“I didn’t know in the last three years that we were going to be The Cavemen, that we were going to be doing highlife music—highlife fusion music,” Kingsley Okorie tells me.
He is seated across from me in a quaint cafe nestled away from the Victoria Island rush-hour traffic.
It is a cool weeknight and his outfit—a plain T-shirt over denim trousers —is indicative of someone ready for whatever new plans may pop up during an evening stroll. While settling into his seat, he had pointed to the overhead TV showing two white men grappling with each other, their bodies strapped with gaudy coloured championship belts.
“Do you watch wrestling?” He had asked?
I had shaken my head as we began talking. When he speaks, he is animated, with an accent that reveals his Igbo roots.
“A lot of people think I grew up in the East because of my accent,” he tells me. “I’m happy [about the accent] because people take me more seriously.”
He says this referring to the ubiquitous presence of Igbo language in Nigerian Highlife music, and I find, surprisingly, that although originally from Imo state, the duo grew up in Ogudu Lagos with their mother and three other siblings.
Kingsley Okorie founded The Cavemen with his brother Benjamin James. The Lagos-based band created the Highlife Fusion genre, a combination of afrobeats, jazz, soul and other genres of music that meld with highlife.
‘Osondu’ and ‘Bolo Bolo’, their first two singles released early this year, have been embraced by fans and new converts alike. However, The Cavemen didn’t start out singing. They began as instrumentalists who toyed with the idea of a band when they discovered that there was a need that nobody was filling.
The music itself comes across as very interactive and participatory. This is intentional, Kingsley says. “That’s how we’ve decided to express music—serious but unserious at the same time; you can dance to it, you can also meditate on it.”
As for the size of the band, Kingsley says that it all depends on how big a project entails. At the moment, the two brothers are joined by keyboardist, and former schoolmate Mofiyinfoluwa Oladipo who is simply called Fiyin, and lead guitarist Segun (Oluwasegun Adegbamigbe). The band’s Instagram page often shows them rehearsing with drummers and cymbal players. There is even talk of featuring an orchestra soon.
Currently in their early twenties—Kingsley is 23 while Benjamin is 22—Kingsley Okorie, the older of the two, says that he felt the urge to start music while in law school in Kano.
“I was called to bar,” he tells me. “It was one of the saddest days of my life. I already had my first performance before that so I already knew Law was not it.”
Kingsley, who was the youngest in his set, graduated and completed law school in 2016, while Benjamin James studied music at the Peter King College Of Music and then at the Society for the Performing Arts in Nigeria.
He began work on “Osondu” half way through Law school. “I wasn’t sure about the type of music, but I came up with the name, The Cavemen, and shared it with Benjamin.”
After taking two years to produce, Osondu was performed for the first time in Abuja.
Kingsley plays the bass guitar in the band even though he, started off with drums. “It became a fight,” he laughs while recalling how he and Benjamin battled for control of the instrument. Then came the keyboard, before landing the guitar. Benjamin, however, never let go of the drums.
“We had an Hausa song which was the hit at the time until “Osondu,”” he explains, speaking of the song which has come to resonate most with their audiences. But other than that, there is an even deeper connection with “Osondu” for the band: The song borrows its “name” from their father.
During a 2019 performance at Angels and Muse, Ikoyi both Kingsley and Benjamin got emotional from the audience singing not just the refrain, but the entire song.
“I actually cried,” Kingsley says. “Last year we were trying to make people sing this thing so the cry was very special.”
That wasn’t the only emotional moment for the brothers. At the TEDxLagos event earlier this year, The Cavemen performed to the delight of a very engaged audience, an experience Kingsley describes as magical. “We rehearsed the day before on the stage. We’ve never rehearsed like that before.”
On the day of the event, while performing “Osondu”, when it was time for people to sing the refrain, there was a power outage. The singing continued regardless and just as the refrain was wrapping up, the power came back on. Kingsley says the band has gotten a whole lot of reviews from that event.
A year before, the brothers were part of Ruby Gyang’s backup band while also trying, and failing, to garner an audience. At a self-sponsored show, which left them with emptier pockets, nobody came—just the artists featured. Worse, it was free. Despite challenges, however, they remained committed.
“The goal is for people—our generation—to experience our highlife now, to show people what highlife would have been if it stayed.”
With this, Kingsley refers to the Civil War which left a dent and added a dimension of pain and dark soul to musical arrangements of the highlife genre which once dominated music from the South East, with artists like Oliver De Coque and Osita Osadebe. Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, even incorporated elements of the genre into his music.
“We’re back again, he says with a grin. “Now, you might hear rap here and rock there, that’s why we call it highlife fusion.” At the same time, excited about the idea of the genre appealing to various audiences: “I was happy for “Osondu” because it was not an Igbo thing, it was like everybody reached out.”
Speaking of influences, Kingsley confesses that he listens to more Ghanaian than Nigerian highlife. “For me, it’s Ghanaian highlife, Rex Lawson and every other person.” He revealed, while noting that “Osondu”, was influenced by Ghanaian musician, Pat Thomas.
In March, the band is expected to release their debut album. Kingsley composes most of the songs and he tells me 60% of the songs on the album are from his dreams. If dreams are not to be trusted, they rely on feedback from their mother who acts like a sounding board from an older generation.
Benjamin James is very critical of the music they produce. “We flog the music. Once everyone is dancing to it, we know it’s ready.” Kingsley tells me his mother also featured on ‘Obiageri’, one of the songs on the album to be released this year.
“Last year was very inspirational for me,” he says. “Seeing what is happening this year, it’s a leap, but 2020 is supposed to be heavy because the album is out in 2020, and we’re also doing our first festival.”
There are heavy weight collaborations on the album. Lady Donli, revealed, via twitter, that she will be the executive producer: “I just want you guys to know that streets is done after this album drops,” she wrote.
The Cave Men featured heavily on the instrumentals and produced most of the tracks on her latest album, “Enjoy Your Life,” which has been raking in really good reviews. “She had to bring us to her place where we stayed for a week. Most of the songs on the album, my brother, Lady Donli and I produced it in the house.”
Success for The Cavemen means access to the world, impact and stadium gigs for the fun of it. Touring in Nigeria comes with its own challenges and Kingsley acknowledges that an enabling environment is vital, especially proper structures for intellectual property. This is one aspect of Law that Kingsley says he has not given up. “It’s an aspect I can help myself and others,” he says.
Their latest single Akaraka, which means “Destiny” was released in 2019. “My brother and I composed it. It’s a song of assurance. It’s largely musical and open to interpretation.”
With their album titled The Root set to drop in March 2020, the band’s next single “Crazy Lover’” was released in November 2019. “Then in December, there was another single called “Runaway Lady,” Kingsley says. Pronounced Run-ah-way Lay-dee, it is a really personal song on emotional unavailability which Kingsley says approximates to what he felt at the time.
Their album titled The Root is set to drop in March 2020. On 18 October 2019, the band released a single Akaraka, which means “Destiny” and which Kingsley says is largely musical and open to interpretation.
Of their latest single released on the 10 January, 2020 titled ‘Runaway Lady’ and pronounced Run-ah-way Lay-dee, Kingley says it is a really personal song on emotional unavailability which approximates to what he felt at the time of composing the music.
The Cavemen insist that their music is for people who are not afraid to explore and try new things. The band intends to live by their mantra as they work towards more intimate gigs. On the 10th of November, 2019 they collaborated with Perfect 4th, a String Quartet based in Lagos, to produce new sounds.
With glee that is as infectious as it is exciting to watch, Kingsley says emphatically: “This concert thing, I’m very excited about it.”