The Cavemen’s Roots is a Great Highlife Album – Dami Ajayi
The Cavemen, sibling duo of bassist and drummer, have been clear on how to engage with Nigerian music since their breakout single. Entitled ‘Osondu’ like Celestine Ukwu’s mellifluous song, The Cavemen’s rendition is an earthy but edgy tune that mines nostalgia while updating it with a luxuriant modernity.
Highlife, their lodestone, is often erroneously thought of as a music genre, but The Cavemen are no spring or jerk chicken, even though youthful they know highlife is more importantly an aesthetic.
They understand that though highlife may have its early roots in Sierra Leone and Ghanaian rhythms, may have been popularised by Ghanaian ET Mensah’s 50s West African tours, but that when it arrived on Nigerian soil, it percolated to take roots on our soil. And that if there is music that carries the entire weight of the Biafran war, it is highlife.
The irony is how does a dance music that derived its name from its elitist patronage carry the anguish of an unnecessary war? This is the philosophical treatise that interests Roots, the sixteen track album lasting six minutes short of one hour.
The Cavemen’s highlife, like the highlife of yore, is a music of escapism. It is music made for dance and a good time, for swinging hips and shimmering buttocks. And in the absence of the aforementioned, it is music that longs for dancefloor cuddling.
Little wonder, every other song is named for a woman and the lyrical impulse is to impress upon us a new shade of affection. Sometimes, it is love frothing around the mouth with infatuation like on ‘Fall’ and ‘Anita’. Sometimes it is love inadvertently gone sour or transactional like on ‘Bena’. Yet sometimes, it is love that sits at the cusp of its remains, like ‘Ifeoma Odoo’. But every time, it is music that quickens the feet or music in lieu of a beer parlour debriefing.
The beauty of The Cavemen’s highlife is that it is rid of the rampant misogyny of the highlife of yore. These are well-behaved songs, written carefully to reflect mood and eschew didacticism.
It was to be believed that highlife without brass is suspect, but The Cavemen have worked their way out of that mysterious myth. With hoarse and poignant vocals, they don’t need punctuation from tremulous horns. The bass guitar offers direction, punctuation and turns of phrase. And the clattering percussion underlines it all with emphasis.
There is almost an impenetrable sense of their influences. These musicians are obviously more sophisticated about paying homage even though the entire album feels like a tribute to Rex Lawson. For one, no highlife musician has more songs named for the women who dotted his brief life. Whilst the lothario register of The Cavemen is not up for review, these brothers understand the immortality of highlife love songs.
Igbo remains the preferred language with the occasional recourse to pidgin English but this is not an issue, highlife has always transcended language . What The Cavemen achieve with Roots is a highlife that stands high before the greats, a worthy contemporaneous update of not just a music, but of an entire era.