There’s a popular Igbo adage that states “Onweghi ihe bu ihe ohụrụ n’okpuru anyanwu” – which loosely translates to English as “There is nothing new under the sun”. Whether it’s fashion, entertainment, or art, most modern concepts are simply reworked regurgitations of the past. In the same vein, contemporary music – especially African music – […]
There’s a popular Igbo adage that states “Onweghi ihe bu ihe ohụrụ n’okpuru anyanwu” – which loosely translates to English as “There is nothing new under the sun”. Whether it’s fashion, entertainment, or art, most modern concepts are simply reworked regurgitations of the past. In the same vein, contemporary music – especially African music – evidently has strong ties to past music styles that defined previous eras.
Thus is the entire essence of the Afrocentric band, The Cavemen, who channel the nostalgic highlife sound that raved in our country during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Fusing elements of jazz and soul music with their evident highlife influences, The Cavemen – comprising the sibling duo Kingsley Okorie and Benjamin James – create their version of futuristic highlife; a coalition of slices of the past and their modern perspectives. Although the pair first stepped onto the scene as instrumentalists, they attained a higher level of visibility back in 2019 as they began making music of their own. Their peerless sound – one they’ve defined as ‘Highlife Fusion’ – was born out of a necessity to fill a void undoubtedly missing from the Nigerian mainstream. Listening to the Cavemen, you’re immediately catapulted onto a different plane; it’s suddenly a cool Sunday evening in Nsukka – the storied city in Enugu state, Nigeria – in 1965, and you can feel the dusty red sands beneath your feet and perceive the scent of palm wine trailing laughter from husky voices in the backyard, as the blaring music envelops your ears. It’s a sound that begets warmth, a warmth our grandparents once relished in, a warmth we can now all identify with.
African music, more than anything else, is historically ancient, rich, and diverse, and here in Nigeria, our sounds are vast and varied, upheld by our storied culture. However, in the last few decades, Afrobeat – and more recently its offspring, Afropop – has been singled out as the blanket genre that defines our country’s contemporary sound, resulting in a sideline of other genres. This was, however, not always the case. Delving deeper into the history of our arts, you’d find that before Fela Kuti’s revolutionary work as the pioneer of Afrobeat, before our country’s independence, highlife was a mainstay; seeping into our roots from Ghana. It was West African pop music when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time by the British colonial masters in Lagos, and the Nigerian Green-White-Green flag was hoisted.
While the music held more significance for Ghana in the ‘60s,representing their daily socio-political struggles, in Nigeria, it was feel-good music, carrying mundane themes, made specifically for dance. Although highlife spanned across the breadth of the country, it first gained popularity among the Igbo people following World War II. Performers like Rex Lawson & the Majors Band, Chief Osita Osadebe, Victor Uwaifo, and the legendary Oliver De Coque revolutionized the sound and, for a while, highlife was the dominating genre in our sound culture. Following the civil war in the late ‘60s, Igbo musicians were forced out of Lagos and returned to their homeland and as a result, highlife ceased to be a major part of mainstream Nigerian music; solely thought of as being something purely associated with the Southeasterners. Over time, highlife’s popularity slowly dwindled among the Igbos, and it was reduced to a passive genre. A genre The Cavemen, Igbos themselves, are prepared to resurrect.
Right from their debut single, “Osondu”, the Cavemen’s unique agenda was vivid: they are here to expand on the transcendent blueprint of Highlife music, and play their part in extending the influential sound’s relevance in the most authentic way possible. In the last year, the duo have furthered their cause with subsequent releases of singles like “Bolo Bolo”, “Me You I” and more recently, “Anita”, as well as producing the majority of Lady Donli’s critically acclaimed debut album, ‘Enjoy Your Life’. Their electrifying live performances – with stages as intimate as living rooms and as grandiose as TedX conventions – have lit up many rooms and earned them a reputation as one of the most enjoyable bands around. Slowly, but surely, Kingsley and Benjamin are taking strides to becoming the modern torch bearers for the highlife genre.
