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Lagbaja @ 60: Celebrating The Man Who Saw the Future

I met Lagbaja – Bisade Ologunde, as I later came to know him – in the mid-2000s, as a teen. It was through his song ‘Never Far Away’. Of course, I’d heard his songs – ‘Kon Ko Below’ and ‘Gra gra’ – over the airwaves but the lyrics of ‘Never Far Away’ arrested me. I was a starry-eyed youth in search of love. It was bound to get my attention.

The first time I watched the video for ‘Never Far Away’, I wondered how he was able to get the best out of his very young orchestra made up of a combination of conga, drums, talking drums, trumpets, violins, cellos, clarinets and what not. The interludes and accompaniment made me get the song as my ringtone when I got my first phone, a Motorola.

He never ceased to amuse me. Why would a man with such a beautiful, sonorous voice – which was always synthesised – decided to sweat it out in a mask? I got my answer not too long after. His name ‘Lagbaja’ means “no one”, “faceless one” in Yoruba. It dawned on me. Still, I was impressed by the man dressed in the slit textile clothes and masks who pranced about and gesticulated energetically in his videos; a carnival-like character with a different, serious message and his saxophone swinging from his neck. If you listen to Lagbaja’s music, a number of things will hit you; the calypso, Afrobeats, juju and, just before he left the klieglights, pop mix. It was no surprise that seats for his monthly shows at his club, Motherlan’ always sold out. The masked charmer had a live band and this appealed to Nigerians who had a love for ‘original’ music ‘untainted’ by virtual studio influences.

“Well, one day, he will get tired of the mask and remove it,” my friends and I agreed. He never did. Till this day, the laugh has been on us. Lagbaja never took off his mask; he was protecting himself from getting infected by the ills of society.

Going back in time to listen to songs from his first album in 1992, ‘Colours – The Colour Of Rhythm’ was a revelation into his beginnings. Urged by local fans, he attempted to press the album on compact disc in England, but the British Embassy would not issue him a work permit.

Undeterred, he set his sights on America and, in 1994, he released ‘Lagbaja, with songs and, two years, after, came out with the socially-conscious album ‘C’est Un African Thing’ which had the song ‘Coolu Temper’ and ‘Bad Leadership’. Other albums followed – ‘Me’ (2000), ‘We’ (2000), with the hit song ‘Gra Gra’, ‘We and Me’ Part II (2000), ‘Abami’ (2000), ‘Africano… the Mother of Groove’ (2005), ‘Paradise’ (2009), ‘Sharp Sharp’ (2009) and ‘200 Million Mumu (The Bitter Truth)’ (2012).

Once, he was invited by the International Committee of the Red Cross to join Youssou N’Dour, the late Papa Wemba and the late Lucky Dube on a Pan-African project to promote awareness of humanitarian abuses. Members of Lagbaja’s band were sent to select troubled areas of Africa and invited to submit two songs each documenting their experiences. The other participants converged in Senegal to compose and record two of these songs at N’Dour’s Xippi studios. The project was also the subject of a film documentary by Cameroonian director Bassek Bakhobio.

It is heart-warming to know that, today, Lagbaja turns 60. May the music never cease, the sax never croak and the melody remain sustained and untainted.

Lagbaja may be 60 today but, according to the lines from the number ‘Nothing for You’, “…I might be 30-something, I might be 40-something, in my heart, I’m 20-something…” Age is nothing but a number and we do hope this is not a flattening of the curve for him.

He made socially-conscious songs, funny songs, love songs and songs for the family. Even though I may never forgive him for refusing to show us his face, I cannot help but celebrate a legend in his own right.

How can one not celebrate the man who saw today yesterday? If for nothing, his clairvoyance put him ahead of the rest of us. He saw the virus coming and he put his masks on. Now, the virus is here and he has relocated to Manhattan, where he is now based (well, they have the virus there, too).

Today, everyone is rocking a mask (even the governor of Cross River, Prof Ben Ayade, who is touted as having the most fashionable ensemble), in order to keep safe and distant from the plucky hands of the Coronavirus. The young, the old and the frail. It won’t be a surprise that, long after this virus is gone, ‘masking up’ will be a fad we will have to live with, until we tire of it and all is safe again.

Before now your mask had to be medically certified and you had to have an ailment to wear one. Well, not anymore; if you fall in love with any material, all you have to do is find a way of incorporating it into your mask to make it fashionable and eye-catching. It is now a part of the Pop Culture… at least, in Nigeria.

Lagbaja will easily be considered one of Africa’s most exciting and interesting contemporary artists. He combined sophisticated compositions with a dynamic stage show and enigmatic personality and was in constant demand for live performance and ubiquitous on the airwaves.

In addition to all these, he was also the man who saw tomorrow, wearing the mask long before we knew why he ever did so.

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