Phenomenal masked musician, Lagbaja, made the day of YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-chief, AZUH ARINZE, on Wednesday, November 7, 2012. This was at Motherlan’, in Opebi, Ikeja, Lagos. Adorning an olive green and white attire, with his trademark pair of sandals, the multi-talented and very serious artiste entertained our questions on a pot pourri of issues. From why most musicians fail to how to sustain one’s success, the hidden dangers in women, wine and weed and more, the interview is vintage Lagbaja, Omo Baba Muko Muko…
What has been happening to Lagbaja?
Em…good things (General laughter). The latest is we had a couple of singles about a couple of months ago and we hope by God’s grace to have the album itself in another two weeks.
Can you tell us about the singles and the album that is on the way – what it’s going to entail?
The first single was called Knock Knock Knock. The second single was Two African Soldiers. They came together at the same time and in the normal Lagbaja tradition of serious socio-political message and at the same time as fun. So, the fun song was Knock Knock Knock, which was a normal guy-girl toasting; the guy trying to get his way back into the girl’s heart while Two African soldiers was an Africano version of the Redemption song, but in a way that took Bob Marley’s lyrics, merged with Fela’s beats and Lagbaja’s Sowopo kind of a thing. So, the album itself is called Two Hundred Million Mumu. Yes! Because that’s what you are (General Laughter). You people! Some guys heard the song and said including myself. I said okay, na dem sabi. And it’s again one of my social political consciousness messages about the fact that we are major contributors to the evil in the land, but we find it easy to point fingers. It’s time for us to wake up and make a difference.
What makes a good musician?
Ah! Hmmm! That’s a very deep question and I will start by breaking it down to say that first of all, there’s a huge difference between a musician’s musician and a musician (Laughs) or what some people call entertainment and a musician. What makes a good musician starts from how much time you put into your craft. In this environment, we clap a lot for mediocrity, but I try to think in terms of what is the global standard. That’s the only thing that matters if you really want to be a good musician, you need to spare time for your art. First of all, it’s good to be able to play an instrument or understand the fee. You don’t have to compulsorily be an instrumentalist. I mean, Michael Jackson was a good musician; Luther Vandros was a good musician; but I love people like Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, like George Benson and the other guys like Myles Davies. You know, Stevie Wonder will play keyboards and compose songs and sing. He’s the kind of musician I want to be; like Fela Kuti. Fela was one of the most incredible arrangers. He will just sing the song without knowing what is behind the music. That is the genius of accomplishment as a musician. So, what it takes in my perspective, from what I would love to identify with would mean six to eight hours a day of working out. Personally I’m just motivated to create. I sometimes don’t even think about how I want to sell the music. In today’s entertainment world, you probably do more work trying to sell than create. I am the other way round because the creative drive is my biggest force. So, I just want to create. So, all my time is spent just making music and less time is spent disseminating it. That’s actually what makes, I would say, a good musician. And when you are talking about musicians, I mean people like those people I mentioned.
What is the costliest mistake that most musicians make?
My opinion will sound a bit odd (Laughs). But it is the way I understand the question. The costliest mistake is not to know why you have chosen to be a musician. It’s like what I described just before now about the depth of being a musician. If you really go deep into the music, be ready for poverty, because the deeper the music, the smaller the audience. So, first of all, you should ask yourself – it will be a mistake not to ask yourself – why do I want to be a musician? Is it to make money, is it to express myself, is it to learn about the art? If it is to make money and you’ve answered that question, then you need to do things in some particular way; you need to think in terms of hype, your celebrity status, being everywhere, pushing stuff. If it is about understanding the art, you need to think a different way. So, the very first major mistake a musician will make is not to understand why he or she is a musician. If you can answer that question, you will make your career easier.
Why do most musicians find it difficult to manage stardom?
