One Friday evening in November 2016, while walking on Campbell Street in central Lagos, I passed by an open-air bar where a five-man band was playing a type of Yoruba traditional music – the genre of which I couldn’t place. It was absorbing enough to stop me in my tracks.
“It is Agidigbo music,” one of them whispered, when I asked, mindful not to distract the others. The leader, seated on the Agidigbo box and tapping its sides in measured frequency, was a skinny, dark-skinned man in his 40s, dressed in orange trousers and a black shirt. In front of them, spread out in the fenceless compound were a dozen Lagosians visibly enjoying the show.
A pair of waiters went in and out of an adjoining section, bearing beers and pepper-soups and nkwobi. Though the lighting was dim, I reckoned that the raw, fast-paced sounds coming from the sekere, and sakara drums, and the band’s combined voices were all the revelers needed.
Growing up on Lagos mainland in the ‘80s, I listened to a variety of traditional Nigerian music on public radio, not to mention my parents’ modest cassettes collection across genres: Fuji, Juju and Waka, among others. But beginning from the ‘90s up until the present, they gradually took a backseat, upstaged by the new sound of Afro-hiphop, the wheels of which are now richly oiled by corporate Nigeria and a formidable body of converts, young and old.
So technically, that fateful evening was the first time in a long while that I would hear that ‘evergreen’ music as an adult. Against my better judgment, I walked back, sat down, ordered a beer and immersed myself in the melody for a half-hour.
“In sharp contrast to the fixation of contemporary artists on hitting fame, instant wealth and sexual innuendos, this was music with a moral and philosophical message…”
It was a musical journey back in time, it turned out: the band sang of a time in Nigeria when 12 kobo was a lot of money and it fared well against the Pound Sterling. In another song, they mocked the individual who spent his entire earnings from a cooperative scheme hosting friends to a lavish party.
In sharp contrast to the fixation of contemporary artists on hitting fame, instant wealth and sexual innuendos, this was music with a moral and philosophical message, a nudge to think and reflect on significant life issues in the lives of everyday people.
It was a moment of refreshing for me and I lingered longer. Seated in that space and bathed in local oldies, my thoughts travelled to a day four months earlier when I was in Ibadan on a short visit. While having breakfast at a bus park in the Bodija area, an itinerant vendor walked in with a SONY deck in his firm grip and a bag packed with CDs. The song blaring from the speakers was by the late Yusuf Olatunji, whose crossover to sakara music gave the genre a massive boost.
“As a pupil in Abeokuta, I walked past the front of his house every morning,” the restaurant owner, a man in his 60s, recalled, dancing to the music. “I can still picture him standing on his balcony. He was jovial; he drank a lot and he was admirable. Oh, baba l’Egba!”
The track playing was a song in praise of the then Alake of Egbaland, Oba Oyebade Lipede. From where I was seated, I could make out the subtle whirring sound of the traditional violin and the sakara drum.
I was to find out later that there seemed to be a gradual resurgence of Agidigbo and other traditional music genres on the Island and across the city, with bands performing at Igbosere Road, Campos Street, City Mall, Muson Centre, Ebute Metta, Surulere and Ikorodu, to mention just a few locations.
“Sakara music can be intoxicatingly stimulating with no need of wine”
In April 2017, a private concern, Evergrin Koncepts, hosted a Sakara Music Fiesta. “It is part of our continuous innovative focus in promoting the best of Nigeria’s local content,” the organisers said in a press statement. The event, it promised, would showcase the rich entertainment inherent in the sakara music genre and the need to keep celebrating it as part of our unique selling proposition as a nation blessed with deep-rooted entertainment, pioneered by Nigerians and owned by Nigerians.”
I was sure I would be there but didn’t think it would draw much of a crowd, considering the now prevalent influence of hip-hop in our lives. I was wrong—the venue, Freedom Park, was packed almost to capacity. The party went on till midnight.
The young connected with a new sound previously unknown to them, while the older generation re-connected with the music of their youth, experiencing several nostalgic moments.
On the bill were the likes of Jamiu Lefty Balogun, Wasiu Oseni Ejire and Abideen Yusuf Olatunji, all of them inheritors of the musical heritage from their fathers and grandfathers, who were icons of the genre in their days.
“Sakara music can be intoxicatingly stimulating with no need of wine,” said ace filmmaker Tunde Kelani, 69, a week later. “Everyone who witnessed the concert…had something to take away musically.”
Indeed I did. For the first time since I stumbled on the local oldies, I found them lyrically soothing, almost to the point of being therapeutic. Then I pondered a thought: How did we let this rich brand of music slip away in the first instance?
About the Author
Pelu Awofeso is a winner of the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist Awards in the tourism reporting category. He has travelled widely around Nigeria—32 states at the last count—documenting several indigenous festivals and carnivals; his other travel interests include museums, monuments, nature and functional crafts.
This article is published as part of Music (That) Matters, an initiative of Goethe-Institut Lagos in commemoration of the 2017 World Music Day. The series is aimed at documenting personal memories and social histories relating to the power of music. All rights reserved by the author.
Cover image credit: Africana Digital Ethnography Project