The history of music in Lagos, Nigeria: 1980s to the 2000s

Editor’s note:  First published on Yaba Left, this post is republished here with permission. Read the first part of this post here.

Nigeria’s political climate in the 80s was rather turbulent with a succession of coup d’états. The country was not faring well economically. The security situation dealt a heavier blow on the nightlife economy. In fact, at a time, night parties were all but abolished due to the rising spate of crime. The music scene became less and less vibrant with a good number of recording companies and their distribution networks folding up. Once live music was decimated, digital music thrived, albeit feebly.

The 80 and 90s saw the rise of digital music, the proliferation of reggae music, as well as the birth of Nigerian hip-hop music. This era brought a bevy of stars like Dizzy KJunior and PrettyRas KimonoChristy Essien-IgbokweCharlie Boy, Daniel Wilson, Zubby Enebeli, Alex Zito, Blackky, and Evi Edna-Ogholi. But none of these musicians was as successful as the reggae super-star, Majek Fashek, who later migrated to America in the ‘90s and consolidated his phenomenal success in the Diaspora.

The ‘90s is remembered for its quiet mostly. Most narratives around nightlife speak of underground music. In Lagos, there was the now defunct Nightshift Coliseum in Ikeja where Lagbaja led his band in a fusion that was equal parts highlife and afrobeat. His deployment of the bata drums was a unique innovation that often occasioned frequent drum intermissions that potentially distracted his scant socio-political message.

The 1990s, the era of music collectives

The Abacha days (1993-1998) were particularly heady. General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s military dictator, was known for arbitrary authority and numerous human rights violations. This period of political as well as economic turmoil had the most devastating effect on cultural production. Cultural producers were being sanctioned for their works. Reputable writers like Wole Soyinka were hunted for their scathing remarks and criticisms of the repressive government. In 1995, writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was murdered for championing the cause of the Niger Delta. Two years later, singer and activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, feeble with sickness, would die from AIDS complications but not before he was rough-handled by agents of the government who targeted his cannabis use.

Plantashun Boiz was a Nigerian hiphop and R&B music group, consisting of 2face Idibia (born as Innocent Ujah Idibia), Faze (born as Chibuzor Oji) and Blackface (born as Ahmedu Augustine Obiabo).

It was not until Abacha’s death and return to democracy that cultural production began to thrive again. A new wave of music began to gain ground on the radio. Young and enthusiastic Nigerian creatives began to spew a new kind of music heavily influenced by American rap and hip-hop music popular on the radio. At this time, these musicians converged into collectives and boy bands.

There was the Remedies trio comprising of Eedris Abdulkareem, a rapper, and two singers, Tony Tetuila and Tony Montana, whose breakout song ‘Mi o sako mo’ sampled MC Lyte’s ‘Keep on Keeping on’ and became the sound that heralded that new era. Other boy bands from this era include Boulevard, Def-O-Clan, Twinax, Trybesmen, 419 squad, and Plantashun Boys. There were the occasional female musicians like Queen Change, Azeezat, and Funmi Olayode, who transposed a popular Celine Dion hit into Yoruba.

The 2000s, return of contemporary Nigerian music

Studio album by 2face Idibia

The year 2004 marked the beginning of another era in contemporary Nigerian music. It was the period that the boy bands began to split up. This era de-emphasized collaborative efforts and focused more on the individual. Championing this era was Tuface’s seminal album, ‘Face to Face,’ released by a pioneer record label at the time, Kennis Music, owned by two media moguls, Kehinde Ogungbe and Dayo Adeneye. The likes of Timaya, Face, D’Banj, El Dee, Don Jazzy, K-Solo, 9ice, Mo Cheddah became popular in the years that followed.

MI (Jude Lemfani) Abaga, Nigerian rapper at an event on August 18, 2014. Image by Ameyaw Debrah via Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Rap music was an aspect of Nigerian contemporary popular culture but it enjoyed the back burner. It was a niche market enjoying a cult following. Rappers like Mode Nine, Freestyle, OD, Ruggedman, Mickey The Messenger, White Mask, and 2Shot did occasionally cross to the mainstream with an occasional single but this was not the norm.

