The yellow light from the low-hanging bulb shines on the right side of his round face, making it seem like a half moon, and he smiles – a shy smile – at the audience; a few cheer and clap. He grips the microphone and welcomes the audience. A few words. His voice, when he speaks, is ordinary; that of a boy just coming out of puberty. He is in a fitting, white long sleeved t-shirt and a pair of dark-blue jeans that seem black in the light. His hair is cut close to his scalp and this makes his moon face even brighter when he smiles. He is not tall; I wouldn’t call him short either. On an ordinary day, you would pass him on the streets without noticing. But here, now, his presence fills the room, making him hard to ignore, hard to take a sweeping glance at and pass. He is here: present, felt. He turns to the band only briefly, introduces the song (God is in Your Mind), causing the audience to erupt in cheers for they, obviously, from their reaction, love the song.
The piano starts, played by the stout guy in a black t-shirt who doubles up as his producer. With a certain melancholy, the sound seeps, filling the room that has the scent of old books and freshly ground coffee. And it seems, in a blink, that the books too that line the wall are moving. The guitar riffs join, rising and splitting the piano sound, shortly followed by the drums (or is it the drums then the guitar?) and the room gets a spiritual feel. The guitarist, wearing all white, stands behind him, working magic with his fingers. The drummer is young, wearing a boyish face, but with talent that shows he has put in the hours. The bass guitarist is a playful guy who stands between the drummer and the pianist; he sways and dances, but still, he is as good as they come.
And then him.
When his voice comes on, singing, no longer that of a boy-almost-man, the experience is transcendental, heavenly even. He belts out the chorus, joined by the audience who sway to the almost religious feeling that the song inspires. He plucks the microphone from the stand and that is when one knows, perhaps, that the song means more to him than one would perceive. When he is done, beads of sweat cover his face, but he wears satisfaction on it, proud to have immersed the audience in an experience one finds, similarly or close, in places of worship. Ironic, I would say, for a song that, he explains, is inspired by his agnostic way of thinking (or living). Without boring the audience with any philosophical speeches about his beliefs, he moves to the next track from his earlier album ‘Merchants, Dealers and Slaves’ and the audience, made mostly of his ‘hard core fans’, who have been listening to his work since the earlier days, jumps in delight when he performs. He dances too, and, at some point turns away from the audience, faces the band, and swings his hips with his arms stretched outwards, as Christ on the cross – but only happy being there. The sight is that of someone so consumed by the music, his own music, that it is a lovely thing to watch.
For the next hour or so, he performs songs from his latest album – the sixth –, throwing in tracks from his earlier albums just to shake things up and keep the audience excited. Every performance is a wonder for one gets to see the emotion carried by each tune when he performs it. The audience seems to jump in excitement when he performs ‘Alajo Somolu’ from his album ‘Klitoris’, and this is understandable as the song carries a beat – the beat alone – that leaps and the amount of energy he uses to perform it justifies the response. Two performances I seem to love more than anything however, are that of ‘Ọlánrewájú’ and ‘Patience and Goodluck’ both from his latest album, Oṣó – wizard. Perhaps, this is because I believe that the emotions conveyed in these songs, coupled with Brymo’s vocal work, make these my best songs from the album.
At one point, he sits at the piano, concealed to half of the audience by a large speaker, and he performs ‘Heya’, an acclaimed song that provided the visual introduction to the Oṣó album (In the video, he is only wearing a leather loincloth, so the [mischievous]audience suggests – insists? – that he should perform as he does in the video. He declines with a smile). When he finally starts playing the piano and singing ‘Heya’, his prowess, not only as a vocalist, but also as a talented pianist, reveals itself. One is left wondering how many instruments he can play with such ease, without strain, with grace and unmatched suave. The audience sings along, word for word, stopping when he stops, belting when he does, hesitating with him. He seems to find joy in this, as any artist would, for it feels like the audience has made the song theirs, owning it enough to share it with him, experiencing and reliving it at the same time with him.
The performance ends abruptly, with him performing a short version (the chorus, it seems) of ‘Ara’ from his album ‘The Son of a Kapenta’, and he leaves a bewildered audience wondering if this is all. Not a word, he walks away from the stage, only reappearing a few minutes later after the band has folded up and the audience has started to leave. He is wearing a military-coloured cardigan, and he appears even shorter than he was on the stage. He is jovial, taking photos with the eager fans, signing the albums and merchandise. He seems content, and he ought to be, for he, without a doubt, has just given one of the best live performances I have seen.
