Bisade Ologunde: The Mystique Lagbaja Masquerade
Bisade Ologunde: The Mystique Lagbaja Masquerade

There is no ethnic group in Nigeria without masquerades. Most traditional cultures believe that masquerades represent the ancestors. Some others believe they are gods. Without the doubt, masquerades are believed to be mystical, and hold powers, that demand that they be respected.

Across the plural cultures of Nigeria, some masquerades are so revered that they hardly come out, only at very important occasions, such as the funeral of a monarch or an inner circle person, special traditional and religious festivities. Adherents of some traditions say the more revered a masquerade is, the slimmer the chances of seeing them.

For students of English Language, masquerade is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it means a false show or pretence, and its verb form is pretending to be someone one is not.

For many years, there is a masquerade in Nigeria’s musical industry most music freaks didn’t know the man behind the mask. For all his stage shows, Lagbaja appeared as a masquerade. It was something of a mystery to concert goers across the length and breadth of the country wherever the masquerade performed – in Abuja, Asaba, Benin City, Enugu, Jos, Kaduna, Lagos, LekkiSun splash or Port Harcourt.

Who is he? Why does he hide his face? And then, there was the egungun-like costumes that easily evoked masquerades in Yoruba cultural festivals.

But unlike the traditional Eyo or some other masquerades common in Yoruba land wielding canes with which to discipline rascally youngsters, this one came with a saxophone with which he entertained adult audiences around the world. The world loved and appreciated it, forever engraving his name as one of the originators of Afro-calypso, as the man dubbed his unique musical genre.

With time, the first question was answered. They got to know his name, Bisade Ologunde. He was born to middle-class parents in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, where he had both his primary and secondary education. After graduating, he got a plum appointment through a friend in a bank in Kano, a job offer that would have delighted any parent. He turned it down, to his parent’s dismay, and followed his passion: Music.

With time, also, people began to understand why he disguised himself with a mask as an entertainer. It was a masterful publicity coup that had never been done by any Nigerian artiste before him. Common sense has shown that most people are naturally curious about things they ought to know which they don’t know much of. From that first moment of hiding his identity, Lagbaja was an instant sell out to fans and ordinary folk alike. Still, the mystery deepened, certainly to his secret pleasure.

Even the man himself promoted it by never appearing bare-faced at any of his numerous shows, sometimes making veiled connections to the spirit beings across many African cultures. As most people assume, spirit beings are not mere mortals like the rest of us. Hands up anyone who has seen a masquerade succumbing to natural urges like hunger let alone eating in public   – although one actually begged for food in one of the eastern states, as reported in a tabloid many years ago.

Going by that assumption, a journalist once asked Lagbaja if the ‘spirit’ does eat, defecate, etc. In the journalist’s estimation, and taking the mystery further, he wanted to know if Lagbaja has children and how he relates with them. His response was as cheeky as it was evasive. “I don’t know this guy you’re talking about”, Lagbaja replied, probably with a chuckle behind his mask. “You need to go find him so that he could talk to you about himself.”

At the time of the interview, on December 26, 2009, the journalist, Entertainment Editor of Vanguard, Amadi Ogbonna, knew quite well who he was. But it was more like a joke both of them enjoyed and didn’t want to stop, like children at play pretending to be someone else, however briefly the entertainment will last.

Of course, Lagbaja soon revealed himself in the course of the interview, sharing fond memories of his growing years at school in Ibadan. ”Growing up like every Nigerian was a great experience at that time, because Nigeria was more laid back then”, he reminisced to Ogbonna.

“My biggest memory was having the freedom to walk to school every day, no fear of kidnappers…you cannot imagine how much I missed that childhood experience of absolute freedom…It was a great time and I wish Nigeria can go back to those times. I lived in an environment without fences, no fears. My first experience of serious fences was when I came to Lagos.”

Like the rest of us, Lagbaja is made of flesh and blood and bones and not the mystery man behind the disguise, a point that was proved almost fatally on one occasion. He, along with two band members, had just returned from rehearsal, and was approaching his home. Two or so robbers accosted them. As you may have guessed, he was without his mask and so the hard-eyed criminals didn’t know who he was. True! Without his mask, the guy could stroll up and down any popular street in Lagos unrecognized. So, the robbers didn’t know who he was. They took him for just another fall guy they could ‘obtain’ at gun point.

As he recalled of the incident, “they came after me shooting kpakpakpa…I escaped into the gorge near my home but then they took Ego and Akin into my home.”

Would the bandits have even contemplated sticking him up if he was wearing his mask? It is doubtful.

But, what has not been in doubt these past decades is Lagbaja’s extraordinary musical oeuvre and mesmerising stage performances. Konko Below, is one of his most popular numbers which grandmothers and even preteens enthusiastically dance to, somewhat with a suggestion of mischief, as they wriggle their waist or backside starting from the waist down to the floor.

At one time in Lagos and many towns and cities in Western Nigeria, it was the number to play at weddings during which both bride and groom will really dig it down to the applause of spectators.

So did fans laud his other compositions such as Lagbaja Nothing for You, a subtle dig at himself for trying and failing to woo a potential partner in a duet with Ego who, for many years, was a female back-up singer until she left him to start her career as a solo artiste. 

For a longer time, fans didn’t even know his name. And no master of ceremonies ever introduced him by his real name at public shows or private concerts. It always went something like this: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are delighted to welcome on stage a musician you have all been waiting for tonight. I present to you Lagbaja.”

