures in South Park - made with the same primary pastel colours. The video animation opens with a patchwork-green map of Nigeria nailed and jointed together by the contours of the rivers Niger and Benue. The rolled-up scroll on which the cobbled map is drawn Nigeria is passed from one hand to another, from Lugard to several early politicians, all garbed in motley colours Lagbaja-style. Then comes rowdy self-rule, and military men in verdigris green uniforms kicking the seat from under the civilians. There is the first coming of Obasanjo. Then Shehu Shagari and his high-hat. The arrogant Buhari and his sidekick, Idi-Agbon. The gap-toothed liar and sneak-thief, otherwise called Ibrahim Babangida. The part of the cartoon which I truly find amusing is the arrival of Abacha with the highlighted Kanuri marks on his cheeks. Eve, no, Lilith - Adam’s first wife - who comes in the shape of an Indian prostitute to feed Abacha an apple, and how the dictator goes kaput. The interlude of Abdusalam. And the second coming of Olusegun Obasanjo, although the cartoon depiction of the barrel-bellied former president of Nigeria reminds me of his bucolic middle name, Aremu, maybe because of the striking strokes of Egba marks on his cheek.

Somehow the moving pictures had made me re-listen to the music with the inner ear, and I don’t just mean this literally. I realised that this is perhaps the most evocative, the most exacting and fiddliest of all of Lagbaja’s songs. Suuru Lere is meaningful and portentous, the singer makes a long arm for social and political responsibility in a way yet unrepeated - even years after its release - in his other songs. Lagbaja shows that though he may have been influenced by Fela, he is cast in a different, although coterminous, mould. Where Fela would lay into Authority Thieves with the heavy hand of abrasive ‘yabbis,’ Lagbaja displays restraint. In Suuru Lere he employs several rhetorical devices to say all he wants to say. He appeals to reason, to forbearance, and unsurprisingly, to God. He adjures, reflects, projects. The coda Mo Sorry Fun Gbogbo Yin (I am Sorry for you All) is very significant in the song. We know what I am sorry for you means in the Nigerian street parlance, Lagbaja uses this ironical meiosis for the more direct statement, Those of you who have been killing Nigeria not-so-softly won’t be given any quarter when your comeuppance comes. I hope such a time would come. Like a kind of comminatory pre-Christ prophet, Lagbaja delivers his message. But I hope there is truly a god who would punish anyone who attempts to subvert democracy in Nigeria. The problem is, if there is truly a god who oversees things in Nigeria he has always been so slow to act, to deal out punishments to all of those who have been involved in the plundering of that poor country.

Anyway, I must not vitiate my satisfaction with the video with my doubts about the role providence in the life of a country, of any country. I guess if Nigeria wants to go the way of the Humpty-Dumpty imagery in the animation, baldly depicted as a limbless egg, no god will be able to stop that. Of course it is clear that Lagbaja, though massively talented, is no iconoclastic rebel like Fela who would never have sung that patience has its rewards (Suuru Lere), Fela would have gone for laisser-aller lambasting where Lagbaja has successfully adopted greybearded lampoonery.

But the appeals to a higher power do not in anyway detract from the effectiveness of the song and video, it may even have redounded gravitas to it in the ears of many. I must confess that the fact that the song is rendered in Yoruba - the mother tongue that has been in a schizoid struggle against being wrenched from me by the foreign tongue with which I am, again inevitably, writing now - seems to have spiritualised my ingestion in the way Hubert Ogunde’s Yoruba Ronu (Yoruba Think) had made a contemplative impact in 1964 when the Yoruba people were locked in internecine strife. Like someone reading sheet music, profoundly I cognized the cadences, the nuances of Suuru Lere. Although someone from Ibadan might pick bits of Awurebe tempo from the song, basically it is a melding of Orin Aro (Elegy) and something which is neither Ofo (Incantation) nor Ayajo (Malignation). Lagbaja might just as well have invoked either Sango or Ogun to deal with those who are destroying Nigeria, but then unchristianly Norwegians would not invoke antiquated Norse deities like Thor or Odin to deal with failing politicians, they would vote them out. And there is the bata-beating interludes, the staccato rub-a-dub of this African instrument is relentlessly impressive. And the chantlike responsorial chorus. And although I know Lagbaja wishes the message of the music to be easily digested, there is a sort of oracular air about the song, an unspoken kernel susceptible of several interpretations, not dissimilar to that hugely affective anthem by Bob Dylan, Something Is Blowing in the Air. Nigeria’s polluted air is pregnant too with nameless things. Who knows what it would born?