In 2008, a squad of creatives from Jos arrived in Lagos. It was this wave that brought MI Abaga, Jesse Jagz, Ice Prince, and the rest of his Loopy crew to our consciousness. MI Abaga would later release two LP albums and two mixtapes which rearranged the zeitgeist to rap on the front burner. On his first album, Let’s Talk About It, he featured a singer on ‘Fast Money, Fast Cars’ called Wizkid, who signed to Banky W’s EME record label. At this same time, 9ice will release his sophomore album, Gongo Aso, a classic with an eponymous monster hit to boot. His brand of music which fused fuji with hip-hop quickly caught on. His collaboration with the pioneer of Yoruba rap, Lord of Ajasa, foreshadowed the next era of music.

Tiwa Savage. Studio portrait by TCD Photography via Wikimedia Commons, 4 February 2013, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Also, Mo Hits Records, started by the duo of D’Banj and Don Jazzy who broke out of the London-based 419 squad, had a roster of impressive artists that included Wande Coal, Dr Sid, and D’Prince. This ensured a reign of hit after hit.

In the last few years, there has been a steady appearance of talented female musicians hitting up the airwaves. There is Yemi Alade whose fame rose on the basis of one single, ‘Johnny,’, which has enjoyed acceptance across Africa. Tiwa Savage has also been on a meteoric rise. Niniola, whose brand of house music features sultry tunes and bawdy lyrics disguised in Yoruba. Simi Ogunleye, the songwriter bird with a tinny voice.

Walk into any nightclub in Lagos and you will feel the pulse of our music. The music is produced to be instantly consumed. Hence, singles are more popular than albums and disc jockeys not only play songs, they also make their own songs existing outside their roles as curators and hype men.

Contemporary Nigerian music, like its forebears, exists mostly for dance. There is the lean niche market for introspective, instrumentation-based alternative markets suited for cafes and cabarets, but in Lagos, nightclubs and lounges are the rule, not the exception.

And for the exceptions, places like Bature Brewery in Victoria Island, Freedom Park on Broad Street, 100 Hours on Awolowo Road and Stadium Hotel in Surulere provide good live music into the wee hours of a sleepless Lagos night.

The Murder of Alhaji Ayinla Omowura

A Book Review of Festus Adedayo’s Ayinla Omowura: Life and Times of an Apala Legend


Alhaji Ayinla Omowura was killed in a beer parlour brawl on May 6, 1980 in Ago Ika, Abeokuta.

Aged 47 at time of death, he was an apala musician at the height of his powers. He had waxed about 20 albums for EMI records to both critical and commercial acclaim. He had also acquired wealth from his concerts and so owned houses and luxury cars, married wives, sired children and was effectively, an accomplished man.

So how did he end up in a brawl and why did he meet such a violent death? This is the concern of this 537 page book, a communal biography, if you like, of one of Apala’s most successful practitioners.

The book’s premise is reminiscent of a historical crime thriller and the scintillating minutiae of the late crooner’s life fills this book. It takes the amorphous mould of a retrospective inquiry sometimes, an ethnomusicological survey at other times, but there is, always, an anthropological post-colonial outlook of the working class of the ancient city of Abeokuta.

Told entirely through interviews of different sources clustered around similar themes, it is the duty of the reader to piece together all the granular and sometimes contradictory details to make a sense of what those who knew the man, Ayinla Omowura, thought he really was.

His wives, children, band members, associates, siblings, contemporaries, friends, admirers and even detractors all offer their refrains to the chorus: who was Ayinla Omowura? And as expected, their stories are varied, hyperbolic, self-serving but always coalescing towards the undisputable details regarding his life and times.


Apala music is a variant of traditional Yoruba music popular in the colonial and immediate post-colonial period. Its exact origin remains debatable but there is a consensus around its shared origin with were, sakara and fuji as Islamic music that developed from “a musical response” to waking faithfuls during the holy month of Ramadan.

An attempt to explore the discrete entities of these various traditional forms of Yoruba music will be an exhausting endeavour with little reward but a vague understanding of the hierarchical timeline will be to place were first, then sakara (whose Christian equivalent is called ashiko) , then apala and the more modern and improvisational fuji which remains in high demand in Yoruba societies.

Christopher Waterman in his seminal book on Juju described Sakara style as “grounded in traditional Yoruba norms and techniques, including call and response singing, the generation of complex rhythmic structures through juxtaposition of multiple repetitive patterns, a preference for dense ensemble textures and buzzing timbers, and the predominance of praise lyrics”, this description caters to the vocal constitution of Apala music as well.

