The West African Highlife Band and Shumba Marimba Comes to Ashkenaz

by E. "Doc" Smith on July 14, 2006

Berkeley’s famed Ashekenaz, has long been on my list of venues to visit, and now I’ll finally have my chance with two great groups, The West African Highlife Band, led by Kotaja’s Ken Okulolo, and the youthful “Shumba Marimba”. Following a request by David Nadel, the late director of Ashkenaz, for a band to concentrate on Ghanaian and West African highlife dance music and rhythmic styles, the West African Highlife Band was created. With master musicians from several West African countries and the United States, the band draws on folk traditions combined with modern stylistic elements played with acoustic and electric instruments, and include the infectious classic highlife dance hits of Ghana and Nigeria. Along with Okulolo, the band features Soji Odukogbe, Nii Armah Hammond, Lemi Barrow, Rasaki Aladokun and Pope Flyne.

The West African Highlife Band

The Bay Area’s own West African Highlife Band, led by Ken Okulolo, is renowned for reviving Nigerian “highlife” dance classics. By seamlessly fusing African and world music, the Band has garnered a strong fan base and praise from critics. Rich vocal harmonies, intertwining guitars, and exciting percussion characterize their unique music.

The Band consists of five talented members: Ken Okulolo, Soji Odukogbe, Pope Flyne, Nii Armah Hammond, and Lemi Barrow. Okulolo, the bandleader, is a bassist, percussionist, and vocalist who has been deeply influenced by traditional village music. First seen touring in the United States with King Sunny Ade’s African Beats, Okulolo has been voted “Nigeria’s Best Bassist” five times. He has worked with several other great highlife bands, including that of highlife master, Victor Olaiya. Okulolo also leads the modern Afro-beat band Kotoja and the acoustic group The Nigerian Brothers.

Soji Odukogbe was lead guitarist for five years for the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He draws on his extensive background in Nigerian Afro-beat, highlife, and spiritual music to bring a unique sensibility to his highlife guitar interpretations. Pope Flyne is a performer, composer, and educator originating from Ghana. He is best known as lead vocalist for the legendary Sweet Talks band. When not performing, Flyne contributes to his community by sharing his vast knowledge of African folk music, dancing, and percussion with his American students. Nii Armah Hammond is a present and founding member of the seminal Ghanaian group Hedzoleh Soundz, which has recorded several albums with famed Hugh Masekela. Tap drummer Lemi Barrow has gained great skill through his many years of experience performing with African, Brazilian, and African-American musicians. Together, this vastly talented group makes the West African Highlife Band a joy to listen to.

The Shumba Marimba Youth Ensemble

Opening the show at Ashkenaz, are the remarkable “Shumba Marimba Youth Ensemble”, and I have it on good authority, that these kids are truly amazing. The youth that make up Shumba range in age from 9 to 15, and they have studied with their director, Sheree Seretse for at least 3 years, some as many as 8. The ensemble usually plays using eight marimbas; three sopranos, three tenors, a baritone, a bass and hoshos, or gourd shakers. These marimbas are hand-crafted xylophones made from various hardwoods, and the keys are fine-tuned to reflect the tones played in African societies. Each key sits above a resonator with a vibrating membrane to amplify the sound and add a unique “buzz” to the music.

In addition to private parties, Shumba has had the wonderful opportunity to play publicly with National Childrens recording artist Dan Zanes at the Moore Theatre, at the Folklife Festival in Seattle, the Paramount Theatre and the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York! They have also shared their music at educational events at our local schools, A.I.D.S. awareness workshops, and fundraisers for Zimbabwean orphanages.

This promises to be a really great show, and reminds me of one of my favorite Zimbabwean chants, “Nyama Yekugocha”, which roughly translated means, “Now the meat is ready for roasting!”

The West African Highlife Band, and the Shumba Marimba Youth Ensemble
Ashekenaz, 1317 San Pablo Avenue (near Gilman St.) Berkeley
Saturday, July 15th. Doors at 8:30 pm; Show at 9:30 pm
African dance lesson with Comfort Mensah at 9:00 pm
$15 general/$12 student

E. “Doc” Smith is a musician and recording engineer who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Madonna, Warren Zevon, Mickey Hart, Jimmy Cliff, and John Mayall among others. He is also the inventor of the musical instrument, the Drummstick. He can be reached at edocsmith@comcast.net

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