Urban sounds from Lagos

Tom Simmert

For more than a century, urban music in West Africa has been shaped by a continuous cultural exchange with Europe and the Americas, particularly caused by the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. Yet the region, if not the continent at large, is still strongly associated by many outside of Africa with a notion of authentic traditions – particularly when it comes to music. But, as this section will demonstrate, tradition is not static – it is invented, interpreted and reinvented continuously, and making up new styles and sounds is vital for keeping musical traditions alive.

Lagos Island, view from Falomo Bridge. Photo © Tom Simmert 2017.

Lagos, the Nigerian megalopolis inhabited by around 15 million people, is one of the places where tradition and innovation have always gone hand in hand, and its popular music scenes are a prime example of this, like highlife, the dominant style of the 1950s and 1960s. It is difficult to define highlife solely as a music genre, as it was described by its contemporaries rather as a lifestyle, a popular culture involving music, dance and fashion. Highlife musicians were known for their cosmopolitanism, travelling frequently between Lagos, Accra and London. The exchange between Lagos and Accra in particular was vital for highlife and other genres that have developed up until the present day. A great example is the song “Bonsue”, which has been released in different versions by various musicians, over several decades, such as Joe Mensah in Ghana and Victor Olaya  in Nigeria.

Afro Rhythm Parade Vol. 2: Victor Olaiya & His Cool Cats. Philips, 1962.

In London, highlife musicians from Lagos met other African and Afro-Caribbean musicians and imported, among others, “Latin” instruments like bongos, congas and maracas, which defined the sound of 1950s’ highlife, or the electric guitar, which became important during the 1960s. Due to its multitude of influences, highlife was associated with modernity and freedom and thus became the soundtrack to Nigerian independence in 1960.

But the political relevance of music peaked about a decade later, when Fela Anikulapo Kuti invented the afrobeat. Born to a middle class family in Abeokuta, which is in the close north of Lagos, he studied music in London and was the leader of a highlife band in the 1960s. But his music changed after a trip to Ghana in 1967, and another one to the United States in 1969. Upon return, he changed the name of his band from Koola Lobitos to Afrika 70 and their sound became drastically altered, infused with elements from funk and jazz, which was a major innovation. But the creation of afrobeat was about more than sound. In his nightclub, the Afrika Shrine, Fela worshipped the Òrìṣà of the Yorùbá pantheon, played music, and decried political and religious leaders on the same stage. Kuti declared his private house, where he resided with up to 27 wives and an entourage of musicians, political activists and opponents of the Nigerian establishment an independent state, the Kalakuta Republic. Afrobeat was an amalgam of musical innovation, religious neotraditionalism and a political vision for the whole continent.

Despite its international recognition, the most popular urban music genre in 1970s’ and 1980s’ Nigeria was not afrobeat, but jùjú music. Jùjú had already been developed in the 1930s and its initial invention is commonly ascribed to the band leader Tunde King, but the genre never really took off during its first two decades. Its popularization began slowly after the Second World War, parallel to highlife, and correlated with two stylistic innovations that would both become genre-defining later. The first of these was the introduction of hourglass-shaped pressure drums, like dùndún and gàngán, which up to that point had been unusual in urban popular music. Many jùjú band leaders began to employ players of these talking drums, thus expanding their bands, but even more so their audiences. The interplay between praise singing and drumming performance is what transformed jùjú concerts from a “contemplative listening […] into a social dance” (Waterman 1990: 82).

The second innovation was the electric guitar, which quickly became the lead instrument, in contrast to both highlife and afrobeat, where it mostly played a minor part supporting vivid brass sections and other sounds. Yet it took until the 1970s for jùjú to hit its peak and spawn its first two superstar musicians: King Sunny Adé and Ebenezer Obey.

Today, Lagos is the home of Nigeria’s contemporary pop music, which is known in other parts of the world as afrobeats (with an “s”). The name was coined in the UK and, despite voices of criticism, many musicians embrace the term as a brand to market themselves and their music on a global scale. Like the majority of today’s pop music, their songs consist of digitally produced instrumentals and male or female vocals, although men dominate the scene. Pidgin English and Yorùbá are the most common languages of everyday life in Lagos, and they are just as widespread for singing and rapping. Many of them are also treated with Auto-Tune, an effect that Cher’s “Believe“ (1997) made famous before it became a staple of North American Rap and R&B in the late 2000s.

Benny Soundz’ recording studio, Lagos. Photo © Tom Simmert 2017.

