Artist Profiles: Kotoja

Comprised of a heady mix of top Nigerian and American musicians Kotoja led by Nigerian bassist/vocalist. Baba Ken Okulolo has excited audiences around the U.S. with their infectious mix of African highlife, juju, funk and jazzy horns.

Kotoja’s animated powerful shows featuring Okulolo’s original songs and vocals brighten the scene with bubbling dance rhythms jazz-informed musicianship and an uplifting universal message that brings music lovers to their feet. The band’s national tours and three album releases Freedom Is What Everybody Needs and Sawale on Mesa Recordings and The Super Sawale Collection on Putumayo have won critical acclaim.

Nigerian master musician Bab? Ken Okulolo is one of the few popular African musicians of today whose roots extend deep into traditional village life and folk music. Better known as the bandleader whose warm smiling personality enlivens the popular Afro-beat band Kotoja and the all-star West African Highlife Band Okulolo was first seen in the U.S. as bassist withKing Sunny Ade’s world tours and he continues to appear on Ade’s latest recordings. Five times the Nigerian Journalists’ Association has voted him the country’s top bassist.

In addition to his vast body of Nigerian studio and production dates he is known for his early work with highlife master Dr. Victor Olaiya Steve Rhodes’ African Voices and the seminal Afro-rock group Monomono.

Okulolo was born into the Urhobo ethnic group to a family of traditional dancers and musicians. In the tiny fishing village of Aladja surrounded by deep forests and lagoons traveled by dugout canoes he was exposed to the traditional stories rhythms and songs of his people.

As a student in the city of Warri Okulolo was exposed to the historic touring highlife bands of the era. On short-wave radio he listened avidly to jazz Afro-cuban rhythm and blues and Congolese music.

Inspired he took up the bass guitar and began sitting in with bands coming through town and was soon touring regionally with the highlife band Harmony Searchers until a talent scout for the great bandleader Dr.Victor Olaiya recruited the young bassist with the ‘roots’ feel to leave his homeland and head for the giant city of Lagos.

In a few years restless to explore the modern potential of African music he joined vocalist Joni Haastrup to form the seminal and legendary Afro-rock band Monomono. By the early 7’s they were at the top of the charts and touring West Africa with the albums Give a Beggar a Chance and Dawn of Awareness (EMI) fusing African roots music with rock soul and funk.

Okulolo became a mainstay on the Nigerian music scene touring Europe with various groups producing and performing on countless recordings including his own hit album Talking Bass (EMI) and leading his band Positive Vibrations.

After moving to the U.S. he assembled a heady mix of top Nigerian and American musicians to create the modern Afro-beat band Kotoja. Featuring Ken’s vocals and original tunes KOTOJA blends jazz funk highlife Afro-beat, and juju into exciting” animated shows.

Okulolo also leads the West African Highlife Band joined by other distinguished West African music veterans to revive the great hits of the highlife music era. Their hot dance-inspiring music is available on the CD Salute to Highlife Pioneers (Inner Spirit/Stern’s).

Recently to satisfy the demand for traditional African music in an acoustic format Okulolo started The Nigerian Brothers. They recreate the sweet lilting sounds of their earliest village memories bringing folk, palmwine, and highlife songs to life with their harmonious voices acoustic guitars and hand percussion. This gentle but rhythmic music has been a special treat at museums and folk music festivals for those who love authentic African music.

Today he lives in Oakland California with his family. Says Okulolo: “I see the world today as one family as one village. We all have the same needs and wants. Peace love and understanding will help solve the world’s problems and that’s what we are trying to spread to all people with our music.”


Freedom Is What Every Body Needs (Inner Spirit Records, 1990)
Sawale (Mesa/Blue Moon Recordings, 1992)
Super Sawale (Putumayo World Music, 1994)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.


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