The renowned percussionist and two-time Grammy winner, Lekan Babalola was in Nigeria last month with his family on vacation. We planned to meet at his Lagos home in Victoria Island but we couldn’t because of a fire incident which mercifully didn’t affect him and his. So, we met at Ebony Vaults, Ikoyi owned by his school mate and friend, Deinde Harrison, on the evening of March 22. When you come across cemetery in this long, riveting interview with the artist who held nothing back about his art, Ifa beliefs and musicianship, please have no fears.
How regularly do you visit your hometown, Ile Ogbo?
I didn’t go on this trip. I think the last time I visited was 2018. I didn’t go last May. We were supposed to go on this trip because we have a project at Ile Ogbo. We have a plot of land that we want to build a children’s library, something artistic. That will have the cultural values of Ile Ogbo. We’ve just applied to a grant in England called International Lottery Fund which is the voices of the community. My wife [classical musician, Kate Luxmoore] is the project coordinator.
I was born in Lagos, and your question is how regular I visit Ile Ogbo. I do visit when I have the opportunity. I’m a regular visitor because I like Ile Ogbo. I wasn’t born there; I don’t know much about Ile Ogbo. I went to Iwo Grammar School, but I tell people I was born at Ile Ogbo (Laughs) But someone called me out one day and said you’re a Lagos boy.
Who first took you to Ile Ogbo, do you remember your first trip?
I remember. We took a train from Agege with my mother, brother and sister. That was 1966. Six years old, I went to Ile Ogbo. I remember. We took a train, and we arrived at 3 am. The night guards came to meet us, and we walked from Ile Ogbo station to the town. One year, after I came back many years in the 90s, I think a trip from the town that I wanted to check the train station, it was no longer there.
What’s the state of the project or it’s still at the planning stage?
The project is at the planning stage. It’s going to have a children’s library, like four rooms that guests can stay, a well-stocked library, and a vocational centre for what they produce in Ile Ogbo. Either palm oil or whatever, a children’s play area and a tennis court because my father was a tennis player and I grew up playing tennis. My wife is a tennis lover, a player. That’s the plan.
A related question to the ones I’ve asked is how often do you perform in Nigeria?
It’s when the opportunity is there. I’m a sucker for Nigeria. I’ve been out of the country for 40 years; I left when I was 20. I came back in; a kind of compulsory coming back because of immigration irregularity from 1986 to 1989. I left this shore 1980, returned in 1986 and went back in 1989. When the opportunity is there for me to return to Nigeria, I jump at it. I took the management thing with Temple Management about two years ago and also Temple Records last year, so all my management- agency and record worldwide is with Temple Management. So, I’m a Temple artiste; I just happen to live in England. It’s all because of my desire always to come back to Nigeria.
Of course, there’s the promoter that you and I are aware of. I met him in South Africa, and I talked him into setting up a Lagos Jazz International Festival, so with that, I hoped that if I contribute to his festival, it’s an opportunity for me. I like to work as a consultant, curator or a performer. I decided to be able to return home regularly.
Professor Wole Soyinka has been an excellent father-figure to me because I have a project in Nigeria called Eko Brass Band. And by setting up the Eko Brass Band which is an academy for performing the sound of that Island, not Ikoyi, Victoria Island or Yaba. The sound tapestry of that Island. The work of Eko Brass Band is to hear it and make it audible to people; the sound fabric of Lagos Island. So, you are playing the sound that govern Ebute-Ero to Onikan in my music.
I was going to ask why you established the Eko Brass Band, especially as you don’t live in Nigeria?
I was born at Lagos Island Maternity. It was the trend to be born at Island Maternity at that time, 1960- the year of Independence. I had become the child that rose as my country is developing and Lagos Island where I was born, it’s an exceptional place. And Lagos Island doesn’t have a museum, like New York City or London or Paris. What’s the history of Lagos Island? If we begin to play this music, the Lagos historian will start to trigger their memory, to tell us of the culture of Lagos. So, I established the Eko Brass Band, which is the royal sound of Lagos to be the Asoju Oba. We are the John the Baptist that talks about the city.
Who manages the band when you’re not around?