Thanks to digital technology, recording studios are relatively inexpensive to set up today and can be found in all areas of the city. Their heart is a desktop computer or laptop, connected to an audio interface and a pair of monitor speakers for production and mixdown, and a microphone for recording vocals. Soundproofing is done with (often colourful) revetted foam on the walls.

Desk in Puffy Tee’s recording studio, Lagos. Photo © Tom Simmert 2017.

Like highlife, afrobeats is difficult to define musically and, within Nigeria, songs are often marketed using other genre names, like Afro-hiphop, or R&B. However, there are sonic features that clearly distinguish them from their American relatives. One example is the playing style (although often digitally emulated rather than actually played) of electric guitars, which heavily resembles the sound of jùjú music.

The second example, which might be the most striking one, is a percussion pattern that is frequently present in highlife songs and can be traced back to Caribbean music of the early 20th century. In highlife, it is usually played by a clave, whereas various types of sounds may take on this role in afrobeats songs, where the pattern is ubiquitous. In Mr. Eazi’s “Chicken Curry”, it is played by a duet of kick and snare drums, except for during the breaks in singing, where a rimshot takes over, while the kick and snare are muted.

These songs’ lyrics make use of their musical ancestry in a similar manner. From subtle nods to the past, to sampling or partial covers, retaining a strong engagement with previous works is a widespread practice in contemporary lyrics which, in many cases, burst into life spontaneously, in front of a microphone, without the intermediate stage of being [made up/developed/devised] as the written word. Made up on the spot, singers and rappers use aphorisms, proverbs and quotes that pop into their minds, and oftentimes, these come from songs they know from their childhood days. A good portion of these come from rap and R&B from the 1990s and 2000s, as exemplified by Techno’s “GO”, which also prominently samples 50 Cent’s debut hit, “In Da Club” (2003). The two individuals with the greatest influence on contemporary lyrics are not rappers, however, but Nigerian afrobeat legends: Lágbájá and Fela Kuti. Their songs have seemingly turned into an endless pool of inspiration for today’s hitmakers.

Davido’s “If”, for example, one of the greatest hits of 2017, takes its chorus straight from Lágbájá‘s “Gra Gra” (2000):

No do, no do, no do gra gra for me
No do, no do, no do, serenren
No do, no do, no do shakara
No do, no do, no do gra gra for me

Wizkid’s “Jaiye Jaiye” (2015) is one of the most striking examples of a tribute song. It features Fela’s son Femi Kuti playing the saxophone, and parts of the video were shot in the New Afrika Shrine, which was opened by Femi Kuti and his sister Yeni in 2000. The song is full of references to Fela’s afrobeat, like the opening, in which Wizkid performs the traditional call and response from the shrine:


But it gets even more intense towards the end, when Femi Kuti plays a saxophone solo, and Wizkid introduces the chorus of Fela’s “Lady” (1972):

If you call her woman, African Woman no go greet

She go say, she go say ‚I be Lady

The rapper Falz, however, recently managed to surpass this homage by releasing an album titled “Moral Instruction”, which not only features a cover reminiscent of the iconic style of many Fela Kuti Records, drawn by Fela‘s original cover artist Lemi Ghariokwu, but also includes conspicuous samples of his hits in every song, trying to convey the message that music can have a meaning beyond pure entertainment.

Yet, afrobeat is certainly not the only classic Nigerian style to inform new music to such an extent. While the guitar lines reminiscent of jùjú and the clave pattern from highlife are ubiquitous today, a few musicians are daring to go further and use more ingredients of these styles of music, despite an overall contemporary sound that does not try to hide its digital origins. One of them is the singer Simi, whose album “Simisola” (2017) contains two songs that are inspired not just by specific highlife and jùjú classics, they even carry the same name; whereas “Joromi” only uses few elements of the original by Victor Uwaifo (released in 1969, it was the first African record to achieve gold status), “Aimasiko” is more of a cover of Ebenezer Obey’s version from 1987.

Even more popular for bringing traditional sounds into contemporary music is Adekunle Gold, who calls his style of music “urban highlife”, and sees himself as being influenced by highlife – obviously – but also jùjú, rock and R&B. His instrumentals often consist of guitar sounds, brass sections and drumming patterns that evoke those of previous decades; yet the songs are somewhat compatible to the afrobeats mainstream, sometimes due to his style of singing, and sometimes due to a stomping four on the floor bass drum typical of electronic music.


Header: Photo © Tom Simmert 2019



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