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A Brief History of Music in Lagos – Dami Ajayi

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Lagos has always been the cultural capital of Nigeria. Given its maritime location as well as being the seat of political power in both colonial and post-colonial eras, it was only a matter of time for the city to grow into its true cosmopolitan potentials and become a sort of open city; a place where people, ideas and culture are in constant collision.

Colonial accounts of pre-colonial musical forms are either spastic or glib. Narratives only become fluid at the instance of barter between western sailors and our ancestors, that moment when musical instruments like guitars and horns became accessible to our communal sound and spirit.

Our knowledge of root forms remains rudimentary because change is constant and these changes mostly predated the grasp of technology. Precursor musical forms like sakara, asiko, apala and agidigbo are still with us today, handled by old and aging practitioners who often pass it down bloodlines. However, highlife and juju music have been widely studied and documented, because they came to the height of popularity at crucial times inn post-colonial history, a time of unfettered optimism and because it was also within the grasp of relevant technology.

In 1949, Lagos was smaller than it is today. Lagos, at the time, heavy with colonial presence, was not unlike any European city where nightlife thrived. The consequence of the interaction of natives and whites was the adoption of latter’s culture. Nightclubs were a thing, alongside the different players of its ecosystem—musicians, bands, promoters, food vendors, drug peddlers—that made it function.

Numerous accounts remember Caban Bamboo, the night club owned by Bobby Benson, a vibrant cultural entrepreneur and impresario of his time. He, alongside his wife Cassandra, ran a theatre group that served as nocturnal entertainment. He also formed the Jazz Orchestra Band which will become a spring board and offer tutelage to our greatest highlife musicians. At the time, this band played classical ballroom dance, foxtrot, cha-cha and swing for their elitist clientele. They also did local numbers too.

It was not until the 1950s that the wave of a new sound came by way of Ghana. There was the often-quoted West African tour embarked upon by E.T Mensah, a Ghanaian trumpeter, and his Tempos Band which showed Nigerian musicians the possibilities of playing African-oriented rhythms with Western instruments. There are also accounts of Bobby Benson and his band travelling to Ghana to play shows. The origins of the name “highlife” from Ghana suggests that the music became accomplished in Ghana first.

What is conclusive about this era was that as we inched towards independence, highlife music grew wider in its popularity. Nightclubs and hotels typically had resident bands who played most nights of the week, Saturday nights and the last Fridays of the month were particularly big.

Band musicians dressed dapper in suits and provided music in popular venues like the Bobby Benson-owned Caban Bamboo, Gondola Bar (which still stands till date under a different name and ownership) and Ambassador Hotel both in Yaba owned by a Lebanese man, Mr. Rosek, Empire Hotel at Idi-Oro in Mushin run by Mr. Kanu, Kakadu Night Club in Yaba run by Mr. Lardner and Stadium Hotel owned by Dr. Victor Olaiya, a popular highlife musician who passed in February 2020.

A lot of these locations and exotic nocturnal places are defunct, having become residential buildings or church auditoriums. Their cavernous halls used to be a place of dance, music and sexual liaisons. Women were huge cheerleaders of highlife musicians and had valuable roles in that niche especially to the musicians. Songs like Rex Lawson’s Sawale rush to mind, a humorous dance tune which curated the colloquial term, ‘waka waka baby’ to define commercial sex workers at the time. Many decades later, Flavour N’bania will revisit this in an uptempo song in his number called ‘Ashawo’, a massive hit.

The Golden Era of the 60s is fondly remembered to be an era of independence and nationalist optimism and, highlife music, the popular dance music of the era, faced out calypso, classical ballroom dance, swing and cha-cha to become the soundtrack of this period.

All over the country, there were hotels and nightclubs where live music played deep into the night.  There were charismatic band leaders with sophisticated band names. Roy Chicago and the Rhythm Dandies. Victor Olaiya and the Cool Cats. Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Koola Lobitos. Rex Lawson and His Mayor’s Band. Chris Ajilo and the Cubanos. Unfortunately, that optimism was short-lived. The newly formed republic fell into chaos leading to a civil war that left millions dead and displaced.

