By Dami Ajayi
“I am listening to Lagos with my eyes closed….”–Chris Abani
Perhaps the safest place to begin is at the intro of Koola Lobitos’ dazzling jazzy riffs on one of Fela’s numerous paeans on Lagos, Eko Ile1. Perhaps not. Perhaps it might be best, and by far more profitable, to dig into Fela’s discography; to tune his chronological influences to an era when Yoruba folklore, populist street songs and American Jazz merged into what he called Highlife Jazz.
Lagos, love without limit
Songs like Waka Waka come to mind; love songs carefully arranged to share a semblance with American jazz. It was the vernacular lyrics that told on Fela’s disguise, betrayed his Africanness, his attempt at creating a hybrid that was not commercially acclaimed, that told on his dissidence, that prophesised—in metric proportions—the extent of his deviance.
Fela sings brashly about a pursuit of love that defies the geography of the place in question. A journey from Ibadan to Lagos by foot is no small feat. It reflects not only the extent of love but also gives the direction of cosmopolitism.
In Lagos Baby, he sings about Lagos women and their greed; he rebukes flirtatious Lagos boys. In Onidodo Oni moin moin, Fela becomes the unreliable narrator of an epic fight in a popular Lagos street, Lafiaji. A food-selling street hawker’s frustration cum boredom prefaces Fela’s reflection on a perhaps (pre-colonial) Lagos with the jaunty rhythms of his band as accompaniment.
Lagos, same then and now
Suffice to say, Fela’s early description of Lagos was tangential, circumstantial and fantastic. Enter Fela’s Monday Morning in Lagos. He sings; I interpret loosely:
Saturdays are for spreading tents in Lagos,
Sundays are for drinking the booze of life,
On Monday, things change, debts become unobtainable,
Credits won’t be given, drinks become expensive;
On Monday mornings, Lagos has no time for nonsense.
I daresay a generation has passed and Lagos hasn’t changed much. If anything, the Owambe weekend culture has transformed to a booming multi-billion Naira industry. There is still that existential angst hanging down the Lagos atmosphere. The streets still throb with urgency, only stopping occasionally for a recess, usually to feast upon public brawls or an impending mob justice; and even then, during these recesses, arty dodgers and professional pickpockets mill about seeking out the occasional Suegbe who lets his(/her) guard down.
(Palaver). Beyond the aesthetic musical arrangement, its showiness as the signature Afrobeat tune of the early Seventies, Palaver is steeped in the raucousness of Lagos; it chronicles the lives of ordinary Lagosians—wastrels, street-smart landlords, venal policemen, even rodents—and the gamut of life events they experience.
Lagos traffic is epic, unrivalled. Fela sang Go slow in the Seventies and more than three decades after, automobiles in a gridlock on Lagos roads is still a grim characteristic, the relentless status quo. Even pedestrians are not spared. Lagos traffic has spilled into nearby states, extending beyond the geographical boundaries of Lagos itself, like Lagosians.
Lagos suburbia is an expansive phenomenon swinging beyond the reaches of Lagos, down Lagos-Ibadan expressway, through Wawa, Arepo, Magboro, Ibafo, Asese, Mowe, all the way to Shagamu to accommodate an everlasting shortfall. Add to this the Lagos-Abeokuta expressway, Ota and environs.
Lagos, still the apple of all eyes
Yet the city hungers for more. People arrive by the thousands weekly: school leavers, graduates, apprentices, ex-youth corp members and even middle-aged late bloomers. Everyone is tied to a focus: to make it, as if being in Lagos is synonymous with success.
Ikoyi’s myopia hardly sees beyond
Finery, beyond visual percepts like manicured
Foliage, old orchard trees, bougainvillea
And an occasional power cut
Fela coined ‘Ikoyi Blindness’ to describe a certain tendency amongst the Nigerian elite class. He criticized the snobbery of the working class by the elites who resided in highbrow areas (like Ikoyi).
In recent times, exclusive areas have spread across the Lagos Island and Lekki peninsula to accommodate the nouveaux riches.
This I-don’t-care attitude to the sufferings of the masses by the influential is aptly depicted in the cover art: a blindfolded grumpy cigar-smoking money-miss-road scrambles through a working-class neighborhood. The uneven social divide persists in Lagos, nay Nigeria, in spite of our democracy. Our politicians remain motivated to drain the country’s financial reserves without as much as a second thought.
Lagos, rise of the megapolis
But Mr Raji Fashola, the governor of Lagos State since 2007, who is often celebrated as the man who has successfully tamed the city and given it its recent shine, is an exemplar of good governance. It is almost imaginable that were Fela alive today, Fashola would come under his lyrical blows, especially for some of his anti-populist policies.
Perhaps a good place to end this reflection is Fela’s declaration in his 1970s track, Eko Ile3, that there is no place he could call home except Lagos. Perhaps not.
Fela lived most of his adult life in Lagos. He took his last breath on Victoria Island, in defiance of Ikoyi Blindness, a career of police lock-ups and a well-rounded life of a free thinker. His commune, Kalakuta Republic, where his remains was buried, is now the Kalatuta Museum (financed by the Lagos State Government), drawing both local and international tourists and fans.
the terrace of the Kalakuta Museum is a fine place to catch a good glimpse of the Lagos skyline, the place to listen to Fela’s music with your eyes closed.
1. Eko Ile by Fela Ransome Kuti and Koola Lobitos, 69 L.A Sessions
2. Excerpt taken from Lagos ‘Bunnies’, an unpublished poem
3. Eko Ile by Fela and African & 70 Band.
PS: Dami Ajayi is the Fiction Editor at Saraba magazine. You can tweet at him @damiajai