(Laughs) – No 1, nobody is trained in the art of managing stardom, because it just comes and then it’s like you are thrown into the pool and you must learn to swim or sink. Those who manage stardom are those who had been grounded about the realities of life ever before they attained stardom. No 2, in a way, it’s like no 1. I mean, there are some things that are like No 1. Those who become stars a little later in life, who are a little older sometimes, manage stardom better because they’ve learnt to be grounded. It’s like suddenly the whole world is shouting and screaming at your name; suddenly it’s you, you, you, you, you and then the money is flowing and you don’t understand that everything is a cycle and the time will come for most people, except you plan your career on a long term basis. If you over-expose yourself, your shelf life would be a lot shorter, because it’s not just about the music. What you are selling is actually yourself. Believe me, it’s not about the music, because nowadays we talk about brand and stuff like that, it’s mostly about what yourself is what you are selling. So, if you are able to be grounded, if you understand life and you know what you are doing, it will be easier to manage stardom.
What don’t you like about stardom?
(Laughs) – Fortunately that’s partly why I wear the mask. Stardom is a dangerous thing. One, like people who take drugs or sorry, people who sell drugs. The first things they tell them is don’t use your drug. I wouldn’t say hard drugs. The moment you start to use the drug you are selling, you are finished; you become an addict. Same thing with stardom. The moment you start to believe the hype, you are finished, because it’s hype. It’s not real. The moment you think you are king, the moment you think this is me, it’s just a matter of time before you start going down. And again, stardom doesn’t allow you to live a normal life, which in the case of Lagbaja is a very good advantage of the mask because once your mask is off, you can actually have the freedom of enjoying life. Because stardom sometimes can be an imprisonment, it can be like shackles in your hands. The things I would do without the mask, many celebrities who are even half my status would dare not do, because ah, won gbodo ri to n park, buying boli. They must see him in some kind of instances. It can sometimes be like shackles in your hands.
Do you like anything about stardom?
Em…yes! The most powerful thing about stardom is your voice is listened to. When you say something, people somehow give you a little space, more than the person they don’t know, so you can actually be a very powerful voice; be very impactful in things that you say that a non-star would say.
Why do most musicians attain success but find it difficult to sustain it?
It’s not just musicians; success is one of the most difficult things to sustain if you don’t have a vision and a game plan. No 1, if you look at businesses, not many businesses have a long life span; not many people would start a magazine and it would be here in the next five years talkless of 20 years from now. But we all think, no, me I can do it, we can do it. It comes down to your vision. People who sustain their success are those who actually had a vision and chased that vision and lived for that vision no matter what. It’s a rough road. If you read the story of Steve Jobs, his biography, you will understand how rough and lonely that road could be. But today, here we are carrying ipods and ipads and everything because he had the vision and he had the drive to sustain that vision.
Why do most musicians find it difficult to repeatedly come up with hit numbers?
(Laughs) – No 1; you never can tell what makes a hit. Don’t fool yourself. If you really want to be true, you can conjure up something and think, but I’ve actually read even Quincy Jones tells you – you can think yeah, this is sounding good; it would be good, but you never can tell until the people hear. That’s one. Two, tastes change all the time. They are always changing, they never remain the same. No. 3, the audiences change all the time. Like today, you will hear a lot of names, loud there, because they are playing for their age group. The moment their age group moves to the next level, they might have difficulty in reaching a younger group, except they now start behaving younger than their age. So, for music it’s a little more difficult than I’m selling sweet, I’m selling chocolate, I’m selling products which stay the same. So, when you have for example, like a Bournvita, there will always be young people who would be born, who would eventually grow to the age of needing to drink Bourvita. Even when some grow old and move to other kinds of beverages, there will always be a cycle of other people that will come. It’s different from the arts or for like music in particular where taste change. No. 4, taste makers and taste itself can be fickle. It’s not about the depth of it, but the fun of it. So, you have a hit for example and it’s not because of what you sang about, but something worked and the timing and then somebody else liked it and it became something else. So many reasons.
Which of your songs gives you the greatest joy and why?
(Laughs) – I will say many of them do o!
We want you to single out one?
It’s difficult. It’s difficult to do. Maybe I can say five.
Okay, tell us the five.
