“Ashkenaz is always the place for me in the Bay Area,” said Baba Ken Okulolo. “Ashkenaz is home.” The Nigerian music master will be playing with the West African Highlife Band, 9:30 p. m. this Saturday at Ashkenaz, after an African dance lesson by Comfort Mensah.
Along with Baba Ken, the band features Soji Odukogbe, Nii Armah Hammond, Lemi Barrow, Rasaki Aladokun and Pope Flyne.
Vocalist, bassist, producer Baba Ken, now heads several African music groups in the East Bay—besides the West African Highlife Band, Kotoja (Afro-Beat); and the acoustic, traditional Nigerian Brothers—besides teaching and presenting school programs in African music.
First seen in the states as bassist with King Sunny Ade’s African Beats on their 1985 tour, Baba Ken comes from Urhobo ethnic stock, born in Aladja, a fishing village in Nigeria. At 8 years old, he was sent to the city of Warri, for the Anglican missionary schools there. On short-wave radio, he began listening to a broad range of music: jazz, Afro-Cuban, rhythm & blues and Congolese.
After apprenticing himself to his guitarist uncle, Miller Okulolo, Baba Ken sat in with the Harmony Searchers and other bands. Discovered by a talent scout for Dr. Victor Olaiya, a great Highlife bandleader, he moved to Lagos, at first one of three bassists with Olaiya’s big band, then the only one. He later started up Afro-rock band Monomono with vocalist Joni Haastrup, touring West Africa and Europe by the early ‘70s. He also performed with Steve Rhodes’ African Voices and his own group, Positive Vibrations, putting out his own disc, Talking Bass. The Nigerian Journalists Association voted him top bassist five times.
“I first passed through Berkeley, performing at the Greek Theatre,” with King Sunny Ade’s star juju music band. “I was very, very impressed by the reaction of the audience to the music. They were very hospitable; I felt at home. I made up my mind that this was where I’d plant myself if I came to the States—and that’s exactly what I did!”
“There were a lot of African bands in the Bay Area then,” Baba Ken continued, “Zulu Spear, Mapenzi, O.J. Komode ... the live scene was very vibrant, with most of them playing at Ashkenaz, booked two nights in a row on the weekend. The place would be packed, with everybody having a good time. It was very promising.”
Baba Ken started Kotoja, with American and other Nigerian musicians, playing a mix of jazz, funk, Afro-beat and juju. the group has two CDs on Mesa Recordings and one on Putumayo.
The West African Highlife Band was founded just a few years back, inspired by a request from the late David Nadel, to revive the hits of the era of Highlife. Their first CD, “Salute to Highlife Pioneers,” has been released by Inner Spirit/Stem’s. Pope Flyne was lead vocalist with Ghana’s Sweet Talks and teaches locally; Soji Odukogbe was Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s lead guitarist for five years, with a background in spiritual music; Nii Armah Hammond was a founding member of the Ghanian band Hedzoleh Soundz, who recorded with Hugh Masakela and were one of the first African pop groups residing in the Bay Area; Lemi Barrow has played traps extensively with African, Brazilian and African-American groups.
Baba Ken plays and sings his own roots music, bringing it to the schools with the Nigerian Brothers, teaching by “emulating the village lifestyle through drumming and singing, [which] enables students to build and enjoy perfect teamwork” and “breaking music into the simplest forms, with particular examples and body language.”
He recalls mixing different styles of music from different places from very early in his career. “When I was still back home in Africa, every song released in America was heard the first week in Nigeria. There was a direct relation. We were very familiar with the top hits released here. We’d copy them, play our own indigenous music and mix in the influence of American and European music. We called it Afro-Funk. A lot of people have been going back and forth, trying to make a new way in their music from different things. Music has been a two-way road.”
He noted that his annual end-of-the-year Music Night Africa, an event he’s hosted for the past nine years to showcase all his groups and special guests (“It’s a long night, 8 p.m. ‘til 2 a.m.”), will be at Ashkenaz Dec. 5.
“I’ve been here now 22 years plus,” Baba Ken said. “The tide goes up and down; I’ve seen them come and go. Some of my fans have been with me 22 years; they come, and invite other people to come with them. It’s very encouraging how dedicated they are to me. I’ve tried to branch out, to showcase African music in its various forms, from the historical past of it, the traditional acoustic village music, to cocktail music, to getting down to dance—for young and old, I’ve got all the avenues covered; I’m there, making mind, body and soul happy.”