In the immediate aftermath of the Nigerian Civil/Biafran war, highlife music began its decline from popularity for the following reasons. A significant number of highlife musicians were of Eastern extraction and the war inadvertently displaced them from Nigeria into Biafran territory. There was also the rise of American soul and funk music as well as the rising security concerns which hampered with nightlife culture.

After the Civil War, highlife struggled for relevance. The zeitgeist was more robust especially in terms of choices. Juju music, a variant of palmwine highlife, became more popular in South-Western Nigeria. With a flurry of musicians strumming the guitar and giving meaningful direction to the harmonies of their band members, this kind of music fast became popular amongst the party-loving Yoruba elites. Regardless of juju’s slow speed in filling the void left by apala music, the impact of virtuoso musicians like the visually impaired Kokoro, Tunde King, Ayinde Bakare, Ojoge Daniel, JO Araba and IK Dairo was not completely felt until the dominance of the duo, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and his dance-loving King Sunny Ade. Make that trio, because Prince Dele Abiodun is also a superior actor.

Several fusions like afro-rock, afro-soul and afro-funk were also in vogue among the younger crowd. The ‘70s would become a period of oil boom in Nigeria and the country, set back by a early 30-month long civil war, appeared resilient in its effort at espousing a cheerful disposition and forging ahead.

In 1977, Nigeria hosted the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC). Of course, Lagos was the landing to world renowned creatives including superstar American musicians, Stevie Wonder and James Brown.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti who was initially part of the FESTAC committee boycotted the program but his nightclub, Afrika Shrine, became a watering hole for a lot of international musicians who had come to Lagos on FESTAC’s bill.

Fela Kuti’s brand of music, afrobeat, had become a staple on Lagos streets even if his incendiary lyrics put him at loggerheads with the polity. His Afrika Shrine, doubling both as a nightclub as well as a spiritual Pan-Africanist nirvana, added a unique dimension to Lagos nightlife with a thriving ecosystem of food vendors, drug peddlers, and paraphernalia dealers. The 70s featured vibrant experimentation with sounds and musicians like Fela Kuti, Segun Bucknor as well as the Lijadu Sisters stood out.

The Lijadu Sisters were identical twins whose music was a fusion of jazz, reggae and the more traditional waka incantatory call and response music. Their music caught on and they quickly became pioneers among women musicians who upturned the abiding stereotype. Musicians were often looked upon as layabouts and these discriminatory gaze was especially worse for women.

The political climate of 80s was rather inclement with a succession of coup d’états. The country was not faring well economically. The security situation dealt a heavier blow on the nightlife economy. In fact, at a time, night parties was all but abolished due to the rising spate of crime. The music scene became less and less vibrant with a good number of recording companies and their distribution networks folding up. Once live music was decimated, digital music thrived, albeit feebly.

The 80 and 90s saw the rise of digital music, the proliferation of reggae music as well as the birth of Nigerian hip-hop music. This era brought a bevy of stars like Dizzy K, Junior and Pretty, Ras Kimono, Christy Igwoke, Charlie Boy, Daniel Wilson, Zubby Enebeli, Alex Zito, Blackky, Evi Edna-Ogholi but none of these musicians was as successful as the recently passed reggae super-star, Majek Fashek who later migrated to America in the ‘90s and consolidated his phenomenal success in the Diaspora.

The ‘90s is remembered for its quiet mostly. Most narratives around nightlife speak of underground music. In Lagos, there was the Nightshift Coliseum in Ikeja where Lagbaja was leading his band in a fusion that was equal parts, highlife and afrobeat. His brand of music was not as incendiary as it was insistently percussive. His deployment of the bata drums was a unique innovation which often occasioned frequent drum intermissions that potentially distracted his scant socio-political message.