Their sonically opulent history climaxes into ‘ROOTS’, the Cavemen’s newly released debut album which they had been teasing since January, but actually working on over the last couple of years. On a mission to “fill the vacuum for contemporary highlife”, ‘ROOTS’ is, as its name suggests, produced in reverence to their Nigerian heritage and a genre with deep anchors in the history of African music. Sitting at just six minutes short of an hour, the sixteen-tracker is concurrently an expansive journey through the rich sound of highlife and a heartfelt ode to the soundtrack of our country’s traumatic history and political turmoil.
Highlife is, more than anything else, characterised by its very particular sound; jazzy horns melding with layered, arpeggiated guitar riffs and skittering percussions, serving as the perfect backdrop for the spacey croons of the performer. It’s music that evokes spiritual hip gyrations from unassuming bodies as they become one with the rhythm. The first half of the album – as Kingsley reveals in an interview with Accelerate TV – is intended to sound like an afternoon in town, filled with mellifluous melodies, and easy going yet message-bearing lyrics. “Ah, Akaraka oh/Echi d’ime” (Destiny/Tomorrow is pregnant), Kingsley rhythmically intones on “Akaraka” in his vernacular Igbo tongue over the accompanying traditional instrumentals certain to send shots of nostalgia through your body. The pitter-patter percussive progression of pre-released “Bolo Bolo” would cause an eruptive swinging of hips on the dancefloor in a ‘50s nightclub in Enugu; “Ọ gini ka i ga-eme ka nwanyi a ghara i bolo bolo su” (What will you do so that a woman won’t take you for a fool?), Kingsley questions as Benjamin’s sizzling drum rolls swirl with the irresistible guitar melodies. And on the shekere-heavy “Bena”, the breezy rhythms are reminiscent of a Sunday afternoon car ride through town.
Love, in all its variant forms, is a running theme in highlife music; almost every song boasts lyrical attempts to woo a woman. It’s no wonder why every other song on ‘ROOTS’ is named for a woman and places her firmly at the center of its subject. On “Fall”, “Me You I” and “Anita”, the pair explore themes of freshly tapped love, frothing at the mouth with infatuation. “Ije love asogbue m” (The journey of love is sweeting me), Benjamin shrieks on the mellow “Me You I”, painting the all too familiar picture of you early days in love. “Bena” and “Ọbiageri” are dedications to transactional love. “A mana m/Obu na I ma m/Naani inye I na eri/Nako mo” (Don’t know me,if you know me for only what you want from me), they repeatedly echo on the weighty “Ọbiageri” (the name which directly translates as someone who came solely to enjoy), as they render an ode to those who take but never give. And sometimes love goes sour; it gets messy but we somehow can’t let go – the Cavemen perfectly illustrate this downturn on “Ifeoma Odoo” and “Crazy Lover”.
The late Professor Chinua Achebe once said “Ilu bu nnụ okwu” which means “Proverbs are the salt with which words are eaten”. Proverbs are the wisdom of a people, in a nutshell. Complex stories and situations are concentrated in a few words and phrases which capture and retain the essential meaning of the experiences from which they derive. Hence, the compulsory use of Igbo proverbs (“ilu”), parables and idioms, in every traditional setting, has elevated the language to the status of a living art of popular communication. This has translated into Igbo music, particularly highlife. While the lyrics are often sparse and repetitive, they commonly hold vital life lessons, conveyed mostly through witty proverbs.
On ‘ROOTS’, The Cavemen transform into the wise village elders perpetually planted on seats under the mango tree, passing on moral lessons to any child willing to hear; “Osondu” probably narrates one of the most crucial life lessons needed. “Mgbe I na-aga ije gi elekwala anya n’azu, ọsọndu” (When you’re going on your journey, don’t look back, run for your life), they warn, advising listeners to focus on their onward path alone. On “Iro”, Benjamin and Kingsley convey a message on the demerits of ‘iro ajọka’ (quarrel), admonishing listeners to live and let live because “ọ bu onye makwazi ife ọ ga-egbu”(who knows what you will be?) And “Onye Ma Uche” (which directly translates as ‘who knows the mind ?’) relays ear-pulling advice on dealing with others. ‘O ga ka mma, kanyi bi e ndu, na maghi uche. Ma oburu na I ma Uche m, gi were ike I gbo oso. Ma oburu na m ma uche gi, ewere m ike gbo oso’ ( It’d be better for us to live life not knowing the mind. Because if you know my mind, you might run away from me. And if I know your mind, I might run away from you), they counsel, enforcing the popular saying, ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you’.
