Lekan Babalola. Photo: Getty
When most Nigerians think of the Grammy Awards, we think of Femi Kuti‘s four nominations and King Sunny Ade‘s two. Sometimes we go as far as claiming the four won by Sade Adu and Seal respectively as ours.
But we do have a bonafide winner, a Nigerian who has won the Grammy Award not once, but twice. His name is Lekan Babalola, a jazz musician and percussionist.
His first Grammy came in 2006 for his work on the album In the heart of the moon by legendary Malian guitarist, Ali Farka Toure. And Babalola got his second Grammy Award in 2009 for being on Cassandra Wilson‘s album Loverly.
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria as a choirmaster’s son, he started his foray into music by playing cowbells and drums in the church. By the age of six, he formed a ragtag band with his peers. ‘All we were playing were tins and plastic – and I would be imitating my father. That was my first band and I paid my fellow musicians- my friends- with sweets that I bought with the money my mother gave me,’ he said in a documentary.
Even though music came to him easily and he quickly developed a knack for leading a band, he had a different dream- he wanted to be a pilot so at the age of 20, he got a scholarship to study automobile engineering at Chelsea College of Automobile and Aeronautical Engineering, London. But like his idol Fela Kuti had done some twenty years before, he soon found that his calling was not aviation but music.
‘One day I heard a voice in my head that said, ‘You can’t be here; this is not where you belong…’ So I called my mother and told her I wanted to be an artiste.’
That’s how his career began, playing with bands all over Europe, supplementing his career with odd jobs and largely being supported by his friend, Dehinde Harrison as he told CNN.
He is credited for three tracks on the 2005 In the Heart of the Moon album. It earned him the first Grammy Award and led to many more doors opening to him.
It soon led to a collaboration with Cassandra Wilson, an American jazz singer and vocalist. ‘Cassandra Wilson asked me to open for her at a gig she was doing at the Royal Festival Hall. After the gig, she invited me to come to the US as part of her band. I was there and eventually we did the album Loverly together.’
So how come only serious jazz aficionados and not the general Nigerian populace know about this two-time Grammy Award winner? He told CNN that ‘I didn’t go into music to become a Grammy Award winner. The Grammy is just by the way side.’ Still, he has been toLagos International Jazz Festival on a number of times.
Mainly based in England now, he’s married with three children to a jazz musician, Kate Luxmoore, who he regards as a greater musician than he himself. But he’s never far from Nigeria. ‘On one of my trips to Nigeria, I met a friend who had a funeral home and I saw the brass band that played with him. I had had the idea of owning a brass band and that gave birth to the Eko Brass Band.’
He has four official albums of his own, many of which are nods to his religious beliefs and the Yoruba culture; Babalola is an ordained Ifa priest as well. ‘I have a new [body of] work which is a celebration of the icon of metal (Ogun). In the Yoruba pantheon, Ogun is the path clearer. While I’m not saying I’m the path clearer for my contemporaries, but I am forging ahead to interpret the Yoruba culture which I was born into, to the Western culture which I have benefited a lot from and make it a universal culture.’
Indeed, with the Yoruba culture being accepted and celebrated from brands like Nike and artistes like Beyonce through Laolu Sebanjo, it will be difficult not to acknowledge and celebrate path-clearers like Lekan Babalola.