In the Age of Afrobeats, a New Sound for Highlife

Otosirieze Obi-Young
, In the Age of Afrobeats, a New Sound for Highlife
The Cavemen.: Kingsley (L) and Benjamin (R). Credit: Ayobami Ogungbe.

In The Freeme Space in Lekki, Lagos, Benjamin James, the lead singer of the highlife band The Cavemen., is seated near the door, playing the oja, the Igbo talking flute, as we wait for his elder brother and bandmate, Kingsley Okorie. The room is large and bright-white, and in this point of space, light, and sound, the flute man, with his dreads and knickers, projects a fluid mystery; something similar, I imagine, to what people who have attended their live shows keep trying to explain but keep coming up short with the same word: amazing. “I also play the keyboard and piano,” Benjamin tells me. “I’m still learning oja but I’m a beast with drums.”

In the last few years, highlife has resurged in Eastern Nigeria, where the Okorie brothers are from. First, Umu Obiligbo’s male-centric songs of discernment. Then Odumeje’s bragging songs of religious empowerment. Both phenomena have awakened a new generation to a guitar-based genre dating to the ‘50s and peaking in the ‘80s, with Stephen Osita Osadebe’s socially conscious hits and Oliver de Coque’s Congolese-flavoured jams, and adapted into the ‘00s by mainstream acts like Flavour.

But The Cavemen., in true Gen Z fashion, are deviating; they call it highlife fusion, their own mix with Afrobeat, jazz, and soul influences, bringing together the indigenous and the diasporic. Their new album, ROOTS, is a sonic spectrum: each track explores one or more pulls, throwing back from the great Nigerian icons—Fela Kuti, Rex Lawson—to the Americans Miles Davis, Gil Scott-Heron, and Herbie Hancock, to gesturing at African music’s most globalized sound yet: Afrobeats.

To their blend of sounds, they add an electric modernity. Their live performances are arenas of atmospheric feeling, almost transportive. A fan describes one of their songs, “Bolo Bolo,” as making her “feel red sands beneath your feet and the scent of palm wine trailing laughter from hoarse voices in the backyard.” That effect, from their stage, is intentional.

“Highlife is a friendly genre,” Kingsley says. “Why can’t we be diplomatic with it and make other people understand it? People have been doing it in the Igbo context, for us it’s now diaspora-friendly. We still keep our Igbo culture, our intentions.”

, In the Age of Afrobeats, a New Sound for Highlife
The Cavemen. brothers: Benjamin (L) and Kingsley (R). Credit: Ayobami Ogungbe.

Kingsley was born in 1996 and Benjamin a year later, both in Lagos, the first and second of five siblings, to parents from Orlu, Imo State. “Growing up was Osadebe, Oliver de Coque, Onyeka Onwenu, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Chioma Jesus, Gozie Okeke, Bright Chimezie,” Kingsley says. Benjamin, their mother told them, had “been playing drums since I was 2.”

Their family exerts strong influence in their music. “Our family is highly political,” Kingsley explains. “Our music goes through checking. There’s a dispensation. By the time everyone in the house hears it, we have an opinion on what we are putting out.” Benjamin chimes in, “Any time Mom dances, we know it’s It.”

If the positivity of their lyrics is attributable to upbringing, then that transportive feeling might have to do with their creative space. “All our songs are produced in our room,” Kingsley says. “Recording in the room is like a stage.” Alone then, raw, they put themselves in an emotional and spiritual state. “So it’s helpful to be in that space.”

That mental headspace was why they chose the name The Cavemen., even though there already was a New Zealand band with the name, and added a dot. It was 2016: Benjamin was attending Peter King College of Music, Badagry, and Kingsley, having graduated from Babcock, was posted to the Nigerian Law School’s Kano campus. “I’d never been to the North before,” Kingsley remembers. “For me, that removal, far from my gigs, far from everything I have control of and know about, kind of brought me to somewhere like a primitive space. One day I was going to class and was like, Yo, I’m a caveman. I’m hidden from these things I used to be very fond of. Being a caveman means being someone eager to always discover. I shared the name with my brother.”

