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Get To Know: KOKOKO!

From: Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
For Fans Of: DJ Marfox, Ibibio Sound Machine, The Mauskovic Dance Band
Three Tunes: ‘Azo Toke’, ‘Malembe’, ‘Tokoliana’

WORDS: Katie Thomas

“We're like a bomb made out of different materials, ready to explode at every show.” Hailing from Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of the Congo and the third most populous city in Africa, KOKOKO! radiate a raw and explosive energy. Inspired by the bustling sounds of their home — “a loud city inhabited by brave, energetic people who favour eccentricity” — KOKOKO! make percussive, psychedelic music with a gritty post-punk aesthetic.

They’ve coined their sound a hybrid of “tekno kintueni”, a driving beat influenced by the Congolese kintueni sound, and “zagué”, lead vocalist Makara Bianko’s hypnotising, looped vocal style. KOKOKO! are an outfit with three core foundations: makeshift instruments built by band members Boms and Dido, Makara’s zagué vocals, and French producer Débruit’s electronic productions. They met in 2016, when director Renaud Barret was in Kinshasa working on his film ‘Système K’, a vibrant portrait of contemporary Congolese creatives. Three years on, KOKOKO! are a five-piece band on tour, but back in Kinshasa they’re a collective over a hundred strong, an extended family of musicians, instrument creators, dancers and performance artists. Six hours a day for six days a week, Makara — “the sparkle”, as Débruit calls him — will rehearse on the streets of his neighbourhood, Lingwala, with a contingent of fifty dancers. He sends his crew into a trance-like state with his zagué style, the dancers moving in and out of choreographed routine.

Elsewhere, KOKOKO!’s artists congregate at crossroads in their respective neighbourhoods, their performances communicating a political resentment they’re otherwise forbidden to speak of. Such is the risk of speaking out against the government that none of KOKOKO!’s lyrics are noticeably political. In fact, says Débruit, they may appear naive. In front of a Congolese crowd however, any perceived naivety turns out to be a compelling disguise, as the crowd sing back “the words they knew we meant”. In a city that, on the whole, cannot afford to invest in traditional instruments, KOKOKO! play on instruments fashioned from junk found around their neighbourhoods. Some may look familiar — a drum kit built from plastic pots or a giant sculptural harp — others less so. Often Boms and Dido will conceive one-of-a-kind instruments, testing the tonality using the keypad on their phones. Boms’ eyes light up as he talks about those moments of realisation. “You’ve created something new,” he smiles, “you learn to play it and you adopt it, it’s your special thing.”

As they wrap up a tour that has taken them to the US for the first time and across Europe, KOKOKO! reflect on the message behind their shows. “We want to recharge everyone in the crowd”, Makara explains. “We transmit our energy, and it stays with them long after we’ve gone.” In May, with a generator on the back of a truck, the band will host a moving block party across three neighbourhoods in Kinshasa. Three triumphant shows in one night, celebrating the sonic chaos of their home city. “And then we’re back,” Débruit says of their plans for the rest of 2019. “KOKOKO! live... It’s an occasion,” Makara says, “we know most people won’t travel to Kinshasa, so we’re bringing a bit of Kinshasa to them.”