“There’s no doubt about it, what we are hearing is African music because it’s in your blood. It’s in everybody’s blood,” said Babá Ken Okulolo.
In the early seventies Okulolo was a superstar bass player in his homeland of Nigeria with a recording contract on EMI and one of the best-selling albums in Africa. He frequently jammed with Ginger Baker from the British supergroup Cream and with Fela Kuti, one of Africa’s first superstars to break into the American pop market. Today Okulolo, a North Oakland resident, has three bands—Kotoja, the West African Highlife Band, the Nigerian Brothers—and lives with his wife and two sons in North Oakland.
“Everything originally is from Africa. All those things just went away from Africa then came back again,” he said, explaining the unexpected similarities between the tuning of Japanese koto, the American blues pentatonic scale and traditional African melodies.
“The first time I heard James Brown, back in Nigeria, I thought he was a guy from the eastern part of Africa because he had that beat and that culture and that powerful, forceful personality,” Okulolo continued. “He speaks very strongly in his music.”
In Nigeria his band, Monomono, was one of the first groups to fuse African music with American pop. It became a very successful and influential band in Africa.
“We called this kind of music Afro-Rock,” recalled Okulolo. “It was modern. It was authentic. It had the influence of jazz, highlife and a little bit of juju music—indigenous music.”
As a child Okulolo learned to keep musical time by playing in sync with his village elders.
“You got to learn how to keep your time, keep the meter and keep it locked when you’re young,” he said. “As village boys we all went through this routine of playing with our elders. They give you a bell to keep it steady and if you miss it, they’ll pop you on the head.”
He said, laughing easily, “So you are there, you’re learning it. You’re hearing all the things they’re doing and there are a lot of things crisscrossing that are likely to throw you off, but you got to keep on doing it. You got to be on it. I went through all that and most African musicians went through that period of initiation they carry with them. It’s embedded in your soul.”
Today Okulolo’s music fits sweetly and neatly under the World Music umbrella, although each of his bands has a distinctive sound and style.
Kotoja, which in the Yoruba language means “Let’s be friends,” is a pop and Afro-beat big band with up to 12 members. Founded in 1985, shortly after Okulolo moved from Nigeria to the Bay Area, most of Kotoja’s music is sung in English. In the early 1990s Putumayo World Music launched both the band and the Putumayo label with a best-selling Kotoja album, which was followed by a second album shortly thereafter.
“It’s one of the last standing African bands in the Bay Area,” said Okulolo. “Many other bands have come and gone, but after 17 years we’re still performing.”
While Kotoja has some American members, the West African Highlife Band is an all-African quintet that Okulolo spun off in 1996. Like Kotoja they play feel-good songs with a strong and complex rhythmic structure, but their dance music is reverently authentic to the “highlife” style and is sung in several African languages.
Okulolo’s most traditionally African band is the Nigerian Brothers, which he formed in 1998. The band members are essentially the same as the West African Highlife Band, but the Nigerian Brothers only play indigenous folksongs with modern acoustic accompaniment.
Living in the East Bay with two nearly adult children, it would be impossible for Okulolo not to be well versed in hip-hop, the mass-culture music du jour.
“I like hip-hop because it’s a way of this generation to express their inner feelings,” Okulolo said. “They are pissed off with the world in general, not only their parents. Society has put them in a particular box where they need to explode out, and this is the only way they can do it. They are very, very bitter. They don’t take life as anything. Just live and let die kind of thing. It’s a shame that it’s come to that situation and frustration, most of it is frustration. They have nothing to do, nowhere to go, no future, nothing to look up to.
“I like all kinds of music that makes a political saying or that speaks to the people. That’s what musicians are for, to be able to recognize what’s going wrong in society and talk about it and bring it out.”
The musicality of hip-hop doesn’t impress him, he said. He thinks it’s too rhythmic and too simplified.
“There’s not much music in there; it’s just grooves,” Okulolo said. “You just have a drum machine and a keyboard and a mike. It doesn’t really take musicianship. But what they say, the way they rhyme is incredible. They can put so many words into a beat and make it rhythmic without falling out or getting all over the place. I think it’s very incredible. It’s something that I really admire them for.”
Okulolo has little respect for what oozes out of the radio today.
“There is no new music per se,” he said. “Everything sounds recycled to me. They’re just putting old wine in a new bottle. It’s a problem. You don’t hear [complex melodic and rhythmic music] because of commercialism. Everybody’s trying to make money. If you play that kind of thing you just go hungry. You do it for the love of it, not to make money, then you can experiment with stuff. The good music that lasts forever is the experimental ones. All the commercial ones, they come today and tomorrow, they are gone, something else takes over.”