It’s self-managed by the musicians themselves. We are still trying to find a proper manager. Of course, musicians can’t manage. You know that. And because I don’t live here, it has made a lot of things prolonged, but I think we will get there. We are working on an album. It’s been taking us seven years because I wrote a kind of bullying letter to my rich friends that I know. This is a community project, donate some money. It’s been a labour of love. The album is mixed now by Warren Grimsley in South Africa who mixed and mastered my album. We hope that we’ll have a template, even if it’s just five songs of Eko Brass Band. They are songs that people know already but with twists.
Isale Eko songs?
Yes, Isale Eko. The classics of the highlife; we did one Femi Kuti. Isale Eko song, the Fanti song, the Faaji of Lagos. When you go to New Orleans, before you play in any Jazz standard band, you play in the street parade called the Second Line. In New Orleans, where the slaves were taken, if their music is Second Line, we should be the First Line. So, it’s all the efe song, all the faaji song that awon Omo Eko mo (Lagos Island people know), something that’s very distinct.
Before I forget, I want you to elaborate more on your relationship with Professor Wole Soyinka?
The relationship started when he was producing the Lagos Black Heritage Festival. He asked [the late] Femi Segun to come and see the Eko Brass Band performing at Campos. He loved the idea that it was that kind of New Orleans funeral gboko sound, but we added Sakara, which is the Lagos drum that they use in Faaji. Sakara, not talking drum because it’s different.
Professor Soyinka came on board like a patron, using the state’s resources to support us and it grew into my relationship with him that he invited me again to come to curate the street procession of Lagos @ 50, working with the late Babalawo Fagbemi Ajanaku. When that project finished, he called me again to curate an exhibition on [Emeritus Professor] Fela Sowande for the African Drum Festival in Abeokuta. I’m in touch with some people in the States who have the leftovers of the work of Fela Sowande. The idea at the time was for Ogun State to acquire all of his works and bring the body back to Nigeria for reburial because he was buried in Ohio in the States.
The relationship between Professor Soyinka and me has developed into a father figure. He’s added me to his extended family, and of course, you live in a foreign land, you’re living with the ethos and cultural values of your culture, you need someone you can refer to; who can be your guide and adviser or your listener as you tread through the unknown. So, he’s been like that to and for me. He met my family this week, so it’s been good.
What’s the status of your Sacred Funk project?
The Sacred Funk Project came out of many thoughts after living in West Country, England. My wife assisted in the formation of the project. She’s a clarinet player, composer, a classically trained musician and we’ve been working together for over 25 years. The idea of the Sacred Funk is to kind of look into the folk culture and bring it into contemporary. At the same time, add original ideas into what is it today. Anywhere I travel to as a jazz musician, the first place I like to go to is either the church, mosque or temple because when you go to any of these places in the world, the history is there. You’ll be able to find your way easily with the history of the place because you’ll meet people. So, I did an album called ‘Sacred Funk’. It’s coming out on Temple Records. I went further to do a project called ‘Yoruba Sonnet’. It is poems of Ifa on contemporary music. Many years ago, I did an exhibition, over 20 years ago, I think, called ’16 Pieces’ [Oju Merindinlogun] The idea is to take the stories in each Odu Ifa, to give it to a painter or artist to paint what they hear, what they see in the narratives of each Odu.
During that time when I came to Nigeria because I had a grand travelling project, a lot of money, I also documented in audio the recitation of Odu Ifa by Babalawo. I must have documented on digital, audio and film, maybe over 60 Babalawo. We did it in places like Oko, Oyo, Ife, Ibadan with children and Iyanifa. So far, we’ve documented on each Odu minimum 16 verses of Ifa. The idea is that we in Yorubaland, because I’ve travelled to Cuba five times, researching and seeing the comparative studies of how Ifa is practised in foreign lands compared to Nigeria. I found out that the slaves kept a lot, the descendants of the Yoruba in the New World kept a lot of memories with them, and the practice and it has developed into Santeria, Candomble, Voodoo.
The idea is that we in Yorubaland if we have these verses; in Yorubaland, we don’t have a standard bible for Ifa, but in Brazil they do; in Cuba, they did have. The idea was by the time we transcribed, edit and print, what we have collected would have been like an encyclopaedia. And it can be done in Portuguese, French and Spanish. Ifa is big, Orisha is prominent in the Spanish world, the Caribbean. Latin America, half of the population in the United States, Spanish. They know about the Santeria. The music is there; salsa, Latin is influenced by … during carnival you will see it. The Yoruba culture is much more alive outside Nigeria than in Nigeria.