Then they began trying to find a producer. “Someone duped us,” Benjamin says, and they smile. “He was very enthusiastic about producing for us. We did two songs, ‘Osondu’ and ‘Akaraka.’ For some reason, he never gave us the files.” It was at that point that Kingsley took up the production responsibility. “I’ve been producing since 2012,” Kingsley says, “but I thought I wasn’t good enough to produce for The Cavemen. But when that happened, something just sparked in me and I said, ‘I can actually do this thing, let me try.’” Kingsley is reflective. “My journey as a producer wasn’t smooth,” he says. “I did a lot of stuff. There was Afropop, hip-hop. But it makes sense now because we are very versatile.”

Some of their songs are titled after worldviews. “Akaraka” is Igbo for “destiny”; and “Osondu” means “A flee for life/a race for salvation.” In a video on their website, Kingsley is saying, “It’s more than the music, it’s more of the meaning, the impact.” I ask him about the impact they seek, if there is a central philosophy in their music.

“The philosophy of The Cavemen. is love, happiness, and humanity,” Kingsley says. “We do what we do today because of what Nigeria is going through, the love we hope to share and that other people want to share, too. We want to cause that impact and realization that music is diverse.”

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, In the Age of Afrobeats, a New Sound for Highlife
Chioma Nnadi. Credit: Vogue.
, In the Age of Afrobeats, a New Sound for Highlife
The Cavemen. brothers: Benjamin (L) and Kingsley (R). Credit: Ayobami Ogungbe.

Their music may be philosophical but its animation is political. “Before the war, highlife was mainstream,” Kingsley says. “After the war, Igbo highlife struggled. There was a big space and void.” The Biafran War isn’t a concern they inherited from their parents; they found it in books and films: Kingsley in Chinua Achebe’s memoir There Was a Country and Benjamin in the documentary Biafra: An Igbo Perspective. “We do what we do today also because of Igbo people that lost their lives in the war.”

Their other inspiration is romance. A quarter through “Anita,” the beats change and Benjamin pipes, “A-a-a-nita eh, you go killi somebody!” “Runaway Lady,” which references Fela’s famous “Lady,” is about emotional unavailability, and was inspired by a lady Kingsley chased for five months and then decided to Taylor-Swift. But the song will not make the album.

“We have 16 songs on the album,” Kingsley says. “We want a smooth transition from the primitiveness of highlife to the complexity of highlife. Past, present, future. ‘Runaway Lady’ is closer to Afropop and will be for maybe our next project.”

Their next projects, they hint, will venture outwards. They have a list of choice collaborators: Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, Angelique Kidjo, Salif Keita, Burna Boy, Tekno, Flavour, Asa, and the Ghanaian highlife musicians they are currently listening to: Santrofi, Pat Thomas, and Ebo Taylor. (The late E.T. Mensah is also a favourite.) Until then, ROOTS will likely sweep Nigeria’s Alté scene and win them fans across genres.

, In the Age of Afrobeats, a New Sound for Highlife
The album cover of The Cavemen.’s ROOTS.

ROOTS is getting a proper album rollout not usually accorded highlife music, a result of their licensing and distribution deal with The Freeme Space. The Cavemen. will be touring the album, too, which would be the first such tour in Nigeria in decades. With songs like “Anita,” they have the memorable simplicity they aspire to, what they call “diplomatic music,” with short, easy lines recitable by their audience. They have played venues in Lagos, including with BEZ, and one in Abuja, but it is the East, where they last visited in 2010, that they look forward to playing the most once the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted fully. “That’s the plan,” Benjamin says.

Anticipating ROOTS as a story of the evolution of Nigerian highlife brings with it huge responsibility. “I feel like that’s inevitable,” Kingsley replies. “I’ll just say that we are aware of that expectation.” But The Cavemen. brothers also want something from their audience. “We want people to look at ROOTS from a point of understanding culture. To chase what is worth being chased. We would like to get older listeners interested. We want it to cause an awakening. That’s how we want people to react.”

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