“In Africa, music is created to help people rise above the pain and suffering of daily life, to transcend all evils with the joy of music.”
-- Babá Ken
Nigerian master musician Babá Ken Okulolo is one of the few popular African musicians of today whose roots extend deep into his country’s musical history and traditions. As a bandleader and educator, he spreads a universal, uplifting message — the healing magic of African music — to every audience, while preserving and imparting its techniques with accuracy and integrity.
Babá Ken’s early career spans the Nigerian palm-wine, highlife, Afrobeat, and Afro-rock eras. He is known for early stints with many Nigerian music legends, including Afrobeat creator Fela Anikulapo Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Tony Allen, Dr. Victor Olaiya , Steve Rhodes, Orlando Julius and the seminal Afro-rock group Monomono. The Nigerian Journalists’ Association has five times voted Okulolo the country’s best bassist. He is the founder of the international super-group BABÁ KEN & KOTOJA, which inspired Dan Storper to start the Putumayo World Music label.
Now based in the U.S., his warm, smiling personality enlivens several distinct groups: the exciting BABÁ KEN & KOTOJA, the all-star WEST AFRICAN HIGHLIFE BAND, the folk group BABÁ KEN OKULOLO & the NIGERIAN BROTHERS, and the lively BABÁ KEN & the AFRICAN DRUMMERS. He teaches African instrumental technique, percussion, and music appreciation to students and groups of all ages, serving 8 years as an instructor at UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program.
Babá Ken was born into the Urhobo ethnic group in Nigeria’s Delta Region to a family of traditional dancers and musicians. His small fishing village was surrounded by deep forests and placid lagoons traveled by dugout canoes. There, he was steeped in the traditional parables, stories, rhythms, and songs of his people. He learned the arts of drumming, song, and dance from his parents and elders.
At eight years of age, he was sent to the city of Warri to be educated in the Anglican missionary schools. While living with relatives and undergoing the exacting discipline of the school headmasters, he diverted himself by sneaking out to see the historic touring highlife bands of the era. On short-wave radio, he listened avidly to broadcasts of jazz, rhythm and blues, Afro-Cuban, and Congolese music.
Inspired, as a teen he apprenticed himself to his uncle, the late guitarist Miller Okulolo. He began playing bass, sitting in with groups coming through town. Soon, he was touring regionally with the highlife band Harmony Searchers, and he was heard by a talent scout for the great bandleader Dr. Victor Olaiya. The young bassist with the 'roots' feel was persuaded to leave his homeland and head for the giant city of Lagos. Gathering his courage, still in his teens, he embarked upon what would become a national, and then international, career.
Okulolo was at first just one of three bassists in Olaiya's big band, but as his versatility grew, he became the only one. After a few years, restless to explore the modern potential of African music, he joined with vocalist Joni Haastrup to form the seminal and legendary Afro-rock band Monomono. By the early 70s, 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 own band, Positive Vibrations. The Nigerian Journalists’ Association five times voted him the country’s top bassist.
He was first seen in the U.S. playing on two world tours with King Sunny Ade’s African Beats (with whom he recorded four albums). Visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, he fell in love with its unique mix of people and vibrant musical atmosphere.
In 1985, he returned to stay, and soon assembled a heady mix of top Nigerian and American musicians to start the international super-group BABÁ KEN & KOTOJA. Featuring Babá Ken's vocals and original tunes, the band blended jazz, funk, highlife, Afrobeat, and juju into its animated shows. In 1991, the group signed with Mesa/Bluemoon, releasing two albums to critical praise. It was when Putumayo World Music founder Dan Storper heard Kotoja in Golden Gate Park in 1994 that he decided to create his eclectic recording company, and the Kotoja compilation "Super Sawalé Collection" was the new label's first release.
Since then, Okulolo’s performances, recordings, and touring groups have continued to win praise. His lectures, demonstrations, and classes in African percussion, musical techniques, and cultural appreciation have been shared in schools, museums, and universities.
In order to express his musical diversity, Babá Ken now leads four distinct music ensembles:
BABÁ KEN & KOTOJA is the West Coast's premier African band, playing a bubbling musical brew of bold Afrobeat, highlife, funk, jazz, and juju. With driving guitars, riffing horns, and persuasive percussion, this international group of crack musicians spreads the uplifting messages of peace, joy, and harmony that are contained in Babá Ken's original songs.
The WEST AFRICAN HIGHLIFE BAND is an all-star group of distinguished African music veterans, including members from the bands of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Hugh Masekela, and the classic Ghanaian highlife group Sweet Talks. The band celebrates the incomparable dance hits of the 50s-70s highlife era, paying tribute to its pioneers with the solid harmonies and infectious rhythms that motivated the feet of an entire generation. This joyous music creates an atmosphere that is intense and intoxicating. Their recording, "Salute to Highlife Pioneers," is a perennial best-seller.