I am happy, for I have finally ‘been introduced’ to Brymo. Rather, I have finally seen, watched Brymo perform. In a not-so-secret place, tucked away at 168 Awolowo Road, is a wonderful bookstore that doubles up as a coffee shop and a jazz records store, selling records from the 20s to the 90s. Here, I have met an artist I will, for a very long time (forever) be in awe of and hold in such high regard.
This is how I was introduced to Brymo:
About two or three years ago, a friend (I don’t remember who) sent me an audio clip on WhatsApp. We must have been sharing songs a lot for it wasn’t until a few days later that I played one of the songs. The husky voice, the vigour, the boldness were all things that drew me in. I listened to the track a few more times – it must have been ‘Fe Mi’ – before texting the friend back that he (Brymo) reminded me of Fela Kuti. I don’t know what it was then, but something drove me to draw those parallels. I then went on YouTube and tried to find everything I could that he had done. I was grateful to this friend for introducing me to this kind of music. I gulped it all, from the lewd but catchy ‘Prick No Get Shoulder’ to the pessimistic and haunting yet cautionary, ‘Nothing’s Ever Promised Tomorrow.’ I loved every bit of it. I played his music all the time, everywhere I could. I had found the music I connected with on the level that people of my parent’s generation connected with Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Oliver Mtukudzi et al. I had found the music that sated my desire for meaningful song writing with catchy beats rooted in the traditional African sound.
Brymo, with his music, offered this and more. In his music, one found bits and traces of poetry, and his lyrics came laden with metaphors that made his music relevant and responsive to the times. How, I wondered, did he manage to be so politically and socially conscious in his songs but still be able to create work that stayed with you even years after listening?
The answer was in what Nina Simone’s definition of an artist and what she says (considers) is the artist’s duty: An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice, but I CHOOSE to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved in politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and NOT reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.
I suppose, for me at least, this is what makes Brymo a great artist – his ability to fuse the politics into his work, so that he makes his listeners conscious of the times, but still, still he does it while providing entertainment to the listener, so the listener is not just burdened with the political consciousness, but also able to dance and sing along. This, to me, is one of the greatest strengths of Brymo’s body of work that has set him apart not only as a talented vocalist, but also as one of the greatest artists of this generation.
For someone I have only met once, barely talked to, and seen perform (again, only once) one would say I sure have many good things to say about him. But my belief, and I stand by this, is one needs not to meet an artist or share physical space with them, to have good things to say about them; praise does not depend on this. I know that Brymo’s oeuvre tells me everything I need to know about his childhood, upbringing and present life, such that, when I meet him, I only do so for his demeanour and presence to complete the image. It already feels like I know him, have walked the streets of Lagos with him, shared a drink and even whispered secrets to him. An encounter with him simply cements the idea of him that I have long held from listening to him. That is the power of music. And in listening to Brymo, I am more convinced of the mastery required to convey both emotion (such that there exists the connectedness) and also the presence (such that one feels the artist is there). For this, one has to be so adept at the creation and process, I imagine, matters as much as the result. As we are not privy to the process, we use the result, the product to extrapolate what amount of energy went into this. And with Brymo, the effort always seems immense. Each song revealing his perfectionist nature and his desire to create even something better, purer than the last.
The result is rewarding as his albums go on to garner rave reviews and a ‘cult following’. His music however comes with a certain caution; a caution I do not share. While reviewing Oṣó, Sandra Ezekwesili cautions that: “If ‘Legbegbe’ is more your vibe, then this album (Brymo’s music, period) isn’t for you. Forget shaking the acceptability table, he pushed the damn thing down because guess what? Art is supposed to disrupt the status quo. He is not pretending that you are his audience and he realizes that those who understand his art will appreciate this.” And while I agree that Brymo really goes out of his way to create great music, I do not think that the intention is to alienate, rather the intention – pure, unadulterated as I perceive – is to make great music that pushes the boundaries (out of the norm?) of regular entertainment by staying true to itself. He outdoes the rest and himself, and this shouldn’t be a caution to the (potential) audience but a praise to the amount of work and effort he puts in the album.
One certainly knows that Brymo’s music is the kind that will stand the test of time and go on to define generations to come. He is, as he has never forgotten to proclaim, the greatest (not ‘one of’) artist of his time, a statement one may agree or disagree with, but still know that he and his music are both hard to ignore. He prevails.