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f74


me. I could have died, but for God’s sake, I’m alive today. I was very lucky. I was hos- pitalised for nine months, but it was about a year and a half before I could walk again. Now, I can walk OK, but when it was the time of the operation, I used to feel that pain!”


Pain or no pain, Barrister liked army life enough to stay on after the war ended. For him, it was the ideal situation. As a sergeant he had prestige, a steady income and clearly defined role in the scheme of things. At the same time, he was also allowed to pursue his musical career. “Even while I was in the army, I was still encouraged. I was performing for the commanders, for everyone there. Up until now, I have fifty-two long-playing records to my name. I have two singles, and two extended records.” Five of Barrister’s albums were released while he was still in military service.


In 1976, however, the success of his


sixth LP (Volume 6) persuaded him to return to music full time. He was dis- charged, and quickly set about launching an all-out assault on Nigeria’s musical establishment, no mere sergeant now, but a general at the head of his troops – The Fuji Commanders. It was a short, hard- fought campaign, and by the end of the decade victory was his. Barrister was at the top of the Nigerian musical heap, and that’s exactly where he’s stayed, muscling in alongside other big guns like Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Fela Kuti, and Barris- ter’s closest fuji rival (one among many pretenders to the fuji throne), Kollington.


H


is success was not universally welcomed. “Back home, like everywhere in the world, we have that word called jeal- ousy. Your rivals don’t like


you doing better than them. In Nigeria, we musicians, we like each other, but at times you have some bad eggs who are jealous of you, who want to tarnish your image by singing abusive language against your rep- utation. But the training I received from my parents and teachers, my general train- ing, that doesn’t allow me to sing anything before God. So if someone sings something abusive about me, why should I turn and sing abusive language about them? That means I am lowering myself to their level. So instead of responding, I say, OK, my music is garbage… !”


Barrister chuckles at the joke. Turning the insults on their heads was the best move he ever made: a perfect propagan- da coup. Others may play fuji, but only Barrister plays fuji garbage. “You see, it doesn’t matter how provocative your songs are,” asserts Barrister, “I won’t allow anything to obstruct me from my goal. I just want to push my music which is fuji music, not just at the local level, but at the international level.”


Summer 1990. Barrister and an advance party of twenty or so fuji assault troops begin a low-level attack on British music sensibilities. Problem was, hardly anyone knew they were here. Despite the assembled might of his organisation back in Lagos, which now numbered seventy- two personnel and “many departments”, Barrister’s British ground crew had omit-


ted to do any publicity. No fly posters. No announcements in the press. Nothing. Just word of mouth among London’s Nigerian community, with particular reference to those with (oodles of) cash…


Mid-July. A Nigerian friend informs me that Barrister is to play a gig at Shored- itch Old Town Hall. I arrive about 9.30, thinking I’m late. I’m not. The great Edwardian chasm of a hall is empty, except for twenty or so Fuji Commanders in bright blue robes sitting at the back of the hall, and three or four vividly robed women in a far corner, busy with stacks of aromatic Nigerian food and crates of Guin- ness and assorted lager.


About 10 o’clock, the band arrange themselves behind the massive battery of percussion that’s crowding the stage. They don’t mess about. Just crack straight into an incredibly intense groove, and that’s the way they stay, with minor variations, for the next seven-and-a-half hours. Giv- ing it all the high energy at their disposal. Heavy machine gun rounds. Better duck for cover…


Round midnight, just as the audience is trickling in and there’s maybe fifty or sixty in the hall altogether, Barrister ambles on and opens up with the leg- endary fuji larynx. It’s an awesome sound. Stark, harsh, incredibly penetrating. A voice to rattle windows and wake entire neighbourhoods. A voice to raise the spir- its of Nigeria’s ancient past…


Climbing the steps at the front of the stage, the faithful queue to (literally) pay homage, dressed in gleaming robes of many hues, weighed down by 48-carat accessories and handfuls of green stuff. The Chief Doctor’s accountant is right there, on stage. He’s the one with the cal- culator and the briefcase and the list of names. Whispers in the Commander’s ear, and the Commander lets rip with serious praise. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty… part of the fun is in the counting, so fast it misses the target altogether, straight over the shoulder, wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, and into the briefcase. There’s even a rumour that once backstage the money makes its way round to the front again, at preferential rates (dollars, not sterling, if you please). But that’s just mali- cious gossip, isn’t it… ?


