Nigeria's masked crusader sings his messages of democracy

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To collective relief, the rainy season cracked into life last Wednesday night after Lágbája, on stage in Lagos, banged his talking drum with such vigour that Sango, deity of thunder and lightning, could not prolong her dry-season slumber.

To collective relief, the rainy season cracked into life last Wednesday night after Lágbája, on stage in Lagos, banged his talking drum with such vigour that Sango, deity of thunder and lightning, could not prolong her dry-season slumber. But Nigeria's masked musician wants to do more than change the weather.

Calling himself by his stage name, he said: "Lágbája is trying to tell Nigerians that we need to have patience with democracy. It takes a lot more effort to build a nation than to destroy it like the military did. That is why we sing "Suuru Lere".'' The name of a Lagos suburb, the words mean "patience is a virtue''.

Probably the most hurried and chaotic nation in the world, Nigeria is already complaining that President Olusegun Obasanjo is taking too long to deliver the "democracy dividend''. It is two years this month since the retired general was sworn in as a civilian leader. Islamists are entrenching sharia law in the north of the country, the regions and tribes are grumbling and the currency, the naira, is tumbling.

But at least, deliberately or not, Lágbája brought proper rain last Wednesday after his gig in the commercial capital. A saxophone genius who wears a mask in public, he has made his mark by blending the traditional sounds and instruments of the Yoruba ­ the people of the south-west of Nigeria ­ with messages about modern life in the world's third biggest city.

"Lágbája is a Yoruba word which is ambiguous. It can mean somebody, nobody or anybody. The whole concept is to depict my identity: that of an identity-less man in Africa, faceless and voiceless in the world,'' said the musician as the bucketing rain outside seemed intent on proving that Sango, at least, had heard.

In a society of braggers and idols, the mask is a clever image because it is rooted in African culture and anonymous at the same time. May is the time of Egungun, carnival time in Yorubaland, when masked and brightly costumed ancestors ­ some sceptics dare to suggest they are people dressed up ­ pace the streets of Lagos, teasing passers-by.

"The masked man is a spiritual being who comes out to transmit a message. He is ageless and whatever he says is divine,'' said Lágbája, who will not reveal his age or much about his background. In a splendid purple-and-green costume and mask, all that slightly spoilt the image on Wednesday night was a plaster across his nose. A disagreement with the ancestors? No, he said: "Some of the masks are a bit rough.''

Lágbája, who according to rumour, once studied law, is only the latest Nigerian music star to put social messages at the centre of his work. The master of the genre was the late Fela, bane of successive military regimes.

Lágbája, backed by six drummers, four musicians on Western instruments and a female vocalist, sings about enduring problems in Africa, such as the fact that it is blighted by poor leaders who crave flattery and cannot handle dissent. On his album We Me, he asks in Yoruba and Pidgin why Africans have lost their sense of society and shared responsibility. He said: "One of the tracks is "Me And You No' Be Enemy". We sing about how people can live together for years ­ sharing kitchens and bathrooms in the same building. Then a minor dispute comes along, or some leader manipulates us, and it becomes Rwanda.''

Lágbája, who had no formal music training, said the mask helped him to stay in touch with real life. "I live in an averagely middle-class area but I can walk everywhere without being identified.'' He has his own outdoor venue in Lagos, Motherlan', where he performs on the last Friday of every month.

In a nine-year career he has taken the band to other West African countries and the US. He hopes to play in France, Switzerland and Denmark next month. His music has no name but he says he has now chosen one that will be the title of Lágbája's next album.

He is also considering love songs, to reach a wider audience. "Even though Lágbája wants to look at issues, we need to have fun,'' he said. "President Obasanjo has achieved a lot. We are a country of 250 ethnic groups, so-called majorities and minorities, religious interests and cultural perceptions. These are many things for him to balance, especially in a country where years of misrule mean people's expectations are very high.''

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