“I want people to feel healing, really. That’s what I want from this album, I want impact and healing,” Kingsley revealed in the trailer for ‘ROOTS’, shared via their social media. On the opposite spectrum of highlife’s ability to send electrifying shocks down your spine and overtake your body’s hip movement, resulting in a cascade of gyrations, lies its healing power; its ability to cleanse the soul. The late Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson was known to weep and shed tears while singing his own songs on stage, notably the haunting “So Ala Temen”, a slow-boiling track filled with gentle rhythms. In the same way, the reflective “Beautiful Rain” and “Homesong” stand out as calmers. It is gentle rain (quite literally) on an early Saturday morning. Traditionally, agriculture was a leading profession among the Igbo people who would rise as early as the crack of dawn and make their way to farms spanning over thousands of acres to get to work. Naturally, they would always pray for the right amount of rainfall to enable their crops to grow and yield a bountiful harvest. Hence, to the Igbo people, rain is often seen as a deity of healing and replenishment. It’s little wonder why Kingsley repeatedly begs the rain to “ye m amamihe” (give me wisdom). “Mmiri ozuzo, sachapu ihe ọjọ m” (Beautiful rain, please wash away my sins), Kingsley begs over the stripped down, hi-hat led instrumentals on “Beautiful Rain”.
Among all things, highlife is communal music. It’s a chore-filled Saturday morning in an extended household. It’s a Thursday evening rendezvous at the beer parlour down the street. It’s the ‘dance dance dance’ segment of your cousin’s newborn’s naming ceremony. Highlife has always been the bedrock sound for common gathering and ‘ROOTS’ is an attempt to channel this spirit, starting right from the album artwork – courtesy of ATIDE Studios – which portrays an image of townspeople in a village square, making merry and dancing to the beat of the drums played. Instilling a sense of community through the mellow grooves, Benjamin croons, “Eze oge ndi obere” (Good times are short), on the album’s third track “Oge”, beckoning listeners to “ka anyi jiri ya me nke ọma” (let us use it for something good).
The Cavemen are carefully treading their own path as a bridge between generations, bringing the sounds from the past into the future. Further listening to ‘ROOTS’, the Cavemen’s goal becomes clearer by the second; they are here to uphold the legacy of highlife but they’re much more than revivalists – they’re dedicated to creating instantly timeless music rooted in their own authenticity. It’s music that transcends language barriers, as is evident during their scintillating live performances; whether or not you understand the language, the music will speak to you. It’s music that transcends generations as those irresistible drum patterns will make anyone from 5 to 50 dance and ‘feel alright’.
The essence of the hour-long journey on ‘ROOTS’ – frankly the Cavemen’s career in its entirety – is best summarized on the album’s two minute opener, “Welcome To the Cave”. ‘Uda si n’ugba’, the sounds from the cave (which they define as ‘the heart of a man’) is the music they are certain will change Nigeria, unite Africa and inherently impact the world. They are set to give the Nigerian music landscape the diversity it’s been yearning for and growing into, while embodying the spirits of their musical ancestors. And while many have crowned ‘ROOTS’ album of the year from these parts (this writer included), it’s apparent critical acclaim isn’t the sole end goal for this revolutionary duo; they are more focused on making music people can live with. “It’s long, but you’ll sit with it because it’s good music”, Benjamin shared with NATIVE upon the album’s release. In their bid to render a contemporaneous update of a near-forgotten era, the pair are also laying the groundwork for the future of highlife – a future we hope will never overlook highlife again.