Babá Ken Okulolo
Leader of three African bands
Nigerian vocalist/bassist/producer Babá Ken Okulolo is one of the few popular African musicians of today whose roots extend deep into Nigerian musical history. As a bandleader, his warm, smiling personality enlivens three distinct performing groups: the modern Afro-beat band KOTOJA, the all-star WEST AFRICAN HIGHLIFE BAND, and the acoustic, traditional NIGERIAN BROTHERS. Each group brings forth the universal healing magic of African music.
Babá Ken was first seen in the U.S. with King Sunny Ade's African Beats on their 1985 world tour, and he continues to appear on Ade's latest recordings. In addition to his vast body of Nigerian studio and production dates, he is known for his early stints with highlife master Dr. Victor Olaiya, Steve Rhodes' African Voices, and the seminal Afro-rock group, Monomono. Five times, the Nigerian Journalists' Association has voted him the country's top bassist.
Babá was born into the Urhobo ethnic group, to a family of traditional dancers and musicians. In the tiny fishing village of Aladja, surrounded by deep forests and lagoons traveled by dugout canoes, he was exposed to the traditional stories, rhythms and songs of his people. At eight years of age, he was sent to the city of Warri to be educated in the Anglican missionary schools. While undergoing the exacting discipline of the school headmasters, he diverted himself by sneaking out to hear some of the historic touring highlife bands of the time. On short-wave radio, he listened avidly to jazz, Afro-cuban, rhythm and blues, and Congolese music. Inspired, he apprenticed himself to an uncle, guitarist Miller Okulolo. Soon he was touring regionally with the Harmony Searchers, until he was heard by a talent scout for the great bandleader Dr.Victor Olaiya, who convinced the young bassist with the 'roots' feel to leave his homeland and head for the giant city of Lagos. In a few years, restless to explore the modern potential of African music, he joined vocalist Joni Haastrup to form the seminal and legendary Afro-rock band, Monomono. By the early 70's, they were at the top of the charts and touring West Africa with the albums "Give a Beggar a Chance" and "Dawn of Awareness" (EMI), fusing African roots music with rock, soul, and funk.
Babá Ken became a mainstay on the Nigerian music scene, touring Europe with various groups, producing and performing on countless recordings, including his own hit album, "Talking Bass" (EMI), and leading his band, Positive Vibrations. On a tour with King Sunny Ade, Okulolo first visited the San Francisco Bay Area, enjoying the unique mix of people and musical atmosphere. In 1985, he returned to stay. There, joining with a heady mix of top Nigerian and American musicians, he started the modern Afro-beat band KOTOJA. Featuring Babá Ken's vocals and original tunes, KOTOJA blends jazz, funk, highlife, Afro-beat, and juju into exciting, animated shows. Their three album releases ("Freedom Is What Everybody Needs" and "Sawale" on Mesa Recordings, "Super Sawale" on Putumayo) and national touring have won critical acclaim.
A few years ago, inspired by a request from the late, beloved music impresario David Nadel, the WEST AFRICAN HIGHLIFE BAND was born. In this group, Babá is joined by other distinguished African music veterans to revive the great hits of the highlife music era. They've been in demand at clubs and festivals for their hot, dance-inspiring music, and have just released their first CD, "Salute to Highlife Pioneers" (Inner Spirit/Stern's).
Recently, to satisfy the demand for traditional African music in an acoustic format, Babá started THE NIGERIAN BROTHERS. They recreate the sweet, lilting sounds of their earliest village memories, bringing folk, "palmwine," and highlife songs to life with their harmonious voices, African guitar stylings, and hand percussions. This gentle but rhythmic music has been a special treat at museums and folk music venues.
Today, Babá Ken lives in Oakland, California, with his family. Says Okulolo, "KOTOJA simply means, 'Let's be friends; let's not fight.' I see the world today as one family, as one village. We all have the same needs and wants. Peace, love, and understanding will help solve the world's problems, and that's what we are trying to spread to all people with our music."