This is the project I’ve been working on and out of that came this ‘Yoruba Sonnet’ which I worked with Professor Olu Taiwo. We did the performance, a strong performance at Wolfson College, University of Oxford.
Why are you attracted to Ifa, especially as your father was a man of the cloth?
It’s the poetry, song and language. Not so much of the ritual and it’s the honesty within the language. I’m fascinated by this subject matter because it’s the constitution of the Yoruba people. The Queen of England is the head of the church, the Church of England. Don’t forget that the Church of England broke away from the Catholic Church and Henry VIII has his own bible, the King James’ version. If the Church of England has that, the Yoruba people here, I think that’s your language. Let’s forget religion now; your constitution is embedded in Odu Ifa, your language is embedded in Odu Ifa, your song, the architectural style is embedded in Odu Ifa. Your medicinal structure, wellbeing, is embedded in Odu Ifa. We are in a cemetery now, a beautiful garden; the way you lay people to rest is embedded in Odu Ifa. When a Babalawo dies, fellow Yoruba scholars believe that, that Awo must answer at Morere.
Where is Morere?
When Christians die, they will say may his soul rest in peace.
Morere is peace. The Muslims will say Aljanah Firdaus. We have never been there, right? (Laughs). I think it’s in the language; maybe because I didn’t hear it around me anymore.
What pushed me into this way of life is that I had a dream. American impresario, John Coltrane came to me in that dream. I was working with Al Blakey, jazz drummer as his personal assistant but when I had that dream in art college, John Coltrane and Al Blakey came to my room and John gave me a saxophone. I’m not a sax player, but he said this is your legacy, look after it. So, the more I listened to John Coltrane, I found that this is very close to the way that the Babalawo will recite Ese Ifa, in style (recites Ese Ifa). You can hear the melody in it. It’s a poem; it’s a sonnet. When they are going to run the commentary, they do it after they have recited the verses.
What we are getting is poems, songs and sometimes when my wife listens to the Odu Ifa melody, she goes by the piano to try and trace it. She will say they are in D Minor, F 7, 8 Major. Then you begin to sit down and say to yourself, this Ifa that these guys are trying to throw away, this is the foundation and epitome of their culture. I began to understand that Ifa is not a religion; it’s a piece of knowledge. And knowledge is not owned by a church or mosque, and the atheist too, he has knowledge. Ifa is the way to communicate with God for the Yoruba people.
Can you divine Ifa?
Yes. I had the privilege to go into the Ifa grove because I said to myself, I set up an organisation in England called Ifa Yoruba Contemporary Arts Trust. Its purpose is to foster the development of Yoruba arts and culture through various art education projects. Music, literature, filmmaking, theatre, cuisine to understand what is it really of this culture. So, I said to myself; I’m not going to stand behind the fence if I’m going to be working with this Babalawo who trusted me. So, I took it upon myself to be ordained in the holy order of Orunmila. O ye ku meji is my Odu Ifa to give me the opportunity to sit down with scholars during holy sacraments or discussions or any of their holy union and be part of the fraternity and disciple of Orunmila.
You are among the elite group of Nigerians that have won the Grammy. You won twice; how does that make you feel?
I’m very grateful, and I continue to be grateful because I didn’t go into the music business to win a Grammy. It is a call by Almighty God that this will be my voice to the world. I didn’t plan it. I minded my business when I had the opportunity to go and play on the first one by Malian musician called Ali Farka Toure. On an album called ‘In the heart of the moon’ produced by Nick Gold of World Circuit Records in London. I was paid; it was nice. One day, I was at my Agent’s house in Kilburn. He ran out of his living room, Biyi Adepegba, who is the London African Music Festival producer. And he was breathing, hyperventilating even and he started crying, congratulations. Lekan, congratulations. I said, what is these congratulations? He said Lekan; you just won a Grammy. I said, what is it? What is the Grammy? And Biyi started crying again. I didn’t know what Grammy is; it’s never been in my encyclopaedia when I went into music. All I knew was I wanted to be like Quincy Jones. I wanted to be a fantastic producer because I buy a lot of records. I go to concerts; I see musicians. I want to be like that guy, produce meaningful music.
