The Value of Music

Posted Thursday, 30 August 2018

One morning after I moved to Lagos, I decided to treat myself to a pedicure. The nail techs set up the salon with sleepy, half-closed eyes, singing devotional music in a sweet medley. They turned on the gen, filled up a foot bath and motioned me to sit, activating the massage feature in the chair. I slid my feet into the warm water and sighed. Powerful waves of pressure pummelled away the knots of stress and sorrow that had hardened into my shoulder blades.


The manager of the salon turned on a television affixed to the wall, put on Trace Urban, a music video channel, and cranked the volume all the way up. He nodded, as if pleased with his superior customer service.


“Shake your bum bum!” D’Banj’s voice boomed through the salon, rattling the windows. “Oliver, Oliver, Oliver Twist.”


I put my hands over my ears. “Why is the music so loud?” I yelled.


“So you can relax, madam” the manager said, bowing with his arm outstretched.


My best friend, Tolu, did his youth service in Kaduna, working for an NGO that teaches professional skills to local residents. One day, the corpers divided the participants into five teams and assigned each a type of business for a ‘value add’ exercise.


When the teams presented their ideas, no matter the business category, everyone thought music would add value and guarantee success. The ones assigned to a hair salon said they would put speakers inside and play music for their customers. The ones assigned to a grocery store said they’d put speakers outside and play music to draw new customers.


The response from the audience listening to the presentation was congratulatory. “What an original idea!” they said again and again, as the same idea was proposed.


Music in Nigeria is not without its challenges. My husband and I recently went to a birthday party. On the way there, we stopped for suya. As I speared meat with my toothpick, my husband looked concerned. “Maybe you should skip the raw onions today.”


He may as well have asked me to skip breathing. I ate my fill of fatty meat and pungent onion, ignoring his advice. “I won’t know anyone there so I’ll just keep my mouth closed.”


When we arrived at his friend’s house, the music was so loud you had to shout to be heard. To make matters worse, people were friendly. Strangers introduced themselves and tried to set me at ease. When I shouted greetings back, my dragon breath nearly killed everyone. But what could I say? Abeg, off the music, save yourself?


There’s a thing that happens when music plays. Backs become boneless as shoulders slide forward. Bottoms double in size. A sinuous movement overtakes people. If it’s a fast song, legs fly. If it’s slow, I peek out from behind my fingers because the sexiness is overwhelming. I see my daughters practicing these dances between math problems, in the car, while eating dinner. Dancing is one of those things Lagosians do well without thinking, like expertly kicking a football or directing strangers into parking spaces.


When I married my husband many years ago, we went to the village for the traditional wedding. My in-laws gave me a new name in a ceremony that involved lots of kneeling, pontificating and kola nuts. The aunts and cousins dressed me in a George wrapper. When it was time to walk out to see my husband, a cousin told me “You have to dance to him.”


I froze. “Show me.”


She slithered elegantly forward. I had no idea how or what she was doing.


“Now you try,” my husband’s aunt said. Awkward shuffling ensued as I lurched my way to my husband’s side. People blinked and turned away, embarrassed. The aunt—smile frozen in place—whispered, “You tried.” I didn’t realise until much later that what she meant was, “You failed.”


In December, my family drove to the Republic of Benin for a few days at a beach resort. We spent long, lazy days listening to the hypnotic roar of the ocean.


“Do you like this place?” I asked my children, as we sat poolside.


“It’s kind of dead,” my son said. “They need music.”


My eldest daughter glanced up from her book. “Without music, it doesn’t feel special.”


My other daughter added, “Yeah, it’s boring.”


I looked at the sand, the surf, the sky, the beams of light shimmering off the waves and my three children who had now spent their childhoods in Nigeria. “You’re right,” I said. “We need music.”


Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.


Follow her on Instagram @mopals5


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