Rumors continually swirl around Lágbájá. One common one is that Lágbájá has never been seen without a mask, even by his own wife. Some believe that the award-winning Nigerian musician is able to appear from nowhere, and often does so at his performances. In anticipation of his show at the Cedar Cultural Center this Tuesday, we caught up with Lágbájá himself to hear the real truth about the man, the music, and the mask.
In Nigerian Yorùbá culture, "Egungun" refers to masquerades in which participants wear masks and full-figured costumes that honor their ancestors. Egungun are celebrated in festivals known as Odun Egungun, and kept alive through family ritual. Since 1993, Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter Bisade Ologunde has performed as his masked persona, Lágbájá, juxtaposing a revered ancient spiritual custom with a modern pop sensibility.
As a Nigerian musician who tends to release albums right around election time without fear of broaching sociopolitical consciousness, Lágbájá is often compared to Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Even in the media, his music is consistently classified as Afrobeat. "I grew up on Fela," he says, but denies being an Afrobeat musician.
"I don't call my music Afrobeat, but I really don't care about names," he continues. "They're just for description. Over time, I think eventually you will see that what I care about is to talk about the beats and the drums."
These things do play a dominant role in Lágbájá's musical sound scape, but what's important is his inclusion of record-scratches, synthesizers, and other modern sounds-- a result of listening to and being inspired by all music. That blend of modern and natural sounds fill his ninth album, 200 Million Mumu; The Bitter Truth, which he released in March.
The first single and music video for the album, "200 Million Mumu," depicts Nigerian ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo and his failed third-term agenda. In the past, it was mere coincidence that his releases coincided with elections, but in this case the act was intentional. He wanted to make a statement for the people, whom he felt were drifting and needed a fresh perspective.
The end of March this year brought the fifth quadrennial election to be held in Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1999. Lágbájá seemed satisfied with the outcome, for the most part. "I'd say my preferred choice is who was elected," he says, referring to Muhammado Buhari. "In reality, if I had a say, neither of the two candidates would be contestants, but we had these two options." Buhari (All Progressives Congress Party) defeated his opponent, Goodluck Jonathan (People's Democratic Party) by less than 10% of the vote.
Adorned by a mask, Lágbájá can be anyone, while empowering everyone. "I felt the mask was a perfect way to depict the conflict of the faceless-ness and the voiceless-ness of the common man, and the masses," he says. "Sometimes it could be 'somebody,' or it could be 'nobody.' It could be anybody." In Yorùbá culture, the masquerade has the freedom to speak, to keep the truth in power.
Lágbájá's masks are striking, and are his own personal designs. They can be somewhat frightening, especially the dramatic flash of white teeth through the small rectangular mouth hole. The colors, fabric, and patterns depend on the circumstances, but are usually a splash of brightness. He dreams of creating a superhero character who will likely wear a singular mask, but he hasn't decided on a pattern yet.He's received many strange reactions to the mask, especially in the United States. The most shocking was this: "Two days ago in Houston," he starts, "I had a guy come up to me and say, 'Are you in the Klu Klux Klan?' And I said, 'Well, this has nothing to do with that. As a matter of fact, my mask will preach against that.'" [page]
He doesn't see it in a spiritual way, though, which can be misleading to some who automatically associate the mask with Yorùbá tradition. Rather than be an intermediary between the ancestral voices and the people, Lágbájá hopes to build a bridge "between the masses and the powers," as he describes them. Recently he's been focusing more of his attention on the people, after discovering that much is amiss with the thinking of the masses, in his opinion.
"Our culture is one that reveres elders, respects and reveres people in positions of power, so it's natural for us to just defer to them and not ask questions when these people do the wrong things," he says. He speaks of his hope for the Nigerian people to understand their rights within a democracy.
"Even democracy itself is not a perfect thing," he says ruefully. "It's got to demand that the right things are done." He sees the people and their leaders, as being unnecessarily separated, and feels this is a result of a problem with people's thinking as a unit. His advice? "We need to look more inwards and take positions of people and guide the leaders, even by being critical of them."
Playing drums is also a means of communication for Lágbájá . When we start talking about drums, he speaks in the third person regarding his persona. "Lágbájá doesn't use them separate; I mix them together," he says. "This is contemporary music." To him, it isn't a matter of conforming to the way these drums have been used for centuries. Instead, it's about using them in his music as he'd use any other instrument: exactly how he wants to.
"Sometimes it says things that people know, and sometimes it is just making rhythms up," he describes. "Sometimes it's a proverb." At home, people know these proverbs. The first language of the drum was proverbs and it has spoken through the centuries.
Though he had to pare down what was apporaching an almost twenty-person group for this tour, tomorrow night at the Cedar will be a demonstration of the man's eclectic creative vision and his far-reaching instrumental talents. Those musical gifts extend from just about every drum known to man, to bass guitar, and even saxophone (rumors of him 'appearing' spontaneously at shows stem from him hiding from view of the audience, changing masks, and re-appearing with a saxophone).
On 200 Million Mumu; The Bitter Truth, he wrote and recorded most of the unique bass parts himself, echoing his musical beginnings which were on bass. "I think it mimics the trance-inducing, big drum rhythms, but with specific melody lines," he says.
On this tour they are a band of ten, which he says is his minimal. The drums themselves once took up enough space on the road for twelve people, he says. Unfortunately this became such a cost problem that it's impossible for Lágbájá to continue outside of Nigeria. He also cut his dancers, but promised that "the band can dance anyway" and that he "wanted to showcase more of the grooves and beats than dancing."
In response to our question if he's got a message for people who have never seen or heard of him before, Lágbájá responds:
"That the perception of African music is being cliched. I'd like people to be open to the fact that there are many forms in African music. I have trained my whole life in music, especially Yoruba music, because I love it. On the message side -- we don't want to bore people with long talks -- but the circumstance of the people forced us to dwell on special political issues a little bit more than singing about love, or things like that, but we mix them all up. So, Lágbájá is a mixture."
Lágbájá performs tomorrow Tuesday April 28 at the Cedar Cultural Center with Proper-T and the Sol Flower collective. Local DJ's Mitch Sigurdson of Black Market Brass and Brian Engel of Worldwide Discotheque will start the night off at 7:30 PM. All ages, $18 advance, $22 door
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