Through a cult following and electric live performances across Nigeria, The Cavemen channel nostalgia and experimentation in their sudden resurgence of highlife music. In an exclusive interview with The NATIVE, Ifeoluwa James Falola reveals how the two-man band came to be the contemporary custodians of one the most influential genres in the African soundscape.
It is a mild Sunday evening in November on Moloney street in Lagos Island. While the street down below is filled with a familiar lull peculiar to Sundays in Lagos, the rooftop of the H-factor building is buzzing with teeming expectation. A devout crowd mill around, expectantly waiting for the brother duo of Kingsley Okorie & Benjamin James, otherwise known as The Cavemen, to thrill them to the tune of highlife records of hope, joy, and love. When The Cavemen start the show almost an hour after the set time, the intimate audience does not mind the tardiness, some are even grateful for it, the delay allowed free-flowing circulation of alcoholic beverages served by one of the event sponsors. Soon enough, the five-man band kicks into full swing playing live music from The Cavemen’s sixteen-track debut album, ‘ROOTS‘, also teasing unreleased music. The energy is riveting, the performance is exhilarating, and an overtly elated audience mindlessly sings along, with eccentric voices seamlessly blending into the clammy Lagos Island air. As the show progresses and the energy heightens, a dark stout man veers the attention away from the band briefly, by proposing to his significant other. The audience grows mushy for a short while and not long after, The Cavemen wind-up the show to an encore of their song, “Me You I”, on which they sing “You don’t have to cry / Baby, you should know it’s alright / Don’t let this love / Don’t let this love fade away / Let your love be magical.” As previously heralded by social media, a concert by The Cavemen is an experience to remember.
Three days later, just a little after midday, I am ushered into The Cavemen’s studio – aptly nicknamed The Cave, by their sister – on Lagos’ Mainland. Their accompanying band members are gathering their instruments just as I walk in. “We just finished rehearsals,” Kingsley, the older of the brothers, tells me, as I kick myself wishing I had arrived just minutes earlier in order to have witnessed their rehearsals. In response to me expressing my regret, Kingsley replies, “don’t worry, we would treat you to some cavy music.” While I settle on a couch, Benjamin waltzes in looking for a pair of shoes with his dreadlocks dishevelled, leading with the all important questions: “is this an interview?” “No, it is just a conversation,” I reassure him.
“Thank God, if it was an interview, I would freak out.”
Highlife music is arguably the most influential genre in Africa’s music ecosystem. Through a fusion of highlife, and other genres, the Fela-pioneered Afrobeat was derived as well as other contemporary forms of African music such as Makossa, Hip-life and the now globally-renowned Afrobeats. Initially originating from Ghana, Highlife made its first entry into the Nigerian soundscape through South Eastern Nigeria with the genre gaining mainstream recognition in the 1950s, serving hope during the Nigerian civil war, becoming a source of rehabilitation afterwards and shaping the soundscape for generations to come.
With their heritage tying them to that same region, Benjamin fondly recounts, “we have been listening to highlife since we were children. It was the only thing we could listen to. We only heard secular music while we were in school. Our father played us Chief Osita Osadebe, our driver was always playing Oliver De Coque. We didn’t like it at the time.”
Kingsley and Benjamin have always been affiliated with music. The pair used to play gigs at their church as kids, for measly compensation that often ended up in their parents’ coffers. Although the brothers had served as instrumentalists in a six-person band called The Movement, well over six years ago, it was not until Kingsley had an epiphany far away at law school in Bagauda, Kano – while Benjamin toiled at the Peter Kings College of Music in Badagry – that the idea of coming together as The Cavemen formed.
“I was on my way to civil litigation class in law school. It was not my usual territory, it was not Lagos or Abuja, it was Kano. I was thinking of it that day that I think I am in a cave because I was really out of what I was used to. So, yeah, I was a caveman. I came home and told my brother” Kingsley reminisces. Initially going by Knote & The Cavemen, in March 2018, The Cavemen was officially formed when the brothers reunited after being estranged by music school and law school. Benjamin handled the drums, whilst Kingsley played the guitar. Their singing stride, however, was borne out of necessity and not opportunity; the duo could not afford to pay vocalists so instead, they attempted singing.