The recently deceased, Adewole Alao Oniluola, Ayinla Omowura’s lead drummer, avers in his interview that Apala began first as a drumming genre and the vocal accompaniment was a later intervention.

Music, a vital aspect of cultural expression, is a dynamic concept, so that if the talking drum came first, the bell (agogo), the rattle instrument (sekere), the thumb piano (agidigbo),  the iya ilu and omele quickly joined the ensemble.

This orchestra was best described in the late apala icon Haruna Ishola’s Bi Mo Duro Bi Mo Ba Bere Lo Orin Nso Simi Lokan which addresses the origin of Apala music as a genre steeped in beautiful poetry and further affirms Baba Oniluola’s claim.

The vocal aspect of the music requires a lead singer and a chorus of co-singers, who respond to the lead singer, while the drums and rattles quiver in the background, and the lead drummer adds percussive flourishes.

The music, luxuriating in the Yoruba imaginary of paranoia and perennial rivalry, addresses an audience, real or imagined, drawing their attention to dominant themes of self-praise, peer praise and individual praise of patrons. With rich poetry drawing from Yoruba cosmology, idioms and proverbs, apala music shimmers at a slow tempo, perhaps this is why it is often performed sitting.


Ayinla Omowura: Life and Times of an Apala Legend tracks Omowura’s early childhood in colonial Abeokuta and its suburbs. There is a digressive and expansive flair to the gritty details that sets up what the ancient city was. Egbaland boasts of several successful musicians and to borrow the words of film maker, Tunde Kelani, there are three major names: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Ebenezer Obey and Ayinla Omowura.

While the deceased Fela rose from highlife musician to innovating that incendiary music, Afrobeat and acquired international acclaim, Ebenezer Obey began as a highlife musician who later settled into the comfortable terrains of juju music, a variant of palm wine highlife music local to the Yoruba. His patronage grew from the 70s to include the rich and highly placed in the society. Ayinla Omowura was courted by the working class and his fame was somewhat regional. He was supremely popular in Abeokuta and its environs.

Ayinla grew up in a humble household. His adolescent years and early adulthood was itinerant. Known for his quick and bad temper, he moved out of his parent’s house and pursued a peripatetic existence, holding different odd jobs.

The book’s impulse depends entirely on ‘hearsay’ from different interlocutors with varying levels of authority. Relying on individual memory from events from at least 40 years since his passing is quite tricky. Memory may have receded, calcified and been revised. But what is lost in exactness of memory is found in the rallying of a communal narrative, which is also a kind of mythmaking; hyperbolic and declaratory, the distance between truth and fact is obliterated in a narrative that can hardly be challenged.

Aspects of the book read like acute mythologising of Ayinla’s person. This appears not to be deliberate but what is achieved is a larger than life portrait of a diminutive man with facial marks and lush sideburns, a flare for a temper and a flamboyant life lived vigorously and in full. The consensus often varies around even undisputable facts, including his love for weed and women.

Ayinla was a reveler whose love for the night and beer parlour was legendary. A light drinker of the Gulder lager beer, his major vice was cannabis and cigarettes and female beer parlour owners, whom he dated in droves.

His generosity was obvious to some: buying rounds of beer wherever he showed up and doling out money as gift. But there were others with counter-narratives. He was believed to be quite insecure and an envious character who would rather be the giver than the recipient.

Each detail is explored, including his impeccable dress sense which bordered on a vulgar display of wealth. He was known to wear exquisite and trendy clothes, swathes of gold chains, bracelets, rings and expensive watches; however there was scant attention paid to his shoes.

It was in this characteristic style of dressing that he approached the beer parlour where he would meet his end that Tuesday afternoon.


Almost every decade in Nigerian music, beginning from the 50s, has been plagued by a death scandal. In 1955, the mutilated remains of Israel Nwoba Njemanze, one third of the highlife band, Three Nights Wizard was found on a rail track. The circumstances of his gruesome death remain unclear but there had been an argument with his band members the day before, because he wanted to quit the band. Eight people, including the band’s treasurer, were charged for his murder and found guilty in court.

Ayinde Bakare, a famous singer who introduced the electric guitar to juju music, was found in a mass grave twenty days after his initially unidentified corpse was retrieved from the lagoon. His band suspiciously carried on with musical engagements and profit sharing—this may have influenced the coroner’s submission that two members of his band knew more than they were willing to volunteer regarding his sudden disappearance and eventual drowning.

