The history of music in Lagos, Nigeria: from colonial times to the 1970s

Lagos has always been the centre of Nigerian culture. It was only a matter of time before the city realized its true cosmopolitan potential and turned into a hub where people, ideas, and cultures frequently clash due to its maritime position and history as the centre of political power during the colonial and post-colonial periods.

Pre-colonial musical styles are only briefly or superficially described in imperial reports. Only when western mariners bartered with our forebears and when musical instruments like guitars and horns became available to our collective sound and spirit did narratives start to become fluid.

Our understanding of root forms is still limited because change is a constant and most changes occur before technology was developed. Old and ageing practitioners still manage early instrumental styles like Sakara, asiko, apala, and agidigbo, which are frequently passed down lineages. Highlife and juju music, however, has been extensively studied and recorded because their peak appeal occurred during pivotal periods in post-colonial history, a period of unbridled optimism, and because it was also technologically feasible at the time.

Colonial Era

During the colonial era, Lagos was a cosmopolitan city with a mix of cultures, and this diversity had a significant influence on the music of the time. European classical music was introduced to Lagos by the colonial masters, and it became popular among the elites. The colonial government established music schools in Lagos, and a few Lagosians received formal training in classical music. These musicians formed bands and orchestras that played at social events, such as weddings and parties.

Lagos in the late 1940s was an imperial metropolis with a vibrant nightlife, much like any other European city. The adoption of the culture of the latter was the result of native and European contact. For the various members of its ecosystem—musicians, bands, managers, food sellers, and drug dealers—nightclubs in Lagos were exciting and lucrative.

Numerous reports recall Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo, the popular cultural mogul and impresario of his era who operated the bar. He managed a theatre troupe that provided nighttime amusement along with his wife Cassandra. Additionally, he founded the Jazz Orchestra Band, which subsequently served as a launching pad and provided instruction to Nigeria’s top highlife singers. For their affluent clients at the time, this ensemble performed swing, foxtrot, cha-cha, and classical ballroom dance music. They also performed local songs.

Not until the 1950s did Ghana become the source of a new musical surge. The frequently cited West African tour by Ghanaian trumpeter E.T Mensah and his Tempos Band demonstrated to Nigerian artists the viability of combining Western instruments with African beats. There are also reports of Bobby Benson’s ensemble playing concerts in Ghana. According to the Ghanaian term “highlife,” the country was where the music first achieved success.


In the 1920s and 1930s, a new genre of music called highlife emerged in Lagos. Highlife was a fusion of traditional African rhythms with Western instruments and melodies. It was popular among the middle class, who enjoyed dancing to the catchy beats. Highlife music had a unique sound and style, and it was played by various bands, including the Lagos Orchestra, the Zulu Band, and the Bobby Benson Orchestra.

Highlife music is a popular genre that originated in West Africa, particularly Ghana and Nigeria, during the early 20th century. In Nigeria, the highlife music era is considered to have started in the 1920s and lasted until the 1960s, although the genre remains popular to this day.

During the highlife era, Lagos, Nigeria, was a hub for music, with many musicians and bands emerging and gaining popularity. The genre was a fusion of traditional African rhythms and melodies with Western instruments, particularly brass and woodwind instruments, and influenced by jazz, swing, and other Western genres. The music was often performed by large orchestras and bands, with the guitar and piano playing prominent roles.

Highlife music was popular among the middle class and elites, who enjoyed dancing to catchy beats and sophisticated arrangements. It was played at social events such as weddings, parties, and clubs, and the lyrics often reflected social and cultural issues. The genre produced many notable musicians and bands, including Bobby Benson, Victor Olaiya, E.T. Mensah, Roy Chicago, and Osita Osadebe, among others.

The highlife music era in Nigeria had a significant impact on the country’s music industry, and it paved the way for the emergence of other genres, including juju, apala, and Afrobeat. Highlife music also influenced the development of popular music in neighbouring countries, including Ghana, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone.


In the 1940s, a new genre of music called juju emerged in Lagos. Juju was a blend of traditional Yoruba music with Western instruments, particularly the guitar. It was created by musicians such as Tunde King, Irewole Denge, and Ojoge Daniel, who played in nightclubs and bars. Juju music was popular among the working class and soon gained nationwide popularity. Notable juju musicians from Lagos include I.K. Dairo, Ebenezer Obey, and King Sunny Ade.


In the 1950s, another genre of music called apala emerged in Lagos. Apala music was a fusion of Yoruba traditional music with Islamic rhythms and melodies. It was played on instruments such as the bata drum and the agidigbo. Apala music was popular among the Hausa and Yoruba communities and was performed at social events such as weddings and naming ceremonies. Notable apala musicians from Lagos include Haruna Ishola and Ayinla Omowura.


In the 1960s and 1970s, a new genre of music called Afrobeat emerged in Lagos. Afrobeat was created by Fela Kuti, who fused highlife, jazz, and funk with Yoruba rhythms and political lyrics. It was a unique genre that addressed political and social issues, and it became popular among the youth. Fela Kuti’s band, Africa ’70, was based in Lagos and played at the famous Afrika Shrine. Notable Afrobeat musicians from Lagos include Tony Allen, Femi Kuti, and Seun Kuti.


The history of music in Lagos, Nigeria, is a reflection of the city’s diverse cultural heritage. From the colonial era to the 1970s, various genres of music emerged in Lagos, each with a unique sound and style. These genres were influenced by different cultures and traditions, and they contributed to the development of Nigerian music as a whole. Lagos remains an important centre of music in Nigeria and continues to produce talented musicians who are recognized worldwide.

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