Venues could be Maison de France on Alfred Rewane Road, Ikoyi, when, years back, the French Cultural Centre zinged up the musical note in Lagos by bringing on stage musicians like Lagbaja or Femi Kuti in celebrating World Music Day every June. It could be a private concert at a well-appointed residence of a bank executive in Victoria Island throwing a birthday bash for his adorable teenage daughter instead of shopping in Milan or Paris. Or it could even be the entertainment centreLagbaja himself built and helmed right in the heart of Ikeja: Motherlan.

To be sure, Lagbaja isn’t the first musician to build a permanent place to perform and stage his shows. Highlife artistes from the Orient had their own venues, usually in hotels across towns and cities in Aba, Enugu, Onitsha and Port Harcourt where they entertained crowds back in the sixties through the seventies. There was the Caban Bamboo in Yaba, Lagos, where Bobby Benson swayed highlife aficionados back in time. Abami Eda himself, the one and only Fela Anikulapo Kuti, presided for many years at Afrika Shrine at 12, Pepple Street, Ikeja, Lagos, now gobbled up by Computer Village, a glancing distance from Ikeja Local Government Council.

So, when the masked one opened his entertainment joint which he called Motherlan in Opebi, pleasure seekers in Lagos were mightily delighted. They didn’t have to travel far wherever he would perform. With their girlfriends in tow, a rising number of the middle-class and yuppies in the metropolis could set aside two or so days a week to watch their favourite artiste do what he knows best: play music and entertain them.

Like some people who have done pretty well in métier crossovers, Lagbaja didn’t start with music at first. Nigerian Afro-funk artiste, Funso Ogundipe, read law at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University in the eighties) worked in a bank for several years. He is now an accomplished musician with his own brand of Afro jazz. Julio Iglesias, an accomplished Spanish singer, studied law in university. He was recuperating from an illness when a relation presented him with a guitar. That was how his career bloomed as a musician.

As Lagbaja himself recounted several times, he had his first experience with a saxophone in a neighbour’s house. His name is John Redhead, whose father was a professor and owned a sax. Olugunde used to go for practice with the professor’s son. He got more lessons from another neighbour who, coincidentally, lived on the same street with him: Professor Tekena Tamuno. The don was not the one he got his tutelage from. Again, it was the professor’s son, a chap named Tamuno. The sax was left untended, un-played in the university teacher’s garage gathering dust. The pair wasted no time in dusting it up, blowing and blowing until their lips swelled. It was worth the effort, considering the pedestal Lagbaja is today as far as entertainment is concerned in Nigeria.

Besides being the first Nigerian artiste to perform in a mask (Lagbaja in Yoruba means anonymous or faceless one) he also pioneered animation in musical video promos. For the first time, viewers were entertained to cartoon characters living and enacting significant historical moments in Nigeria. “Suruulere” was sensational right from the get-go.

How so? SuruuLere is one of the musician’s most definitive songs, giving a potted history of Nigeria and also depicting significant periods of the country from colonialism through the second republic to the military dictatorships up to June 12 and more. Nothing like that had been done before, at least musically and in cartoon format. It was novel. It also positioned the masked one on a special pedestal in the entertainment industry in Nigeria. More important, “SuruuLere” preached patience in the face of the insecurity and uncertainty most Nigerians had to endure all through those years of upheaval.

There was Rock Me Gentle, and Coolu Temper, which is also about the need for patience. He begins the song thus: “Oh why is it difficult for us to live in peace/ Why oh to love each other/ What exactly are you looking for/ Remember this vanity/ One day you’ll go/ Leave everything behind/ For yonder you must give account/ O ma tetecoolucoolu temper/ (coolu temper)/ Ah cooolucoolucoolu temper…/ My brother let’s share together/ Why oh fight each other/ Let’s be friends/ Not be enemies.” 

The man did not stop there, adding some other compositions to his repertoire such as Show Your Colour, Dis is Lagos, Africalypso, Baby ta Ni Ko Fe,

Former band member, Dayo Ajayi aka D’Plus, a graduate of Sociology and Anthropology from University of Ado Ekiti, who spoke to an editor of The Guardian published on July 22, 2017, recalled his working life with Lagbaja. At the time, he was the youngest member of Lagbaja’s ensemble. He began playing the wooden xylophone, then took up bass guitar and finally the talking drum, all of that on Lagbaja’s urging.

According to the percussionist, they were preparing for a musical tour of Paris and there was no bass guitarist. “We didn’t have a bass guitarist in the band so I had to take it on. I didn’t really mind though. Then, he asked me to learn how to play the talking drum. I was shocked because I had never played it before. He told me to see myself as a utility player in a football team who could play any role. As God would have it, I learnt it fast enough and he was pleased but it was very tough for me.

“He gave me so much to do. At a particular show, I was literally playing the piano, chords on one hand, bass on the other and I was still controlling the computer almost at the same time. It was tasking, yet, he would yell at me like I wasn’t doing anything. But after our last show in Paris, he gave me a pat on the back and said he was proud of my performance. It felt like I was gifted a million dollars.”

Speaking further in the interview, D’Plus said of his former band leader as “a stickler for perfection, very painstaking and tough to work with, but very wise and exposed man. I learnt the virtues of discipline and hard work from him.”

Nothing delights like commendations from colleagues, so they say. If, for instance, a colleague back-pats you, then you know you are doing well in whatever profession you are. But it is even more if a non-professional heaps accolades on you, in praise of your attitude or behavior towards others you wouldn’t ordinarily encounter in life.

So it was with Andy Oriekose, an engineer from Agbor in Delta State, who used to service and still services the generating plants at Motherlan. “I have worked for Lagbaja closely as the engineer who repairs his generators”, Oriekose told this reporter recently. “He is a complete gentleman, a nice man who is not used to giving orders like the typical Nigerian big man.”

Nothing could be better a better testimonial for a performer who has many years ahead of him on the musical stage in Nigeria and beyond.