Masked saxophonist, Lagbaja, in this rare interview with LANRE ODUKOYA speaks on why he still revels in the anonymity his hidden identity confers even when the mask is off in a public place
You claim adoration for George Benson a great deal and most renowned artistes from the West tend to bare it all even on live TV shows, but you're always tight-lipped about your family. What is there to hide?
There's absolutely nothing to hide. I think it has to do with my ideology. I can stop on the road and buy from Iya Oniboli (Yoruba name for the woman who sells roasted plantain) the best boli in town. I want to be a free person enjoying life and the celebrity status takes that away from you. I definitely don't want that kind of lifestyle. Furthermore, you cannot imagine how great the privacy that one gets makes one feel. I love to be among my peers and be recognized as just one ordinary person.
You cannot desire to be ordinary when you added an extraordinary insignia to your brand. Does wearing a mask make a singer ordinary?
You're correct about that and that is the issue that I found when those pictures went on the internet claiming that it was Lagbaja's face. And that happened because I said to myself, "you started this and there's no way people will not be curious and their curiosity will only generate like this". So, you're right, it would bring those contradictions. But the truth is that when the mask is off, I live the most beautiful life that will beat anyone's imagination. It's devoid of celebrity status and stardom. Without my mask, I ride my bicycle anywhere in Lagos. Without my mask I go to the stadium, I go to church, I go to the market to buy my costumes.
Before Tejuosho market was gutted by fire, that was my second home. Now it is Balogun market which is farther from Ikeja. I would go from my house in a public bus because I don't have to care about parking. It feels really good because that is what I get abroad. On the street of New York nobody knows you. And then you would not be under the shackles of focus on you all the time. You will never see me on Twitter; what's my business there? I'm not blaming those who are doing it, but I'm just saying that is not my life. Even though it has its disadvantages in the sense that we can employ it to tell our fans where our next show is, the other side of my privacy is lost.
An article was published linking you to a masquerade in Modakeke, Osun State, did you truly draw your inspiration from there?
(Chuckles) I read it too. It's untrue. Although I used to go and watch the festival of Egungun in Modakeke in those days, it wasn't the real inspiration. It started actually from my days as a youth from our small town.
What age were you when you thought of wearing a mask?
I might have been... (he fell silent suddenly.) Don't let me tell you how old I was so that you won't start keeping numbers. But I would say that it was in 1983 that I had the idea and I made my first costume in 1985. But the costume lived in a suitcase under my bed until 1993 when I eventually summoned the courage to start the art. It wasn't a Modakeke thing, but even up till now I still go there and watch when they are having the Osun Festival, of course, without the mask on. I've met Steve Ayorinde there once (giggling). He said: "Egbon, ki le nse nibi yii?" (what are you doing here, brother?). And I replied, "kinni iwo naa nse nibi yii?" (what are you doing here too?). He actually came to report the event then, I think for The Guardian. But I just went there to enjoy myself and I had my camera with me. But I learnt from all those forces, so the story of Modakeke is not the full truth, I learnt quite a lot from Egungun Modakeke in those days. It was a big festival. The masquerades would come out in their full regalia, the atokuns would follow them in their padded trousers with whips in their hands seriously flogging one another and having fun.
How much confidence did you have on the first day you ever wore the mask before an audience?
I would answer in two ways. Before the person speaking to you ever wore the mask, somebody else was wearing the mask and acting Lagbaja because initially, I just wanted to be the music director. I wanted to be a Quincy Jones, the one would write the music, orchestrate, put the band together and run the band while having other people perform this and that. So, before I wore the mask myself, we had performed in several places with what I will call Lagbaja1 at the Lekki Sun Splash at that time. It was a festival put together by Dapo Adelegan and we just released our album in 1993 and it was making waves immediately.
And I was having some misgivings about the first Lagbaja's ability to translate my vision. So, I thought that I would do my thing for this big festival. Unfortunately, there were issues on that day. We weren't stoned per se, it was just that some things were not working well and at least two other artistes had been stoned out of the stage before us. People were just rioting. So, that was an incident that would have dampened my spirit. But God sent an angel to me that day and I'm still hoping that I would meet that man one day because somebody came and was wearing a short trousers; he was a little older than I was at that time. He forced his way back stage and talked to me, he said; "never give up this concept because of what happened here today, do not be discouraged and never think this was aimed at you or your concept.
