“I proposed to her inside the Ifa shrine in Ile-Ife and then we later went back to Nigeria to marry at the Ifa Temple in Ile Ogbo, Osun State”
For an average Nigerian music lover, the name, Lekan Babalola, may not ring a bell. Reason: he belongs to the ‘old skool’ and then plays jazz, a genre of music considered elitist.
But then, the jazz percussionist is a Grammy award winner with seven albums to his credit. In this exclusive chat with TS Weekend in London, Babalola talks about childhood, music, Fela and why he’s an adherent of Ifa traditional religion. Enjoy it.
Tell us about growing up?
I had a great childhood, growing up in the church community. I was into sports and I played football. I played for Nigeria’s Under 17 and also played tennis. I was privileged growing up as a middle class kid. My parents were not rich but they were comfortable. I had a big church compound to play and I attended a good boarding school outside Lagos. When my father died, I was lost for a while, but five years after, I moved to England.
You are one of the few Nigerians who have won the Grammy award. How does it feel?
Yes, there was a Grammy winner before me. His name is Sikiru Adepoju, a (Nigerian) talking drummer who lives in California; he won one Grammy. For me, winning a Grammy is a privilege, praise be to God. It’s like asking me how does it feel to be alive this morning. How does it feel when you wake up in the morning and you can stretch your hands and legs and you are not in a hospital? Do you understand? That is how it feels for me. I left Nigeria because there was a bullying situation when I was growing up in a Christian environment. I think forever I will give God the glory. Imagine the stone that was thrown away ending up the cornerstone.
You said you left Nigeria due to a bullying situation in a Christian environment. Could you shed more light on this?
I think the way our forefathers received the Christian religion from the Europeans was through mental whip and caning, and I think they passed it on to us like that, because they say you need to believe in it in order to find salvation; but you see, the Yoruba have a word called Igbagbo, which means to believe. I can choose to believe Mr. Ogaga, Mr. Ogaga can choose to believe in a stone or his pen as a journalist. He has the right to believe in an object, a thing or a being. However, when Africans received Christianity from the Europeans, they brutalised their way of life. You see we don’t have religion in Africa but a way of life. We communicate with God and I think I encountered the way of life of the Yoruba and how they used to communicate with God and I developed an interest in it.
So, growing up in a Yoruba Christian environment, I saw there was a conflict in the African way of life and the Christian way of life, because the way of life of Africans was not properly translated into the new religion they found. So, anybody that was not practicing it was bullied. I left Nigeria for England in 1980 after I got a scholarship from the Lagos State government to study Engineering in England, and the rest is history today.
Your father was a minister and you grew up in the church, playing the konga and then you had this other idea. What was the relationship between you and your late father?
My father died in 1975 when I was 15 and I left Nigeria when I was 20. But my father originally is from a Muslim and traditional background. My father is an Oyo man with the royal marks on his cheeks. Africans, even Nigerians have a tribal problem among themselves, abi? And also, if you are a Muslim, you can’t marry a Christian, abi? But when my father met my mother, who was trained by the missionaries and who was a Christian, he decided to call himself Amos. Before then his name was Yekini Olayiwola Babalola. He did that for him to fit in with the Ijebu people, his in-laws. After that he established a Cherubim & Seraphim church in Lagos. So, I enjoyed playing music with my father. I am like Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and John Coltrane among a host of others who grew up in the church. So, I am from the church; the church gave me the basis of my trade and my musical practice. But how did my father feel? My father died when I started following the way of the Yoruba people. I came to England in 1980 and I came across the music of John William Coltrane, his music was what has guided my consciousness.
How did your mum take it?
My mum had no choice because I was always making reference to my grandmother, who was a practitioner of the Yoruba way of life. She was from Iperu, from the royal family. So, my grandmother used to take my siblings and I to the Babalawo (herbalist) when we were all young. We had a family Babalawo. Mum had no choice and she accepted and blessed it before she died.
You came to the UK to study Engineering; at what point did you discover that you wanted to be a musician?
That was when I went to the arts college and film school. It (music) had always been in me, I’ve always been playing bongos with rock and pop music bands, just as a hobby around England. In Nigeria, I wasn’t a professional musician so when I got here, I started messing around with rock and pop bands and they told me that I had the skill. When I got back to Nigeria, I started jamming with people like Fela Anikulapo- Kuti and Tunde Kuboye at Jazz 38. It was at that point, especially when Fela told me that I had the skill to be a great musician, that I developed it.
You said you were lost when your father died, that means you were very close to him…
I was very close to my dad, because I spent everyday with my father playing music. I would play for hours, do choir rehearsals and all that. I saw him composing music and I saw him when he was down. My father was my friend when I was growing up. We had that kind of friendship but I just didn’t have his pastoral and musical gift to follow in his footsteps, but yes, I was close to this man.
What would you say was the greatest advice he gave you?
I think it was when my father was about to die and I went to visit him at Awosika Hospital, Ikeja. When I walked into his hospital room, we were alone and he started drumming on the wall with both hands. At that point, he could no longer speak but he was drumming. And I think that image has stuck with me to this day. There was that look in his eyes; I think he was telling me that I was going to be a musician. He did not say it in words but in action. I was watching him as he smiled, drumming on the wall, and he did not have much to say to me. That evening, my mother came home and told me he was dead! The advice he gave me was esoteric if you want to use that word. It’s like he was saying ‘be focused and be disciplined with anything you’re going to be in life’.
A couple of years ago, the Lagos State government commissioned Kalakuta Museum and erected a statue for Fela, what is your take on this?
