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Babá Ken Okulolo to perform at Folk Festival


Babá Ken Okulolo & the West African Highlife Band. / Photo by Skip Rowland Babá Ken Okulolo & the West African Highlife Band. / Photo by Skip Rowland


Babá Ken Okulolo will turn 65 years old during the National Folk Festival, where he will perform with the West African Highlife Band. One of the greatest African musicians of his generation, Okulolo projects a youthful demeanor and frisky spirit that belies his years.

“I’m still going strong and everything is fine,” he says with an amiable chuckle. “I can still breathe and walk on my two feet and play my bass guitar.”

That is an understatement. Okulolo not only plays with the all-star West African Highlife Band but leads three other ensembles: Babá Ken & Katoja (a contemporary African big band), Babá Ken Okulolo & the Nigerian Brothers (an African folk group) and Babá Ken & the African Drummers (a festive, rhythm-based outfit).

Okulolo also is an educator who has taught African-style guitar, bass, drums and singing to young musicians at a summer program on the University of California at Berkeley campus. In short, Okulolo is thoroughly devoted to African music.

“Whatever music you hear today has some kind of influence from African music,” he says. “This is true because we all at one time migrated from Africa, and the music still stays in everyone’s genes. So I would say African music is the taproot.”

Okulolo is particularly motivated to ensure the survival of highlife music, a West African form with roots in Ghana that date back to the early 20th century. From there it spread to other countries in West Africa, becoming extremely popular at midcentury. Okulolo began playing highlife as a young man growing up in the Delta region of Nigeria, and it’s what he’ll perform here with the West African Highlife Band.

Back in the day, the typical highlife band included multiple guitars and a horn section. The style mingled traditional African rhythms and forms with Western instruments and ideas.

The West African Highlife Band plays classic songs from highlife’s heyday with a lineup that includes a guitarist, keyboardist, two drummers and Okulolo on bass. Their “Salute to Highlife Pioneers” (1998) is a latter-day highlife milestone.

Okulolo learned how to play bass from his Uncle Miller, who was a member of a highlife group called the Harmony Searchers. Babá Ken quickly became proficient enough to join them.

From there, he jumped to a highly popular band led by Victor Olaiya, the premier highlife musician in Nigeria since the 1950s. Okulolo’s selection as bassist — he actually replaced two bass players that Olaiya used — attested to his superb musicianship. He was not even out of his teens yet.

“Basically, Victor Olaiya had two bands in one,” Okulolo says of the lineup he joined in the late 1960s. “We would play highlife for older people and soul music for college students.”

At the time, popular music from the U.S. and Britain was making waves in Africa.

“James Brown, Wilson Pickett and the Beatles were bombarding the west coast of Africa,” Okulolo says, “and the students were just in love with all this new music.”

Okulolo next stepped out on his own in the early 1970s, forming Monomono with Joni Haastrup (the lead singer in Olaiya’s soul band). Monomono was a pioneering Afro-rock and Afro-funk group that recorded three hit albums for EMI Nigeria.

“The band took off so rapidly,” Okulolo remembers. “We were on top of the scene for about five years.”

Okulolo’s many-chaptered career also included stints with legendary African big bands led by King Sunny Ade and Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Both entourages featured two dozen or more musicians and dancers. There was a reason for the large numbers.

“West African bands tend to be huge ensembles, and this stems from a belief that when you put something together, you invite the best you can find and make it groove-oriented and family-oriented,” Okulolo explains. “We believe the more stuff you put in the soup, the sweeter it becomes.”

While on tour with King Sunny Ade’s African Beats, Okulolo first laid eyes on the San Francisco Bay Area. He moved there in 1985 and has called it home ever since.

Shortly after immigrating to America, Okulolo formed his own version of an Afrobeat big band, which he named Katoja. Though scaled down to a dozen members for economic reasons, Katoja is still a sizable and durable outfit that is nearing its 30th anniversary.

Regardless of which group he’s piloting, Okulolo is always guided by the conviction that music is a healing force that brings energy and happiness to people.

“I haven’t seen anybody yet who says he doesn’t like or listen to music,” Okulolo says. “Music is a mood changer. With music, you can actually heal parts of your daily life.

The National Folk Festival will take place in Greensboro September 11 to 13.