I cans ay Skentele Skontolo, for example, because if you know the depth of its cultural impact, it’s like being able to use your power, again like I said, your voice, for something which is as ordinary as gele. Now making it something that looks more than that, up to the point that young folks that might feel no, ah, me I want to be American, can now see that actually it’s something beautiful about our culture. Em…I would say Never Far Away because it was an example of how I was able to use Africano beats to propel an R and B song, because the whole concept of my Africano is about using African music, no matter what language I’m singing on top. So, the fact that that song was able to successfully convey that, even imbibed big orchestra sounds and it still worked with the bata and everything; I loved the fact that that made that impact. A song like Surulere, even though it sounded preachy at that time. But having a vigil that could convey the Nigerian story and tell a powerful story, I felt it was quiet an impactful song from me. Em…I will say Africalypso, because even though eventually I called my music Africano, people still mix it up and call it Africalypso (Laughs). Because the song itself talks about everything I’m saying about Africano, which is what I know from my experience about performing all over the world. You know, people are intrigued by the drums. At our workshops nobody asks me about my saxophone, it’s always about the drums and the grooves and the beats. So, that song came before I got the name Africano and I think it tells the powerful message that look, anywhere in the world that you see people playing with beats or you hear solid beats and grooves and everything, somehow, somehow you will find that it’s blacks. Whether it’s Calypso in Trinidad, or Raggae in Jamaica or R and B in amerce or soul or jazz or hiphop, it’s the blacks. Because it’s a rhythm thing, because they are from here. So, I would say that also is a powerful one. I will say Konko Below was another one, just for the fun. Nothing for You, I just love them all.
What is the greatest thing that music has done for you?
Hmm! A sense of fulfillment. That I could dream up something and I could make a little success of it. Because, believe me, at the beginning I wasn’t comfortable with being a musician, because I was afraid that it would be difficult to make good living, and for many years when it would be tough and I would see my friends and classmates already MD of a bank, riding big cars and everything, you wonder: have you not made a mistake? (Laughs). So, being able to live with my passion and make a success of it, even though it was tough, I think that’s probably one of the biggest things.
What hasn’t music done for you?
It hasn’t made the change I thought it would make and now I’ve settled to understand that music would not change things as quickly as I want it to change, because we are still singing the same songs Fela sang donkey years ago. No food, no water, no light, no house; corruption this, corruption that. Why hasn’t the music made a difference? Why are people just saying ah! Otito lo so o! Ah, hmm! Good song, and they carry on with the madness. So, it has not made the quick change I thought it would make in terms of social, political consciousness.
Why do most musicians find it difficult to extricate themselves from the clutches of women, wine and weed?
(Laughs) – The three terrible Ws…because they are sweet (More laughter). And really anything which is sweet; sweet means they are pleasurable and you know pleasure is the easiest thing to victim to and really it’s not just musicians. It’s everywhere, especially the one with women and wine.
Most musicians make money, but they are not able to manage it, what do you think is the problem?
I think that is changing now. I think the problem basically was ignorance. One thinking it will be coming forever. It won’t come forever. It’s a cycle and sometimes you might be lucky to have many valleys and bills, several ups and downs. Sometimes it’s just one gbaao! And then you are just struggling to be there again. So, ignorance, thinking it will always come forever. No 2 is not knowing that when you have the little that you have, invest. And that’s why is aid things are changing now, because now there’s better information and people now know that you can actually have investment managers and somebody who will advice you on what to do, so that what you have today would be meaningful 15 years from now. I was fortunate that I had such people who were actually at that time founders of some of the topmost banks and they will tell you okay, this is what to do, go and see that, go and see this. Sometimes I didn’t follow their advice, but at least you knew what to do. Take things like ordinary insurance, we just kept paying, kept paying and I felt ah, please o! This is too much, until we lost somebody in the band in 1999. That was when we now found that whaaoh, it was a worthwhile investment. Because we lost one single person, but paying group life, paying group personal accident didn’t compare to how much we got for the family of the person that passed on. Something as simple as that, even though will sound like a succor, when bad times happen you will find that it makes sense. I think there’s more information available now and I think nobody will have an excuse to say he’s ignorant, he doesn’t know that there are ways to invest. It’s not fool proof, because of the world of today where shares can nosedive and properties can collapse in value, especially abroad. But one thing we are an economy that is blowing up. So, with the right advice nobody should have an excuse not to be able to manage the little they have in ways that might be sustainable on a long term.