This is so great and you will go places." I called him an angel because even though I had a vision, it was a good thing to have somebody who could validate what I was saying, who understood what I was saying and encouraged me. This show I'm talking about, we only did one song we couldn't even finish the second when my boys started dodging flying bottles in the air from an angry audience. And our next performance afterwards was an explosion. My concept was just mask as a symbol, I really didn't care who was behind the mask. So, the day that guy came to meet me back stage and took off the mask, I still had my costumes. Then it was the concept of hide yourself, it was just one as a symbol and as a performance tool. But I grew quickly to see that this could also be a good advantage for my private personality.
If Bisade Ologunde is your producer or friend as the case may be, could you tell us if he's married and with how many kids? You should know your good friend and producer reasonably well.
(Laughter) As much as I know, he's married and he has kids.
You're talking about yourself here...
Yes, but you know friends hide some things from you too. But I know he's married with kids.
How many kids?
He has kids and that's all I know.
Little did many know that the Never Far Away single you sang with your vocalist, Ego, was a farewell bid to your fans. Not so much has been heard of her since the separation professionally speaking.
Are we seeing a possible welcome back after the farewell?
Well, what people don't understand is that it wasn't a break up of a professional marriage. It was and still is the natural progression of her career. If you understand the way the art world works especially from the place where we borrowed the concepts - from America - you can have your own career and still collaborate with other people. It's only in the last five years that they start hammering on the word 'collaboration', it's always been there as artistes sharing knowledge and working together. And that can still happen between Lagbaja and Ego because there's never anything that was in the negative that happened.
It's just that her career has to progress. Do you remember that she was with us for more than 10 years? Not many people remember that. But it gets to a stage where as an artiste, you want to express yourself and do something different. It's nothing strange. The singer is a very prominent person in a band and that's why you'll find a James Taylor leaving Kool and the Gang, you'll find Lionel Richie leaving Commodores, the list goes on and on. She just left to build a career of her own but that doesn't mean we cannot work together on songs, albums and concerts. Again, if you look at it from the perspective of arts you would find out that somebody leaving creates a space for somebody coming in and this means another kind of collaboration, marriage and direction.
If anyone like that has joined your team, that elegance has yet to be felt.
Yes, it's because you have to be there long enough to build that chemistry, but many people may not have the patience to wait for more than ten years. We've had a great time together. We've had very good singers since then too but none has stayed that long. Even while Ego was there, people don't remember that every time we had more than one female singer. At a point we even had someone taking more lead vocals than Ego but they won't have the patience to wait and leave at the right time. In my opinion, Ego left at the right time.
Is she still so close that you can pick your phone and call her right away?
(He opened his phone and the last call he missed was Ego's) The last time I saw her and we performed together on stage was at the Wole Soyinka Awards about six weeks ago. When I called her on stage, everybody went wild and she did some of our songs she'd known for so many years. There's no problem between us.
What's your idea of the difference between a musician and entertainer when it comes to the art of singing on stage?
It is a lot easier to be an entertainer because you can use anything to entertain. It's more difficult to be a musician and sometimes when I try to explain to people, they don't understand because they judge things by the mediocrity that's prevalent in our environment. I try to learn from whatever is world standard and if you want to be a good instrumentalist, the number of hours you need to put into regulated precise repetition of practice is huge. If you want to be an entertainer, for example, you'll need to get the hype, you'll need to be at every event for people to see you. I'm not exaggerating, if you want to be a musician, you need like six to eight hours a day to rehearse. If you saw George Benson play like that, believe me, maybe he has reduced the number of hours now. At a point in his life, he must have been doing structured practice at least six to eight hours a day because there's something you're trying to build and it's systematic. That's what I love to do and that's why I'm in music.
The music I play is watered down so that people can interact with me. If I really want to play what I have accomplished from practising, I would have a very tiny audience because the deeper the music, the smaller the audience. I want to remain an instrumentalist and a musician, if not for people in this environment not understanding some things, sometimes they even limit what I do because I know my brand is so big by the grace of God and I don't want to jeopardize it in the eyes of people who understand. For example, if you were to see Lagbaja playing guitar for Ego, people won't understand. The next thing you'll start seeing is misconstrued stories. But if you're a musician, you just want to play. I just want to play because music is in me.
