What's on Tap

What's on Tap

African musician motivated by heritage

Posted September 4, 2015

Baba Ken & West African Highlife Band (Image from National Folk Fest)

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: Katoja (a contemporary African big band), the Nigerian Brothers (an African folk group) and the African Drummers (a festive, rhythm-based outfit).

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. He began playing highlife as a young man growing up in Nigeria, and it’s what he’ll perform here with the West African Highlife Band.

They play 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.

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.

“What else can move people like that in the world?” marvels Okulolo. “What else can move people like that if it is not a spirit that music can create in the human body?”


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