The acoustic folk group BABÁ KEN OKULOLO & the NIGERIAN BROTHERS brings to life their earliest village memories, recreating the folk and palm-wine music they heard as children, music that was played under the full moonlight. With harmonious voices, lilting guitars, and traditional percussion instruments, this gentle but joyously rhythmic music is a special treat for those who enjoy authentic African sounds. Their recording, “Songs from the Village,” received the 2009 JPF Music Award for “Best African Album.”
When BABÁ KEN & the AFRICAN DRUMMERS play their magic rhythms, they summon the festive spirits of excitement and joy to every gathering.
Okulolo now lives in the East Bay, surrounded by his family, including his wife Jackie Gay Wilson, their three adult children, and two grandchildren. The title ‘Babá’ refers simply to his mature age and status as a father and grandfather. One of his sons is the versatile vocalist KALIL WILSON; the other is animator/designer KEVIN OKULOLO.
Says Okulolo, "History teaches us that we are all from Africa. 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."
Babá Ken Okulolo, African Drum Songs, Inner Spirit Records 2012 (Producer, Composer, All Vocals and Percussion Instruments)
Babá Ken Okulolo, We Are All from Africa , Inner Spirit Records 2009 (Producer, Composer, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar, Percussion)
Babá Ken Okulolo & Kotoja, Best of Babá Ken Okulolo & Kotoja: Afrofunk, Inner Spirit Records 2008 (Producer, Composer, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar, Percussion)
Babá Ken Okulolo & the Nigerian Brothers, Songs from the Village, Inner Spirit Records 2001 (Producer, Composer, Arranger, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar, Percussion)
West African Highlife Band, Salute to Highlife Pioneers, Inner Spirit Records 1998 (Producer, Arranger, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar, Percussion)
Babá Ken & the Afro-Groove Connexion, Deep Down Beat , Inner Spirit Records 2008, all songs reissued 2009 in "We Are All from Africa" (Producer, Composer, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar, Percussion)
Compilation, The Best of World Music, Putumayo/Rhino 2008 (Song Producer, Composer, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar, Percussion)
Compilation, African Dance Party, Putumayo 2008 (Song Producer, Bass Guitar, Vocals)
Compilation, Hold My Hand, Parental Stress Services 2004 (Song Producer, Arranger, Bass Guitar, Vocals)
Compilation, Daniel Pearl Day Harmony for Humanity, Bay Recorders 2004 (Producer, Composer, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar)
Avotcja & Modupue, Gratitude: Live at Yoshi’s, La Verdad Musical 2004 (Talking Drum, Vocals)
Kelly Takunda Orphan, Give It to the People, All of One Records 2003 (Bass Guitar)
Sachiko Kanenobu, Sachiko, Victor (Japan) 1999 (Bass Guitar, Rap)
King Sunny Ade, Odú, Atlantic/MesaBluemoon 1998 (Bass Guitar)
King Sunny Ade, E Dide/Get Up, Mesa/BlueMoon 1995 (Bass Guitar)
Kotoja, The Super Sawale Collection, Putumayo 1992 (Producer, Composer, Arranger, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar)
Kotoja, Sawale, Inner Spirit Records 1991; reissued Mesa/BlueMoon 1992 (Producer, Composer, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar)
Kotoja, Freedom Is What Everybody Needs, Inner Spirit Records 1990; reissued Mesa/BlueMoon 1991 (Producer, Composer, Arranger, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar, Percussion, Vocals)
King Sunny Ade, Explosion, Sunny Alade, 1984
O. J. Ekemode, Dance Afro-Beat, Afrobeat Recordings 1983 (Bass Guitar)
Tee Mac Collections, Wake Up, EMI 1979 (Bass Guitar, Vocals)
Fred Fisher, Asa Sa, EMI 1979 (Bass Guitar)
Julie Coker, Ereyon, EMI 1978 (Producer, Arranger, Bass Guitar)
Emma Dorgu, We Need Freedom, EMI 1978 (Co-producer, Arranger, Bass Guitar)
Dora Ifudu, The Way We Are, EMI 1978 (Co-producer, Arranger, Bass Guitar)
Joni Haastrup, Wake Up Your Mind, EMI 1978; reissued Soundway/Tummy Touch 2011 (Bass Guitar, Percussion, Vocals)
Keni Okulolo, Talkin’ Bass Experience, EMI 1974; reissued Hot Casa Records 2010 (Producer, Composer, Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar, Percussion)
Monomono, The Dawn of Awareness, EMI 1973; reissued Soundway/Tummy Touch 2011 (Bass Guitar, Percussion, Vocals)
Monomono, Give the Beggar a Chance, EMI 1972; reissued Soundway/Tummy Touch, 2011 (Composer, Bass Guitar, Percussion, Vocals)
Monomono, Adele, EMI 1971; reissued Soundway/Tummy Touch 2011 (Bass Guitar, Percussion, Vocals)
Victor Olaiya & His International Allstars, Omelebele, Philips 1971; reissued in compilation Afro Baby, Soundway, 2004 (Bass Guitar)