Ayinla Omowura, in his song tribute to Ayinde Bakare, remarked on how his unique tattoo aided in identifying his corpse; Little did he know that in less than a decade, he would also be a recipient of violence from one of his band members. Although he was aware of his death, in that blurry Macbethian sense, and was said to have discussed with his band members that one of them was going to take his life, he was ignorant of the finer details and so would have stayed out of that beer parlour.

Omowura, although not an easy man to like, was not deserving of his violent death or any form of death at all. A lot of book space is given to the retinue of tiffs which he indulged in with his contemporaries and recorded music about. One of his skirmishes was with the late Ayinde Barrister, the innovator of Fuji music, who was, at some point, the president of Ayinla Omowura’s Fan Club. The rumour was that following Ayinla’s murder, Barrister skedaddled up north to hide from the wrath of Omowura’s fans.

The author expends energy on details like Barrister’s alibi and  Omowura’s self-affirming religious inclinations. Omowura, obviously, a nominal Muslim, was steeped in his traditional Yoruba religion as he was with the music. He was conscious of that constant Yoruba imagery of the inimical non-self and prepared himself against potential harm with sorcery, soliciting charms, spells and other paraphernalia of spiritual warfare.

The duo of his composer and his aunt offered him spiritual backbone as the basis of his worldly flamboyance, but his aunt’s unexpected death was hypothesized to have provided a lacuna for the evil onslaught of his death for which his band member was a mere vehicle.

In excess of 500 pages, this book could have been at least 100 pages shorter with more attentive editing to trim the excess of over-enthusiastic interviewers and over-wrought anecdotes that hardly benefits the book’s narrative. Regardless, Ayinla Omowura: Life and Times of an Apala Legend is an important and timely book and a necessary read for those interested in traditional Yoruba music and a snapshot of the post-colonial working class of Abeokuta.

Nigeria: Aṣa’s fifth album ‘V’ is positive and made in Lagos

Paris-born Nigerian singer Aṣa’s fifth studio album, ‘V’, is already being labelled a classic. Some pundits may find this an early call but a cohort of music critics – and a teeming listening audience – have returned a favourable verdict.

This becomes important when we revisit Aṣa’s discography. For context, V arrives barely three years after her fourth album, Lucid which received mixed reception. The Covid-19 pandemic and its consequent global lockdown disrupted Aṣa’s 2020 tour schedule, inadvertently providing time and material, two invaluable resources, required to conceive and make new music. Released in February 2022, the famed month of love, the album title, V,  is unique in Aṣa’s discography as the first with a single letter, the 22nd alphabet in modern English.

V is for Virus

V is about happiness, love, friendship and lots of Joy,” Aṣa is quoted verbatim on the liner notes accompanying the album on Apple music—and this description is accurate. V brings a sustained warmth to Aṣa’s discography and, perhaps, to a ravaged world seeking to co-exist with the Covid-19 disease and its unrelenting multifaceted impact.

V is also about viruses and the way humanity confronts them with valour. Aṣa may not have mentioned celebration but this album is indeed celebratory in the way it reflects on every aspect of human resilience . Melancholia, disquiet, and unease are powerful muses Aṣa draws on for her music but these tendencies seem to take the backseat on V.

Renowned for her eclectic influences sweeping across music genres and traditions, Aṣa’s latest material is a tribute to an unlikely genre—afrobeats! Yes, Aṣa co-opts this trendy genre out of West Africa, strictly for her own uses. Those familiar with Aṣa’s infrequent press appearances may not be surprised.

Two years ago, Aṣa jovially declared her admiration for the Peckham-raised afrobeats artiste Naira Marley. She described herself as a “Marlian” (which is the designated name for Naira Marley’s teeming fan base) on a radio interview at the Lagos seaside Cool FM. Beyond acknowledging the popularity of the quick-paced, dance music that is afrobeats, Aṣa endorses it in the best way possible: she pays tribute to the genre inside the studio booth. This must come naturally since genre blending is cardinal to her practice.

V is for Velocity

Released three months apart, ‘Mayana’ and ‘Ocean’,  the first two singles supporting her new album, puzzled the majority of Aṣa’s home-based fans. Coming behind her aesthetically safe Lucid, these singles were warning shots as they exist outside Aṣa’s erstwhile sphere of influences. Making these two rather extreme songs early singles is a masterful artist & repertoire decision as the rest of the album, tamer in its interpretation of afrobeats, conforms with her shtick.

