Ahead of their forthcoming sophomore LP, Love and Highlife, B.Side sat down with the dynamic duo to discuss what to expect from this new era.
There are subtle differences between the Okorie brothers, or the Cavemen, as they are more popularly known. Benjamin is mostly quiet, allowing Kingsley – the more outspoken one – to answer most of the questions while he occasionally chips in with a witty reply or two. However, Benjamin does more of his talking through his unique fashion statements, like showing up in a bonnet and silk pyjamas, a combination that oddly suits his bulky frame. Kingsley has the more conservative wardrobe, opting for a regular shirt and his trademark woollen cap.
When it comes to making music, though, these dissimilarities disappear, and all you notice about The Cavemen is that they are utterly besotted with their music. It’s not in a proud or self-absorbed way – on the contrary, they approach their sound with reverence and gratitude, almost like they cannot believe they have been granted this privilege to make music. We are at a semi-private listening show for their sophomore album, and the atmosphere is intense. Before playing each track, they give a little background story: when it was recorded; who or what inspired it. When the music starts, we all fall silent, ears straining to catch every beat of the drum, every tug of a guitar string. Their chants and lyrics fill every corner of the room, and without turning my neck to catch the reactions of everyone around me, I know that we all feel the same thing. After every song, the audience breaks into the only way they know how to appreciate magic: rapturous applause.
It has been a long year for the Cavemen, brothers Kingsley and Benjamin Okorie. Since the release of their debut album Roots in August 2020, they have transformed from interesting artists with the “underrated” tag to bonafide stars in the Nigerian scene. Their mission to bring highlife music back to the mainstream has been met with a lot of support and critical acclaim, culminating in Roots winning the Best Alternative Album award at the 2020 Headies Music Awards. This acceptance by fans and the accompanying visibility has come with increased demand for the band’s specialty – live performances.
By nature, highlife music demands performance. Heavy on traditional instruments and devoid of electronic or synthetic sounds, the genre has been sustained by live music from the days of Oliver De Coque, Nico Mbarga, Rex Cardinal Lawson and their peers to this point in history. Carrying on in the tradition of their forebears, The Cavemen are one of the best music performers in the country, captivating stage after stage. For the entirety of the past year, they have played at various concerts and festivals in Nigeria and Ghana – which also has a strong highlife fanbase – almost every week. This hectic work schedule would probably not be feasible for a regular artist, but the brothers are no ordinary men. When I ask how they handle the workload, they laugh it off with a joke about eating light before listing the various activities that keep them grounded on the road: prayer and meditation in addition to exercise. On the bright side, they believe the constant touring has made them better musicians and performers by exposing them to different energies at the various shows they’ve played. However, life on the road is only one part of a musician’s life. Recording and releasing music is another, maybe even more important, part – you can’t perform old songs forever.
Love and Highlife is the name of their forthcoming second album and is also an essential part of the band’s ethos. After the widespread acclaim that Roots garnered, the brothers are aware that there is a potential for the “sophomore slump” – that sigh of disappointment that appears when you realise the second album does not hit the heights the first did. But, while they acknowledge the existence of this possibility, they don’t feel the pressure: “We are always making music”, Kingsley says with a smile on his face. “We know our source, and we know when the sounds we are working on connect. Once it connects, the pressure fades away.”
Fan expectation aside, the band says the album has one central message: “Highlife is back.” In the promotional video released on Twitter and Instagram, a large screen displays those very words before adding that highlife is not just back, but it’s back “on steroids.” Above all, Love and Highlife aims to consolidate on the foundation the first album laid, and further drag the highlife genre into the mainstream light. This continuity is evident from the first track, “Teach Me How to Love”, which is the full version of the ambient coda on Roots’ outro track “Onye Ma Uche”. Contrary to what you might expect, the majority of the album was composed during the lockdown in 2020 (before their debut’s release), a sign of the band’s dedication of sticking to their guns with highlife long before they knew how it’d be received. As it was conceived at a time when the world was brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 virus and the accompanying uncertainty, The Cavemen want the songs on Love and Highlife to remind us that “love will conquer the world.”
Unlike Roots, their new album features collaborations, most notably legendary singer and producer Cobhams Asuquo and Made Kuti, the latest model in the Kuti assembly of musicians. The band also stepped out of their Eastern Nigeria-focused circle to incorporate sounds from other cultures. “Nkari” is a song written and sung in Efik; another track is infused with elements of Malian folk music, all testaments to the brothers’ ear for good music across all cultures. The desire to make a project that encompasses more than one culture comes naturally to them, according to Benjamin: “It’s just how we feel. With creativity, you are allowed to be anything, and that is why as a creative, you should always be open-minded and non-judgmental about your thoughts. When you do that, you’ll be boundless.” This boundlessness also manifests in the different tweaks they make to highlife, combining with other genres such as afrobeats and jazz. For fans who may be attached to their “usual sound”, there is no reason to fret. This willingness to transcend borders doesn’t mean they have completely deviated from their original path. Songs like “Kpokom”, “Ugo”, and “Love and Trials” – a song about lovers separated during war – retain that “cavy” feel with sounds that take you back to a time when highlife and calypso ruled the airwaves.
Above all, “spirit” is at the centre of everything The Cavemen do. As a group, they believe wholeheartedly in their intuition and gut feeling. It’s what determines who they collaborate with and what influences their creative process, like creating songs while doing sound checks on the Big Brother Naija stage or circling the microphone to achieve a muffled effect on a song. For Benjamin and Kingsley, being in tune with yourself is a philosophy, way of life, and the most essential tool as a creative. The album is wrapped up, ready for release and they are already looking to the future. A Youtube series is in the works, as well as various exciting collaborations they cannot wait to announce. But, till that happens, we can only sit back and enjoy the music and the spirit – the spirit of love, and highlife.
Love and Highlife by the Cavemen is out on October 29, 2021.