Disguising politics in dance songs made with typewriters, bottles of water and an old car tape deck
When Xavier Thomas first arrived in Kinshasa, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into.
The Frenchman, who works under the name of Débruit as one of Europe’s most revered electronic creators, originally travelled to the city – population just shy of twelve million, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo – intending to work with a friend of his, the filmmaker Renaud Barret, who was making a documentary about the local art scene. Barret’s focus was never exclusively on music; he’d already decided he wanted to zero in primarily on the performance art community, centred around dance. Still, Thomas would hopefully be able to provide some work on the soundtracking front and, in the process, take the town’s musical temperature.
What came next was out of left field. It was sensory overload for Thomas. He was suddenly introduced to dozens of artists, all of them with a powerful voice of their own, and all of them with something to say. As a musician, he was dizzied by the sonic possibilities, but as a European he was a fish out of cultural water. “I ended up meeting everybody at once,” he says over the phone from his adopted base of operations, Brussels. “It was only little by little that we all got to know each other. That first trip to Kinshasa is all a blur now. It was the second one where it all came together.”
He’s referring to the musicians who are now his bandmates in KOKOKO!. They’re an outfit without compare, not just to us Westerners, but within the Congo itself, where they have gone from eccentric stylistic outsiders to improbable international exports. The core of the group was born out of Thomas’ collaborations with lead singer Makara Bianco, and soon expanded to include idiosyncratic instrumentalists Boms Bomolo, Dido Oweke and Love Lokombe.
Out of that unlikely teaming was born a genuine one-off, and a band fuelled by a fierce love of music and a pointed disregard for the rulebook. KOKOKO! make their own stringed instruments. KOKOKO! have precisely zero regard for the blueprint laid down by the existing music scene within Africa’s third most populous city, which is entered mainly around the church. KOKOKO! are not interested in being boxed in – they just want to spread their own interpretation of the sounds of their hometown.
“The plan at the beginning was just for me to record these instrument creators,” he says of his new colleagues, who have carved sonic implements out of, among other such found objects, typewriters, bottles of water and an old car tape deck. “Then, I met Makara, and I thought, OK, there could be some kind of experimental, DIY project in this. We started recording, to see where it would go, and then – at the end of the trip – we had a huge block party to celebrate it, and we all played. And that’s where KOKOKO! really began.”