A Meditation on Music from The Cave(men) – Tunji Olalere

You always remember your first time.

Mine was on The Light, Bez’s 2019 album. An interlude of ethereal percussion on a song aptly called ‘Beauty’. I suspected, at once, that I was late to this revelation. I knew there had to be more elsewhere, and there was. But I have had to wait.

Not long after came ‘Osondu’ where the question was posed – How many times can you repeat a motif of melody until it transcends or transforms into genius? I stopped counting at six, because like the patient on the operating table asked to count as they are suffused by anaesthetic gases, I woke up on the other side. Osondu. Osondu. This breakthrough in iteration would be stretched to the miraculous on Onye Ma Uche.

Roots, once it dispenses with introductory formalities welcoming you to the Cave, segues into the thematic obsession of most young men who have the lyre at their fingertips: erotic love and its complications. A man realises, at the last moment, that he is succumbing to affection and hopes he is not going down alone. ‘Anita’ would be charged repeatedly with attempted murder. Ifeoma is being coy, but the bard will not relent. A crazy lover here, a troublesome threesome there, and memory, as always, is the unwitting witness.

But love is all that is worth singing about. Every day, a guitarist confronts the strings, hoping to pluck more than the forbidden fruit. Wars continue to be fought over Helen and Ifeoma, from the Mediterranean to the marshes of a young man’s heart. I don’t speak any decent Igbo, no thanks to my mischievous university roommate and Flavour N’bania’s gluteal fixation, but words are mere inconveniences in the importuning falsetto of the vocalists – writhing, rueing, suing. Our protagonist’s head has ‘scattered’. What are we going to do about it?

This is the challenge to which the bassist rises: to conjure all sleights of progressions and insouciance and convey an urgent declaration – a white flag waving surrender to Cupid’s arrow.

Love is poison.

And in the hands of musicians who measure out their words like condiment, many sentiments can be successfully transported by syncopation, by a grumbling bassline, by a lead guitar asking you to suspend belief. Joy can be unwrapped and re-wrapped without losing the novelty of discovery.

Little wonder it was the track titled ‘Fall’ that formed the navel of the sound. If you are persuaded by Newtonian mythmaking, you may suspect I am talking about that apple that has not stopped falling since the 18th century. That apple is of the cornucopia that is The Cavemen’s Roots – an album about which we were not forewarned. But I am interested in a more eternal fall, the Luciferian across the firmament. I am wondering why a man invokes eternity and infinity as coordinates for locating him in this vertiginous business of affection. The artists say the heart is a cave. I agree. This was where space and time first exchanged their eternal vows, the cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites, and The Cavemen know this:

My Lady, I don fall in love with you.
My sweetie, you and I forever.

Every other thing is adornment. This is why we can’t stop writing about love.

And death. I am not too young to contemplate dying, and one of the reasons to grow old and earn the right to have a cow slaughtered at your funeral is that you want some blasé bassist to cast spells and the lead guitar to improvise. You want the praise-singer to reimagine your life in a halo of glory, and for there to be a mini stampede on the dance floor with crisp currencies as carpet, and for names and genealogies to travel far in the web spun by the talking drum. This is the reason to live long. To have people decant Guinness and Gulder into emptied Ragolis or Eva bottles and swear by the life of their firstborn children that they had not eaten, because the jollof rice is ruthless on the tongue and the striations of the beef and venison have lost their way between teeth.

‘Osondu o’

‘Osondu o’

The head sways: its occiput oscillates. We can talk about simple harmonic motions and evoke frightful equations, but their roots are buried deep in melancholy.

Thousands of prehistoric years ago when men took to caves as refuge against the elements, silence and darkness urged the birth of sounds and artifice. What music they made we have no idea, but a handprint can still be seen on the wall of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in southern France, perhaps of a hand raised in gratitude, in the rapture of the music of relentless percussion and unbridled strumming.

The Cavemen, like their less-clad ancestors, understand the use of spaces and cavernous falsettos to convey primal emotions like being loved or spurned by a mate, which could ultimately decide the fate of one’s genes. This mastery of space and timing is not usual for young artists, who prefer profusion as response to the insecurity of youth. If the Cavemen feel this, their response is melisma. To thwart the urge to shalaye by lapsing into wails and shrieks as translators of primordial urgencies – affection and rejection.

Others will aim to reconstruct their genealogy, drawing a straight line from Rex Lawson to Lawanson, they would know better than wax historical. These cavemen have subverted a hundred riffs to get here and shunning horns might not be an oversight after all. The ear can be deceived by how well their influences have been layered and how brilliantly they appropriate. They are not mere copycats of form, they have staked their claim to the highlife throne, and whoever feels up to the challenge would require more than words to respond.

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