In your early days, how were you getting food on your table spending six or more hours rehearsing?
Now you're unmasking Lagbaja (chuckles). Fortunately, I started without a mask. I started in the studio by being a producer of commercials for advertisers. I don't want to talk too much about my background, but I studied some of those stuffs in school. So, my first musical employment was in the studio as a freelance producer. What they do nowadays is a joke. The very first digital recorder in this country was acquired by Africa Sings and I was the first major in-house producer there. The good thing about that aspect of work is that every commission that the agency asks for is paid. So, you don't have to worry about the sales of records. You want a jingle for this song; it is paid for and that was how my bills were paid. I became higher paid than many celebrity super stars at that time and they didn't even know.
So, I didn't just start as Lagbaja straightaway because I didn't have the confidence to be a musician. It's very funny that in 1985, I thought I was too old to be a musician. And here I am today. My vision that time was too shaped by what I had studied and had all over the world. I felt I should just be the man behind the people, so I wanted to just start my label. After the studio work the first thing I did was a label and the first artistes I went looking for were Fuji artistes. At that time Fuji music was not as big as it is now. We only had only about three big names - Barrister, Kollington and Talazo who is K1 today. We had others who were not as big as that but were popular. These were artistes like Shina Akanni before the Ayubas of this world became big. And I thought that I if I add my studio skills and music and put this beautiful street music together, it would be monster hit. So, I didn't just jump to pick the mask.
Your last album, Paradise and Sharp-Sharp technically lacked the buzz the previous ones enjoyed. What went wrong?
You're very correct. The main point is that you have to create the buzz. I did not have the time to create the buzz. The market of today is different from the market of years ago. I can break it down but I sometimes keep quiet because I think these are marketing secrets that I don't need to tell people. Now let me break it down for you. There was a time when you have your music on the only independent at a time, the whole of Lagos has heard. So, you only had to deal with Ray Power at that time. Next was Rhythm and if you have your album on those two stations, Lagos has heard you. Cool fm came and people were asking, what will Cool add? Cool added its own; but then they were only three stations.
That was how things started growing and now there are more than twenty radio stations. I got into music because I wanted to play music, I did not care about marketing. Sometimes I was as crazy as to put three albums out at a time, I didn't care how it's being marketed. All I want to know is that I'm creating. I have, by the grace of God some creative force that is pushing me, it's just like madness because I just want to create music. What I needed at that time which I still need now is somebody else who just deals with the buzz. I don't sit down to do interviews, but I don't do those things. And I tried to work with somebody but it didn't work out between us, otherwise we would have done the buzz.
The first bone of contention was difference in vision. My buzz man wanted to do it the way they do now and I said no, try to understand my brand. I don't want quick hype. I'm going to be here as an icon the way I am. I'm going to be here for long except I die or fall seriously ill, God forbid. The only thing I want is information passing. I don't have the time to say let's do three months; just get it out and follow it up with whatever we are doing next.
There was a difference in vision. He felt I didn't give him a free hand to do his job the way he wants to do, but I said, look, I'm different. If you see somebody putting a mask on his face, he must be crazy in the first place. This is how I want to be. When Channels Television was at the George Benson show, it was there and then that I remembered that despite that they are my friends, I've never been there since they started 10 years ago.
What's your dream for 2013?
As I often say, my dream is a lot linked to this nation. If this nation is not going places, I'll remain an unhappy man no matter how much money is coming into my pocket. I'm saying this because I've been fortunate to have been all over the world and I was fortunate to grow up at a time when great leaders made this place a second heaven. Do you believe that at a point my passport had a stamp saying that I'm a citizen of the Commonwealth and that I do not need a visa to go to the UK? Look at how they've imprisoned us now.
If you want to travel for whatever reason today, you would be believing God for a visa - you will fast and pray. I'm eager to see a better change in Nigeria and it is the reason I did that song, 200 Million Mumu, which hopefully will drop soon. I named it, 200 Million Mumu: The Bitter Truth.