You must have seen the masquerade with the saxophone. Surprised? Lagbaja is not a typical egungun: the masked one is a musician of a contemporary order couched in the dialectics of the times.
“Music is universal,” he tells me without much ado. However, he understands the significance of his Africanness vis-à-vis the colorations that are dominant in his jazz influenced compositions.
It was after a concert. Lagbaja bedecked in his trademark, his eyes dance between the narrow holes just above his nostrils. Characteristically, he wears the smiles ever present on his face. Hidden though, his eagle-spread lips give him away. Lagbaja is ready for an audience in the green room, far away from his shrine. But it has been a long, sweaty night triggered by audacious performance wrapped in gyrations that are familiar presence in his dance steps. His voice embraces me with some roughness. It is human: this masquerade has been singing all night, and he knew I was somewhere in the crowd waiting for this moment because it was the night, after many days of stalking him, he had promised to bare his ‘face’ – no, his mind – to me.
“I lived in the village and I went to school in small communities,” the cosmopolitan artiste gives me an insight into his childhood. “So, I experienced the whole essence of coming together under the moon and hearing stories from elders.”
Conversant with traditional ambience, I could see through my mind’s eyes the image that is being painted. So, I listened on. “I grew up with folk songs and those stories,” he continues with ease not betrayed by tiredness. Perhaps he is not mortal, the air whispers in my ears. Maybe the ancestral spirits have consumed the songster, but in his presence I stand drinking in the essence of his charisma. “I never knew I will be playing music at the time, but they [songs and stories] were always in my mind. So, when I grew up and started playing music, I found all coming back.”
This disposition conjures laziness in the mind of the uninitiated who will easily think that Lagbaja isn’t prepared to carve a niche for himself by defining a pattern germane to his peculiar identity. The masked one is unapologetic. “I decided to do it because I had come to the point where I said whatever comes to my mind musically is what I will do; I don’t have to start thinking about should I or should not I?” His creative posture is given strength by the reaction of his fans. This I could infer when he says to me: “I found out that people love to hear it too. So, great! That is our culture being documented for the future.”
And this mask fascinates me. What are its effects on the multitude of his followers who run to him with some cult-like frenzy, I itch to know? He is not too excited with this cultic insinuation, but he admits silently that his music and stage-theatrics elevate his followers in a manner, which I think, can be equated with the sensational, soul-freeing aftermath of a dose of opium; that is, if religion is the opium of the people. “There is nothing like Lagbaja cult as a deliberate movement,’ he submits laughing. “It is just that in the last couple of years Lagbaja has become like a mighty phenomenon in this part of the world. It is not a cult: we don’t meet in secret places. All I do is play music; so, when you see people who are dedicated fans, it is just that they are enjoying what I am doing.”
Why motivates this positive energy towards his music? “I am sure it is because Lagbaja wears a mask and people in this part of the world think there is something mysterious about it. But, I have always said that Lagbaja is not a masquerade. The concept of the mask is just a symbol I use to represent the so-called faceless, common man. But I have found out that somehow people don’t really understand that there was a message behind the mask. To them, this is a marketing gimmick. There is nothing like that.”
Certainly, this initial response to his costumes saddens him, and he takes great pains to explain his mission whenever and wherever. Here lies his dilemma. “I wanted something that you will remember as a powerful image. And, I found that I also wanted to speak for the so-called voiceless masses. So, I felt one way of doing this is to have a face behind a face: a face that says, ‘I am faceless.’ As a matter of fact, that is what gave rise to Lagbaja, which is a complex Yoruba word that means ‘somebody,’ ‘nobody,’ ‘everybody’ and ‘anybody’ at the same time.”
I call his attention to another quandary that is common knowledge in the ‘market’ place about his identity, which is that the mask is a disguise employed to hide his lineage since his parents are against his chosen profession. His response is measured. “There have been so many stories about why Lagbaja wears the mask. I heard a lot of them so many years ago at the beginning.”
He leads me on a path full of metamorphosis. “At the very beginning of the mask, I used to cover my whole body – hands, fingers and feet. The story was that ‘Lagbaja is an albino.’ Later they said ‘Lagbaja had tribal marks.’ I said, ‘Hey, tribal marks are there to beautify you. Why should I hide them if they are there? I have nothing to hide.”
He is not trying to be evasive, patience forewarns me. “Yes, initially, his parents were not eager to see him play music. It was like “we sent you to school, how come you are coming back talking about being a musician?” But that is not why I have the mask. As a matter of fact, if you have the mask, it is the fastest way for you to be known. So, it would have been counter-productive if I wanted to hide, if he didn’t want his parents to know.”
Of course, his success today in material terms “has been a source of joy” to his precursors. Lagbaja knew what he wanted to do, and he has been able to defy what society largely considered the artiste to be, “a beggar, a womanizer, a drug user and a lay about.”
The story of his artistic and material wealth I find amazing, if not ambitious. Did he over price himself in appearance fees in order to escape the poverty which is a stigma associated with musicians in the developing world? “Remember how society perceived the musician? I thought if I have to do my own thing, it had to be my own way or forget about doing it. If I have to play music to have fun, I don’t have to play commercially. I could play in my bedroom or with a couple of friends and have fun. But, if I want to do things properly, you will agree with me that I need a lot of finance. I need to get equipment together and the musicians have to be happy. Unlike other parts of the world where you can easily hire equipment to perform, you need to invest in stuff like that here. By the way, this is not the best pricing for my band. No, it is just something that will keep the band going. If those of us that have been making the impact charge so low, I can assure you that everybody will have to queue behind that. That sounds odd.”
Take away the mask, what else is enigmatic about the maverick artiste? The saxophone! He takes me into the psychology behind his choice of instrument. First, he lays this at the doorstep of genre. “The major factor was jazz and what I have seen from the highlife masters. Somehow, the sax stood out and I like the sound of it.” But it is not all fun playing it. “The sax is a little bit more difficult to play. It is a little more difficult to learn than several other instruments because you have to build the right muscles, you have to learn how to breathe properly, and you have got to learn how to intone properly.”
Now, I need to know his level of mastery. “Perfection?” he staggers. “Far from it! I will like to reach a point where I will say near perfection. But that will mean giving the kind of time that I cannot afford to give now.”
It is confession time for me. I tell him what runs through my mind each time I see him in concert. I see his sax as a human being whenever I interpret the feelings expressed through his adroit manipulations of the instrument, which affects moods and emotions. So, I inquired to know the sex of his sax. Guess what. Without dilly-dallying, he declares, “Hermaphrodite!” And he lectures me about the genderless nature of the saxophone: “The sax happens to be the instrument that is nearest to the human voice in that you can intone as the human voice will sing. You can growl, you can moan, you can sigh, you can express things that will be difficult to express on the piano, just with notes. That is why it seems to communicate the human feelings in a way in people faster than several other instruments.”
I am the new born, the initiate.