The Abacha days (1993-1998) were particularly heady. This period of political as well as economic turmoil had the most devastating effect on cultural production. Cultural producers were being sanctioned for their works. Reputable writers like Wole Soyinka were hunted for their scathing remarks and criticisms of the anti-populace government. Ken Saro-Wiwa was murdered for championing the cause of Niger Delta and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, feeble with sickness, would die from the nature of his illness but not before he was rough-handled by agents of the government who targeted his cannabis use.

It was not until Abacha’s death and return to democracy that cultural production began to thrive again. A new wave of music began to gain grounds on radio. It was indigenous, if not naïve. It came from a place of imitation. Young and enthusiastic Nigerian creatives began to spew a new kind of music heavily influenced by American rap and hip-hop music popular on the radio. At this time, these musicians converged in collectives and boy bands.

There was the Remedies trio comprising of Eedris Abdulkareem, a rapper, and two singers, Tony Tetuila and Tony Montana, whose breakout song ‘Mi o sako mo’ sampled MC Lyte’s Keep on Keeping on and became the sound that heralded that new era. Other boy bands from this era include Boulevard, Def-O-Clan, Twinax, Trybesmen, 419 squad and Plantashun Boys. There were the occasional female musicians who strung along like Queen Change, Azeezat and Funmi Olayode who transposed a popular Celine Dion hit into Yoruba .

2004 marked the beginning of another era in contemporary Nigerian music. It was the period that the boy bands began to split up. This era de-emphasized collaborative efforts and focused more on the individual. Championing this era was Tuface’s seminal album, Face to Face, released by a pioneer record label at the time, Kennis Music, owned by two media moguls, Kehinde Ogungbe and Dayo Adeneye. The likes of Timaya, Face, D’Banj, El Dee, Don Jazzy, K-Solo, 9ice, Mo Cheddah became popular in the years that followed.

Rap music was an aspect of our contemporary popular culture but it enjoyed the back burner. It was a niche market enjoying a cult following. Rappers like Mode Nine, Freestyle, OD, Ruggedman, Mickey The Messenger, White Mask, 2Shot did occasionally cross to the mainstream with an occasional single but this was not the norm.

In 2008, a squad of creatives from Jos arrived in Lagos. It was this wave that brought MI Abaga, Jesse Jagz, Ice Prince, and the rest of his Loopy crew to our consciousness. MI Abaga would later release two LP albums and two mixtapes which rearranged the zeitgeist to rap in the front burner. On his first album, Let’s Talk About It, he featured a singer on ‘Fast Money, Fast Cars’ called Wizkid, who signed to Banky W’s EME record label.  At this same time, 9ice will release his sophomore album, Gongo Aso, a classic with an eponymous monster hit to boot. His brand of music which fused fuji with hip-hop quickly caught on. His collaboration with the pioneer of Yoruba rap, Lord of Ajasa, will foreshadow the next era of music.

Also, Mo Hits Records, started by the duo of D’Banj and Don Jazzy who broke out of the London-based 419 squad, had a roster of impressive artists that included Wande Coal, Dr Sid and D’Prince. This ensured a reign of hits after hits.

In the last few years, there has been a steady appearance of talented female musicians hitting up our airwaves. There is Yemi Alade whose fame rose on the basis of one single, Johnny, which has enjoyed acceptance across Africa. Tiwa Savage has also been on a meteoric rise. Niniola, whose brand of house music features sultry tunes and bawdy lyrics disguised in Yoruba. Simi Ogunleye, the songwriter bird with a tinny voice.

Walk into any nightclub in Lagos and you will feel the pulse of our music. The music is produced to be instantly consumed. Hence, singles weigh in more than albums and disc jockeys not only play songs, they also make their own songs existing outside their roles as curators and hype men.

Contemporary Nigerian music, like its forbears, exists mostly for dance. There is the lean niche market for introspective, instrumentation-based alternative market suited for cafes and cabarets but in Lagos, nightclubs and lounges are the rule, not the exception.

And for the exceptions, places like Freedom Park on Broad Street, 100 Hours on Awolowo Road and Stadium Hotel in Surulere provide good live music into wee hours of a sleepless Lagos night.


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