Performers for the 2018 National Folk Festival
West African Highlife Band
photo credit: Michael G. Stewart
El Cerrito, California
West African Highlife Band is an all-star group of distinguished West African music veterans who bring the classic sounds from highlife’s golden age. Originating in Ghana in the late 19th century, highlife is a fusion of indigenous dance rhythms and melodies with Western sounds. The style spread to Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and nearby areas in the 1920s and ’30s, and was flourishing throughout West Africa by the 1950s and ’60s. Polyrhythmic and uplifting, highlife features multiple guitars, plus horns and vocals. It is infectious music, with a groove that builds as bands play for hours, inspiring audiences to dance all night. Bandleader Babá Ken Okulolo’s explains, “In Africa, music is created to help people rise above the pain and suffering of daily life, to transcend all evils with the joy of music. This is music that connects body, mind, and spirit. It is happy music.”
Okulolo, a master Nigerian bassist, has deep roots in his country’s musical traditions. Born into the Urhobo ethnic group in Nigeria’s Delta region, he was raised in a family of traditional dancers and musicians, from whom he learned the arts of drumming, song, and dance. As a teenager, Babá Ken apprenticed himself to his uncle, guitarist Miller Okulolo, and began playing bass. He was soon touring regionally with the highlife band Harmony Searchers.
A talent scout for the great bandleader Dr. Victor Olaiya persuaded the young bassist to leave his homeland for Lagos, where he embarked upon a music career. Becoming a mainstay on the Nigerian music scene, he later toured Europe with Olaiya and such West African luminaries as King Sunny Adé and Fela Kuti. Babá Ken appeared on countless recordings, including his own hit album, Talking Bass. The Nigerian Journalists Association voted him top bassist five times. His work for King Sunny Adé included four albums and multiple world tours, two of which marked his first appearances in the U.S.
In 1985, Babá Ken settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he founded the super group KOTOJA, and later, West African Highlife Band. A well-respected musician and instructor, he lectures and conducts demonstrations and classes in African percussion, musical techniques, and cultural appreciation in schools, museums, and universities.
At a festival, audiences experience highlife at its energetic peak. In Africa, though, highlife bands play for many hours straight. As Babá Ken describes the scene: “We start late, around 10:00 p.m., and play through to 6:00 in the morning. We slowly move into the groove … like making love.”