Then I had the opportunity to work with a lady, an African-American, the Number One jazz singer in the world called Cassandra Wilson. That one, I did a lot of work more than what I did on Ali Farka Toure’s album. We did the album in Jackson- Mississippi, in the South. We rented a whole house; they brought the studio from LA. Everybody was living there. The Engineer was living in a hotel in town, but the lady and I were there. It was kind in the middle of nowhere. We finished the work; everybody went their ways. Then, we started touring. We were playing at Blue Note in New York one day, and she came into the men’s dressing room and said we’ve just been nominated for a Grammy.
The first time, I didn’t know anything about Grammy, and this time again, we’ve been nominated? One morning, I was in Dorset, England. It was my wife that woke up and informed me that you’ve just won another Grammy. I didn’t know what to do than cry (sniffles). When I come to Nigeria or when I’m in England, they write ‘twice Grammy winner’. I’m grateful because I didn’t know anything about it. It wasn’t my plan. I wasn’t working towards it.
Two quick follow up questions, sir. Was it your love of music that made you abandon engineering and do you think the Grammy would have happened if you had remained in Nigeria?
I think it’s my love of art. When I went to engineering school in England, my mind wasn’t there, and the teacher said to me one day, I think you better leave, and I left. I think it’s my love for art and I wasn’t good at that Engineering, let’s be honest. My friend that owns this place, Deinde Harrison, I went to engineering school with him. He was the one that used to write my tests, and he used to slap me that Babalola pay attention. I think it is my love for the arts that overshadowed everything. I remember when I called my mother that day from England to General Hospital, Ikeja because she was a nurse that I wasn’t doing engineering anymore, she cried.
And your father?
He was long gone by then. My father died in 1975. He was a musician in the church; he played the accordion and took me on. Would he have allowed me to become a musician, probably yes. Probably he would have put pressure on that engineering, but my mother got tired and said, do what you love. When I started, I came home to receive blessings from my mother, and that was it. She passed in 1999. She was the Engineer and first supporter of me becoming an artist.
The other leg of my initial question, have you reflected on your Grammys. Would they have been possible if you had remained in Nigeria?
God is mysterious. I won’t give the Grammy now to me. Of course, I had the opportunity to be there at the right time with the right people there, but I think it’s part of the plan, part of what God has written in my chapter as my story. That a boy born in Lagos Island grew up partly in Iwo and Agege and ended up… it’s you guys that know about it. It’s the highest achievement in music; you can’t play it down.
I give thanks to God, I’m very grateful but my friend, he’s one of the richest men in Nigeria. He didn’t travel abroad. Where we are sitting, it’s billions. They bury prince and kings here. You know that? I was in the classroom with him; he was born in Odunlami. He’s older than me; he’s 63. He kicked my arse, but he didn’t travel out of Nigeria. Only God knows I can’t answer better. If I said I work hard, someone else would say he works harder than me, ori maa ni (it’s destiny) and I think overall, it’s the grace of God.
I think it’s grace because ‘86 to ’89, I was thrown out of England because of immigration whatever. I had to be here. It’s God, you know. Then, I used to count groundnut to drink garri. I would walk from Jazz 38 in Ikoyi here all the way to go and meet Beko [Ransome-Kuti] at Anthony. Beko would give me some money. I would take transport and go hang out with Fela. That was the time I went to Ife to study more about the Yoruba culture. I think the immigration thing was for me to return to my fatherland and study with the Babalawo, Iyalawo, Babalorisha. When it was time for God to open the door back for me, He did. I think it’s God that did the Grammy, not me.
What informed your choice of percussion, you could have chosen any other instrument?
I think it was chosen for me right from when I was young. I still don’t know, you research and research. I started at age five at Aladura Church, so I decided to stick to what I know. Of course, I ventured out, but of that instrument itself, when I went into the New World, I realised I didn’t know much about it, so I started researching. It’s endless.
No regrets abandoning engineering for music?
I have no regrets. People I’ve met; places I’ve been to, no regrets. Sleeping in hotels where Presidents and others are sleeping in Asia? No regrets. I’m grateful.