Sense of fulfilment

Nigeria’s Lekan Babalola on ‘Lakaaye’ his Afrofuturist version of Ogun, the Yoruba God

By Dami Ajayi

Posted on October 22, 2021 16:11

ESIm24PWAAUPdNg © Lekan Babaola / Twitter
Lekan Babaola / Twitter

Lekan Babalola was awarded two Grammys in 2009 and 2006 respectively, for his work on Cassandra Wilson’s Loverly and the joint album In the Heart of the Moon by Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté. The Africa Report caught up with him in September, a few hours before his trip to Lagos to promote his latest album, Lakaaye.

Lakaaye, an 11-track-long album, is an acoustic journey that gives Yoruba worship a contemporary spin. Steeped in the idioms of praise-singing, it fuses musical styles, myth and diverse cultural experiences into this shape-shifting innovation. This album shares a kinship with classics like King Sunny Ade’s Odu and the eponymous debut of the Afro-Cuban sisters Ibeyi.

Babalola, a Birmingham-based percussionist and curator who keeps a low profile, is proud of his accomplishment on this project, which was in the works for about eight years. The album draws its title from the panegyric of Ogun, god of war, of the hunt and of all pursuits in which iron or steel is used. Believed to be the first god to arrive on earth from heaven with a double-edged cutlass, he is seen in the Yoruba worldview as a source of bravery and creativity.

…the Diaspora has made me [a] part of them, […] after my travels to the Caribbeans, […] the Americas, […] Europe [and] Asia, I realised that everywhere uses their folklore as their source of inspiration…

Babalola’s objective was to animate an Afrofuturist re-imagination of Ogun, “to depict Ogun in a kind of character you see in a modern society wearing a suit. A gentleman who is a thinker like [Thomas] Edison […] Matthew Boulton or Ogedengbe [Agbogun Gboro],” he says with a sense of fulfilment.

His previous album, Songs of Icon (released on the indie Mr Bongo label in 2006), also explored Yoruba gods, adapting their sacred songs and reinterpreting them in different musical genres. This is not surprising, as he has been an Ifa initiate for over 25 years, and draws inspiration from his worship.

“…I get my inspiration from reading the Odu of Ifa. The Patakis [details] of the Orisas[gods] and the prose, the sonnets of their attributes. […] I have enough material of my lifetime to be looking at each Orisa […]. Say each album can look at a different Orisa because there are 401 Orisa. […] I can look at it in different ways,” he says.

His musical journey

Born in 1960 into a Christian family, he learnt to beat the conga under the strict guidance of his father, who shepherded an African syncretic church. His childhood was a diverse experience of several religions. His father, born Muslim, had converted to Christianity, while is maternal grandmother was an ardent Ifa faithful who took him to the Ifa priest for regular divinations.

At some point, he was enrolled as an apprentice by his grandmother, to his father’s chagrin, but his most salient memories from that period were the sumptuous meals served at the priest’s residence.

He would return to Ifa worship in the 80s while studying in the United Kingdom. He had left Nigeria on a scholarship to study Automobile Engineering, but dropped out of the program in pursuit of the arts, specifically music and film-making.

Babalola found a rare insight while listening to jazz, especially in the work of the iconic American saxophonist John Coltrane, who, at the time, had been dead for more than a decade.

“The sound of John Coltrane’s music is very close to the Yoruba recitation of Odu Ifa. The way they recite the Ese Ifa (verses of Ifa), the melody thread of it, the up and down, the modular scale they use, the mode and bending of the notes. I would listen to John Coltrane, and I would hear that…,” he says.

Discovering the cadence of Odu Ifa recital in free jazz returned Babalola to the scholarship he had eschewed for sumptuous meals as a boy.

“I was spending time at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. I was reading; I was studying. I was finding out everything I [could] read about Yoruba culture and Ifa. I was immersed. It happened that I had to go to New York. When I got to New York, I saw the practice…full-blown,” he says.

Fela Kuti, the mentor

This consciousness would return him to Nigeria in the mid-80s, where he spent three years. While studying the depth and diversity of Ifa, he also played music with several legends, including his political mentor, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who played during Friday jam sessions at Jazz 38, a club owned by Fran and Tunde Kuboye in the Ikoyi.

“I was a bit nervous [about how] Fela would interact with his musicians. It’s not [how] I would like to be interacted with. He was kind of military and a bit of a dictator, so your idea [wouldn’t] count because [it was] his band…,” he says of Kuti, whom he still reveres in the song ‘Your Highness’. The music video captures the joys of mundane life in the interior of working-class Lagos Island.

A closer listen reveals Babalola’s revisionist ethos. ‘Your Highness’ updates’ Kabioye’—the opening tune of his older album Songs of Icon — with refined production and rap bars courtesy of Birmingham-based rapper RKTal. Same for the title track, ‘Lakaaye’, which revises ‘Arere’ from Cassandra Wilson’s Grammy-winning Loverly, stripping it of that jazzy feel and quickening its pace to achieve the required upbeat tempo of a  hip-hop/funk fusion.

In this way, the Lakaaye album is innovative in its disruption and refining of old material; and no genre is neither sacred nor spared, not even English folk songs which make an appearance, most notably, on ‘I Gave My Love’ and ‘Canning Court’. The former updates the thoughtful medieval love song ‘The Riddle Song’, while the latter revises the Dorset medieval dance in celebration of transitioning from autumn to winter. Both are renewed with energetic percussion and a calypso flair.

The Afrobeats appeal

Lakaaye leans into the Afrobeat genre more naturally than the jazz-inflected Songs of Icon. Running through both albums is Babalola’s dynamic percussion and explorative creativity. At heart, Babalola is a curator aiming to capture the black worldview, both home and in the Diaspora, exhaustively. His fascination with religion and drums are his main tools.

I really like what the kids are doing in Nigeria, that Afrobeats… I like it so much, the dance, the beat, the identity of their ‘Africa-ness’ [in] that industry.

He names Alex Acuña, Adewole Oniluola, Tony Allen, Remi Kabaka, Sikiru Adepoku, Giovanni Hildago and Herlin Riley, with whom he worked on Wilson’s Loverly, as some of his favourite drummers. This list reveals a conscious curatorial effort. It would seem like an eclectic mish-mash of names; indeed, it reflects Babalola’s fascination with what is local and international, ancient and modern, and ultimately cutting-edge, innovative, meaningful and irrevocably human. This fascination launched an odyssey of discovery for him across several continents — Europe, Africa and the Americas — and spanned several decades.

He is delighted with how the Diaspora has received him. “…the Diaspora has made me [a] part of them, because after my travels [to] the Caribbeans, […] the Americas, […] Europe [and] Asia, I realised that everywhere uses their folklore as their source of inspiration… It’s been marketed nicely to those that need it […] and [is] being reshaped,” he says of Yoruba culture. “Folks that identify with it, in Cuba, in Brazil, in [the] Americas and the Caribbean, they’ve made it part of [their] daily life. It comes in terms of jazz, blues, reggae, salsa [and] popular […] youth culture globally,” he tells The Africa Report.

Regarding Afrobeats, the contemporary West African genre, which is the rave of the moment, Babalola says, “I really like what the kids are doing in Nigeria, that Afrobeats… I like it so much, the dance, the beat, the identity of their ‘Africa-ness’ [in] that industry; and it’s so really danceable […] that’s one of the reasons that inspired me […], I want to do an album that I can go among those young people and say […] I am [a] Marlian.”

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