The first song the burgeoning Lagos-based band made together was the point-blank “Oge”, but in the lead up to their first release of music, The Cavemen stumbled on a roadblock, discovering that they share a name with a United Kingdom rock band. “We had an issue when we first started out. We had to put a full stop in front of our name on digital streaming platforms. We do not make the same music with them so it does not really bother us,” Kingsley confessed. A year after coming together as a duo, the pair released their break-out single, “Osondu”.
““Osondu” had been there but we were scared of making it because we wanted it to sound ideal and we did not know if we were capable of that at the time. “Osondu” came in 2017 and we recorded “Osondu” in January 2019 – we were already performing the song for two years before we put it out. We had someone who was to record us. We recorded “Osondu” and “Akaraka” but the person didn’t give us the files. He ran away with our money,” Kingsley explained how they ditched their reliance on others and bootstrapped their music journey. “We did it by ourselves. The entire album was recorded in our room, in our mother’s house. The first time we performed Osondu was at the Tamari Festival in Abuja, that was where we met Lady Donli,” Benjamin asserted.
Since meeting Lady Donli at the Tamari Festival in Abuja, the two-man band have garnered production credits on Lady Donli’s debut-album ‘Enjoy Your Life‘, performed alongside the likes of Onyeka Owenu, Asa, Bez and have served as opening acts at Big Brother Nigeria – Nigeria’s biggest reality show. In August 2020, the band released their critically-acclaimed highlife-themed debut album ‘ROOTS‘. At a time when Afrobeats was deepening its roots into the global music machinery, its artist earning well-deserved, competitive acclaim overseas, Benjamin and Kingsley stuck their neck out into the past, breathing new life into the Highlife sound that reigned in decades past.
“Highlife is a combination of brains and beauty. You can dance to highlife, you can meditate to highlife. That is all we have always wanted. To us, we think things are too deep around us, let us create an avenue where people can do whatever they want to do,” Kingsley remarked, noting that their version of highlife comes from years of studying Ghanaian highlife and fusing the sound with other genres.
Immediately after the release of ‘ROOTS‘ – a predominantly highlife-based album fuelled by its blend of English, Igbo and Pidgin – The Cavemen started performing select intimate gigs across Lagos. Bands playing gigs in small venues across the city is not a novel feat, but it is atypical in the Nigerian music scene. “We have been performing our songs before the album came out. That was how everybody knew us, it was by word of mouth. The reception was not big like now, sometimes it could be just two people. There was a time we performed to ourselves, there was nobody at the venue,” Benjamin recalled before silently demonstrating the fervour with which he performed to the empty audience on the said date.
“Currently, we are the busiest band in the country, we always play shows. Performance is our strongest point.”
“Who has released an album and toured the album this year within the country? It is not bragging, it is just facts,” Kingsley added, before divulging plans to embark on a country-wide tour when COVID-19 restrictions are officially lifted.
While 24-year old Kingsley is quite outspoken and extremely philosophical, the 23-year old Benjamin is reserved, loathes interviews and listens to a wide range of music including electronic music. I ask Kingsley if they feel like The Cavemen are pioneering a renaissance of highlife music “I think we are. What we are doing is new. It is like a risk, being a pioneer comes with taking risks. The guts to put out a live record, and a live album eventually, is quite a risk.”
With the solid reception to their debut album – which took over two years to make – the recent socially-charged single, “Who No Know Go Know”, a sophomore album due any time soon, and several collaborations with fast-rising and established acts, The Cavemen are not only rekindling a renaissance of highlife music, they are taking us back to a time when highlife music not only portended hope but was also a source of rehabilitation – for a country in need of mending, and for generations yet to come. In this way, The Cavemen are what we need.
Featured Image Credits: The Cavemen.
Ifeoluwa James Falola lives in a melting pot of purposeful nothingness called Lagos, Nigeria. Telling the stories of Africans powering a generation through music, Ifeoluwa invites you to join him on this adventure @jimdfirst.