Which is why a song released in 2001 carries more resonance today than when it came out. In 2001 Obasanjo had only spent two years in office, and there was still a tide of optimism sweeping through the country. Although I never thought Obasanjo was going to achieve anything worthwhile, Nigerians still took him serious then, and it seemed, from all appearance, as if a season of democratic spring had arrived in the country, so Lagbaja’s entreaties that we should embrace democracy was in time as well as in tune. Considering the lag of time between then and now it is not likely that he would be so sweet today about the future of democracy in Nigeria. It is in that wise that this essay should be seen as more of a revisionary effort rather than a review.

I cannot but notice too that the svelte Ego Ihenachor is not in Suuru Lere. That young sunny woman is a fine vocalist, she almost made a crush-struck schoolboy of me with her canorous cameo appearance in Lagbaja’s Skontolo where she plays the winnable trophy woman. I understand she is no longer part of Lagbaja’s ensemble. I wish her the best of luck.

I must return to what made me revisit the song in the first place. The animation music video. If it reminded me of South Park it certainly would suggest to me that perhaps that would be a good way to twit Nigerian politicians, especially office-holders. But I had to give myself pause. Don’t we need a certain level of political sophistication, some horse-sense, among the politicians themselves before you can use satire on them. Do I hear someone ask How do you begin to twit twits? Just imagine James Ibori or Tony Anenih sitting in front of a TV, watching a Nigerian version of South Park and seeing the point of it. And even if they did what difference would it make? It would be no more than wearing velvet gloves to shake the front hooves of pigs - and I am not talking about intelligent Orwellian pigs.

Now a word or two about the mystique of Lagbaja - I mean his mystique as far as the wider public is concerned. To use a theory spun by certain physicists, there is only a buffer of five humans between me and the unveiled Lagbaja. If Nigeria was a country in which paparazzi could flourish, Lagbaja would have long ceased to be incognito. Even then the soft-mask he wears has not been altogether hermetic. But the Unknown Lagbaja, the Whatchamacallum, is rather interesting, although it would be easy for anyone who does not like the man or his music to dismiss the disguise as gimmicky.

One cannot stress overmuch how Lagbaja’s self-effacing camouflage does have its roots in the Yoruba culture of masquerading (egungun), and in the Yorubaworld that the ‘born-again’ Christians are trying to kill, masqueraders do not often walk unaccompanied by song and dance. But then Lagbaja symbolises subculture than culture, at least sartorially speaking. Even his music, although quite widely appealing, reminds me more of indie rock, the spirit and mettle of indie. I think Lagbaja is Africa’s first guerrilla artist, he is perhaps the first in postcolonial Africa to use a covert style of art to achieve overt ends. Often Guerrilla Art is more fine art than any other art, although ‘performance’ artists have been tagged guerrillas as much as fine artists. In the world of guerrilla art, a streaker – that is someone who undresses suddenly and runs around nude in public before he his taken away – may be called an artist. As well as surreptitiousness, suddenness and shockingness may be thrown in the bargain. We know Lagbaja is explicitly surreptitious, considering his disguise – but imagine surprising him, in that garb, on your elderly grandparents as your best friend (something that I think happens in one of his videos), you would be lucky if the oldsters survive the shock-horror.

Lagbaja always reminds me of faceless Banksy, the quintessential British guerrilla artist, who started stencilling elaborate trompe l’oeil images on walls in his home town of Bristol. He soon arrived in London, springing his surprise art on the unwary, transfiguring the bald idle high-street wall you saw yesterday with the image of a rat holding a sign saying “You Lie.” Banksy has been to the West Bank too, spray-painting the illusion of blasted holes on the wall Israel is erecting to shut away Palestinians in a concentration camp. Like Lagbaja Banksy is incognito, even more so. Nobody knows whether Banksy wears a mask or not, to most people he might as well be a phantom, he is eel-like and elfishly mysterious and mischievous and there is so much supposition about who and what he is, what his name is. What Lagbaja has done is just as remarkable, the exciting, this-worldly retrofitting he has introduced into the age-old Yoruba egungun tradition.

by Adebowale Oriku,

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