It has been 15 years since Aṣa released her self-titled debut album. Produced by Cobhams Asuquo, Aṣa was that phenomenal album introducing a rare talent working across the multiple genres of soul, rhythm  & blues and folk. The best part is Aṣa kept a bit of herself in the product, inhabiting her songs with her tonal Yoruba language and its vast worldview. Call Aṣa a voyeur who recants in Yoruba and you may be right. But she has since gone over and beyond this, expanding her worldview to accommodate experiences from travels and lived experience.

Born Bukola Elemide in Paris and raised in Lagos in a middle-class family, Aṣa attended boarding secondary school in Jos. Her rebellion against the typical Nigerian white-collar dream began when she dropped out of college, diverting her tuition fees to purchase her first guitar. Since acquiring that guitar, music became her constant companion, taking her away from Lagos back to Paris and to far-flung countries around the world where she has toured and performed her music.

V is for Return

Following the Covid-19 lockdown, Aṣa relocated briefly to Lagos, where she recorded V.  P.Priime, her go-to producer, is a 21-year old wunderkind with a resume of certified hits for artistes like Olamide, Fireboy DML, Teni, Zlatan, Oladapo and Ric Hassani. An alumnus of the prestigious Sarz Academy, P.Priime is one of the most decorated afrobeats producer in recent history and perhaps the most hard-working. He produces about 90 percent of the 31 minute long, 10-track album. In a sense, he is what the veteran producer Cobham Asuquo was to Aṣa’s first album.

Collaboration is the unwritten rule in afrobeats and Aṣa acts accordingly, V is the first Aṣa album with featured acts. As always, her collaborative choices were carefully curated with a leaning towards artistes working in the genre-blending middle-ground of the mainstream and alternative spaces.

Wizkid is the exception, of course. Unarguably the biggest star of his cohort, Wizkid’s practice pushes the frontier of afrobeats, most especially with his fourth LP album, Made in Lagos, a risk that is successful in its ageless quality and replay value.

Expectedly their song ‘IDG’ captures that insouciant afrobeats mood. Updated with Aṣa’s scatting and Wizkid’s tenor of legendary melodies, it is suffused with an infectious joy that demands dance. This ditty is an early but iconic moment of sublime genre-blending, with Aṣa unabashedly basking in the floodlights of the mainstream – and it looks good on her. The other decidedly afrobeats moment is the shaku-shaku dance-demanding ‘Love me Or Give Me Red Wine’. Although Aṣa is by herself, P.Priime is in fine form outside the studio booth.

Good Times’ features highlife duo/sibling group The Cavemen, who bring a capella rhythms reminiscent of the awarding-winning South African band Black Lady Mabazo to an ageless song about friendship. It is a spare song about love, camaraderie and resilience, the type that people draw from each other. This is an important song in the light of the pandemic.

Fast-rising chanteuse, Amarae assists on the jaunty trap-inflected  ‘All I Ever Wanted’, a song oddly about regret as much as it is about dumping deadweight lovers.

V is for Atmosphere

Beyond its infectious joy and unbridled optimism, this album carries an atmospheric feel about it. This is not surprising as Aṣa remarked that she wrote most of these songs close to the ocean.

V is similar to most Aṣa albums as it is about love and its many iterations. Heartbreaks, faltering affection and cheating lovers are tackled headlong, but what is different is a positive outlook replacing haunting melancholia. A lot can also be said about the album’s agility and warmth, which brings a transformative texture to Asa’s rather dark discography.

Before V, Aṣa’s best attempt at an upbeat outlook was on her sophomore album, Beautiful Imperfection. ‘Nike’ may be about lothario branded in Nike, but his rejected partner’s resignation holds some stoicism.

Expectedly love, the good kind, also features. ‘Show Me Off’ smothers with warm affection, as does the sultry ‘Morning Man’ about rising in the morning with the sun shining on your lover. Beyond the positive look on life, living and love, V, like most Aṣa albums, is shorn of political messages and leanings. The song persona remains the agent of influence whose capacity for self-actualization has never been more assured.

Asa’s V might be her own “Made in Lagos”: made with joy, love and warmth.