Do you think you would have succeeded this much without your mask?
I would have succeeded more, but I might have also been a victim of that success and stardom. I will tell you something about the mask. The mask is actually a hindrance, because the most powerful thing for an artiste, a musician is your face, is when you communicate, especially if you have a good face. I mean, forget the story about Lagbaja’s ethnic marks, facial marks; they don’t know what they are saying. If I’m singing on stage, this mask sometimes is just a plank, because, when you see he’s squeezing his face, he’s turning his mouth, you se all his expressions, those expressions are powerful communication tools. So, the mask actually makes your work more difficult to communicate, because they can’t see the expressions, so you need sometimes exaggerated movements – you move your head, move your body, move your leg, when actually I can just look and my look and my look can communicate. We have the culture of expression. If you look at the child with one eye, he knows what you mean. To ba yi imu, he knows what it means, and that’s why I say if you watch pastors for example and you wonder why does Pastor Adeboye sound in one way and one style, apart from the reading of the stock and still communicate in a different way from a Pastor Bakare or a Pastor Okonkwo or a Pastor Okotie. The expressions are impactful. They are all talking from the Bible, but their choice of words, their gestures and their expressions which this mask doesn’t let you communicate is sometimes a hindrance. Well, being articulate as I am; I’m not trying to sound like some proud guy, but I know I can communicate what I want to communicate. Being this articulates would have been a more impactful thing because my brother, it’s not about the music, it’s about the person. I can sing thrash and still make something huge because of my persona, my personality. So, I think I would have been much bigger than this, but then I would have had to deal with the short comings of stardom and the short falls of a celebrity status.
What singular decision did you take as a musician that turned your life around?
Being the musician myself, because I started by being a man behind the scene. In 1995, which is very funny today when you think back – I felt I was too old to be a musician. And here I am today, being a musician. I wanted to be a producer and a label owner. That was simply because I felt I was too old. And No 2, I felt there is more, both economically and control-wise and adventure and fun being the man behind the scene in 1985. But the moment I decided, it’s a very funny long story, to start playing music myself, believe me, my career made a u-turn instantly that you can do it yourself, but it wasn’t Lagbaja to start with. It was some guy without a mask. But the first show we had, it was as if what have I been doing all these years, wasting time 1990, August 24, I’m counting money. More than what I’ve been getting working in the studio. It was like where have you been all these years? So, the decision to transform from the man behind the scene to the man in front of the mic and scene was the singular most transforming decision.
It’s obvious that the Almighty God has been nice to you, what more do you want from God?
A change in this country. It’s not for me, believe me. I don’t want anything for Lagbaja, which is good. It gives you your freedom. But what I really want that will make me happy is a real change in this country, because I grew up experiencing world-class impossibilities. At a time my passport had you are a commonwealth citizen. My friends were going to UK without a visa. You just go; all you needed was the money for the airplane. I’m telling kids nowadays they think I’m joking, that no, it’s not possible. Because we were powerful. Our money was powerful. We had a solid name and reputation. I grew through all that time and I’m wondering what’s going wrong with my people now. If there’s anything I want from God in my life time, it’s to see a Nigeria that change from potential to reality, because it’s so easy. If you see a few leaders who are making a difference, you will see how easy it is. All they need to do is to have a conviction and have a sense of purpose. Not all the mess that all these share, share, share, share people are doing. I’m surprised that Nigerians are still voting for the same party that didn’t do anything for first term, second term, next term, it doesn’t make sense at all. Believe me, I’m eager to see a change and if I can witness that change in my life time, believe me, it will be the greatest thing God can do for me.