I think it is a very good thing. So, really, Fela’s statue and Afrobeat represent the listening space that the youths have, which Fela spearheaded. They are not recognising Fela; it’s bigger than Fela, they are recognising the youths. It is my story too. That is why I said I left Nigeria because of bullying. We have to look at the bigger picture, maybe the government is realising that Afropop will make money. It is the recognition of the youths that the Fela’s statue stands for, because that means there’s a Fela in all of us.
You are married to an English lady and fellow musician, Kate Luxmoore; did music bring you together?
Kate Luxmoore is a trained classical musician at Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. She is middle class English and we met at a jam session in London, where a friend of hers and somebody I knew invited me and then the relationship developed.
Was it love at first sight?
It was love of the instrument at first sight that brought us together; love of the music. I had never seen the instrument she was playing. It looked like a saxophone but it is called ‘bass clarinet’ and this woman was playing away. Growing up in Nigeria, I never saw a woman play the saxophone let alone bass clarinet. It was too masculine I guess. That was how we met through music and we have been together. We got married 14 years ago; we have been friends for 17 years.
How did you pop the question?
First, we dated for a while and then I proposed to her. I asked her to come to Nigeria with me to see my country. So, we came down to Nigeria together to see a late teacher of mine who was an Ifa priest then at Ile Ife. When we woke up in the morning, the Ifa priest was praying for both of us: boyfriend and girlfriend. I proposed to her inside the Ifa shrine in Ile-Ife and then we later went back to Nigeria to marry at the Ifa Temple in Ile Ogbo, Osun State; my father’s hometown. We did our court marriage in Blandford, England. We got married in the Holy Order of Ifa tradition in Nigeria.
What does Ifa mean to you?
Ifa is the word of God.
Could you tell us about your trust in Ifa Yoruba contemporary?
Twenty-two years ago, I went to the United States to study under a film producer, Spike Lee. There, I came across a lot of African Americans who were practicing Yoruba culture, including Cubans, Hispanics and all. And I liked it. What struck me was the way they syncretized Islam, Buddhism and Christianity with their religious beliefs. You see, Ifa is a philosophy, not a religion and I like the philosophy, and as a jazz musician, I said it would be nice if we look at the journey of the Africans in the new world so we can locate the syncretized shrine. How did Yoruba culture manifest in Cuba through Santeria? And how did the culture manifest in Brazil through Candomble and Samba? In Cuba, it is Santeria and Rhumba. In Brazil, it is Candomble and Samba. In Trinidad, it is John the Baptiste Church and calypso, and in Jamaica, it is the art form they call ‘John Kunu culture’ and reggae music.
In Nigeria, it is Ifa and Afrobeat. In Republic of Benin, it will be Fon and Mbala music. In Haiti, it will be voodoo and ancient rock. That means that the Yoruba culture that traveled across all these places has manifested itself in a new form. In North America, it is through the spiritual churches and the blues. So, this led me to realise that we have Yoruba contemporary culture, which traveled from West Africa to the new world. The salves that were taken took their beliefs with them. You see, before slave trade, Africans have been moving all over the world to trade, but the transatlantic movement brought the culture to the new world and they came with their hallmark, their style, ways of life, so, that was the reason Ifa Yoruba was established across the world.
The aim of my platform is to advance public education of the Yoruba culture through various activities including dancing, painting, performing arts, lectures, and art exhibition etc. We have been doing so for over 22 years.
What has been your happiest moment as a musician?
My happiest moment is when I am on stage. That is the time I feel safe because I am performing, delivering it per second as God is giving me per second, because in creation, when a woman is giving birth, the last push takes a second, not five minutes. So, it is when God is giving me that message; that is when I am feeling God because it’s a sacred stage where you prepare the communion. You are just privileged, a tool that is being used to prepare the Holy Communion. The Holy Communion is the music that you give the congregation. I feel privileged that God is using me.
Your dream was to be an automobile engineer but today you are a world-renowned musician. Do you have any regret about dumping Automobile Engineering?
No, I don’t. I think I am still doing that engineering through music, because the whole idea is that as a human being, you provide service to humanity. If I become an engineer I would be servicing cars, that was the dream of my father for me, but now, I am providing music for humanity; so I am still serving humanity. I do not have regrets because if I didn’t listen to that voice, I think I will not be where God wants me to be today, which is servicing humanity through music. I think if anything, I would want to work more in Africa.
Are you missing home?
Yes, I am like anybody else. Any other man’s home can never be like your own home.
Any plan to relocate to Nigeria soon?
Well, it is only God and time. It is only God that directs my activities now. I am not worried. I think I am coming to terms with the fact that ‘yeah, I would like to return to Africa’ because I was signed recently to a management company, Temple Management, so, I am part of the family there. I think I have returned mentally, but physically, I am not there yet.
What project are you working on currently?
I am touring Yoruba Sonnets. I have a new album dropping soon made up of 11 songs. The title is ‘Mr. Lakaiye’. I have already released the lead single. It is part of the ongoing project I am doing which includes an art installation in honour of my muse, John Coltrane. ‘Mr. Lakaiye’ is the icon of metal, which is Ogun in the Yoruba pantheon, and it is a tribute to John Coltrane. Its eleven tracks are an amalgamation of Yoruba songs, English folk songs and songs about motherhood, civilisation and everything. It is coming out on Temple Music label. And also, I have a jazz festival I am curating. We are mixing at the moment. We have worked on about five songs. I am excited. I am producing. I just completed a big exhibition on the life and times of Fela Sowande at the Drum Festival in Abeokuta. The Ogun State government commissioned me for the job. Fela Sowande was the first Nigerian classical composer recognised worldwide. Also, I have exhibition that might travel to Nigeria called ‘Odu of Ifa’.
So, what are your dreams?
My dream is for Africa to become great again.