Of course, ‘dashing’ or ‘spraying’, as


it’s called, is all a game, but a lucrative one. And is it really any more tacky, or obscene, than the one that goes on in record company boardrooms across the western world? No pretence here that this is (pop) art. No posturing about pretty causes, other than his own. These are roy- alties paid up front, small commercials on a human level (in Nigeria, flaunting your cash flow on stage can act as a powerful aphrodisiac), a ritual going back hundreds, thousands of years. “Back home in Nigeria, it’s our tradition,” says Barrister simply, “it’s our remuneration, our income!” And maybe we should leave it at that.


Meanwhile, it’s gone 3 a.m. and the band are kicking harder than ever. It’s uncanny, the way instruments leave and enter the mix, never missing a beat, each following its own path, its own tempo,


blending into one, cohesive rhythmic maelstrom. Cowbells adding staccato melody lines, here a sliver of Hawaiian gui- tar, there a stab of keyboards or synth, the kit drum exploding with jazzy, Afrobeat syncopations.


“My music is like a house, with a


door,” explains Barrister, when I ask about this astonishing musical empathy, “and my musicians have been coming in and going out for fifteen years. They know that house very well, they know where every- thing is and where to go, how to come in and how to go out of it. They’re accus- tomed to it.


“I keep a lot of boys [musicians] who are with me [thirty-four Fuji Commanders at full-strength] so when I say this, this one knows when to come in, and this one knows when to stop. My musicians nor- mally join when they’re eighteen or twen- ty. It’s very formal: you write an applica- tion, and you come along and get tested, and if you can play as good as you say you can, OK, we’ll employ you.” Budding per- cussionists take note!


helped him in his career, have given him money, or who happen to be important in one way or another. “All you have to do is tell me your name,” says Barrister, “and where you’re from. When you tell me you’re from Lagos, I know how to connect you to Lagos. When you say you’re from the North Side, I know how to sing North Side.”


L


In certain songs, Barrister may throw in a few (paid for) ads for cars (Volvos), television sets, local restaurants, and there’s usually some reference to the effi- cacy of fuji garbage itself: “Fuji sound is beautiful, so nice, good to dance for ladies and gentlemen… especially for students who know how to dig it (on Refined Fuji Garbage).” The songs are mainly in Yoru- ba, but for his forthcoming British release on GlobeStyle, he’s added some lyrics in English, with one or two lines in pidgin (“Me I go dance with my sweety-o”).


Barrister’s songs can last from twenty minutes to an hour or more, depending on the number of people he has to praise. But generally speaking, by the time he reaches the final sections of the songs, the praise is out of the way and he can move on to other topics. Here, he may offer a few nuggets of folk wisdom, or quote from (often highly ambiguous) folk proverbs: “They call him mad, mad, mad/He’s riding a horse in the daytime/But in the night time he’s riding human beings,” sings Bar- rister obtusely on Refined Fuji Garbage (one of the two extended tracks that make up the GlobeStyle album).


He may also throw in advice on moral issues, warning couples not to commit adultery, because sleeping around (particu- larly if you’re a woman!) will give you a bad name; and if you’re a man you risk contracting AIDS. He also warns men not to get too obsessive if a woman spurns your attentions; people will laugh at you and besides, there are plenty of other women


yrically, Barrister’s music follows predictable praise patterns, with the opening sections devoted almost exclusively to elaborate praising of individuals who have


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