KOKOKO! – The indecipherable sound coming out of the Congo

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.”

The venture has culminated in a gloriously eccentric album, titled Fongola. Translated, it means ‘the key’, and KOKOKO! is a common phrase used in the Congo when banging on a door; the English equivalent would be ‘knock knock knock’, and the intention for the band is to unlock their sound; one that challenges not only Western standards, but also the parameters drawn for musicians domestically within the Congo. They want to bring their music to the people, regardless of where they might live. “To us, it feels important to represent a sound that is very different to what people associate with our country,” says Bianco, via Thomas’ translation. “I think most people think of the rumba, and that’s something that’s controlled almost like a mafia, because the big names have no interest in being yesterday’s sound. There’s a lot of pressures in Kinshasa if you want to come with a new sound – it’s a bit tricky.”

The fact that KOKOKO! feel stifled in their homeland – the same place that has given forth to them this absurd, but brilliant blend of dance, techno and more besides – does at least mean that they feel much more comfortable overseas, now that they’ve had the opportunity to bed themselves in. “Abroad, there are no barriers, and no expectations,” adds Bomolo. “In the Congo, there are more than 400 languages spoken. We want to represent that when we play to people. We want them to understand our country’s diversity.”

It’s a mantle that they’re happy to take on, and one that they’ve been fulfilling with considerable aplomb; here in the UK, they’re in the thick of a slew of festival dates that will also take them to mainland Europe, and they’ve been bestowed with the ultimate seal of alternative approval – being playlisted by 6 Music. It doesn’t, though, mean that the process of making Fongola was similarly easy, similarly straightforward. “It was really tough,” Thomas admits. “We didn’t have a studio, at least to begin with. When I first got to Kinshasa, I didn’t know who was a player and who wasn’t. We were working in this enormous compound, full of performance artists, and It was so loud! There’s some great early recordings, but they’re unusable, because there’s so much going on in the background. Eventually, we managed to knock together a small studio within that place, just to isolate the sound, but I wasn’t working under conditions I was used to. You have to remember, these instruments are incredibly loud – that in itself throws up a real challenge!”

Fongola came together, in the main, over the course of the first two trips that Thomas took to Kinshasa; he was getting the feel of his new colleagues all the while, and in between the two excursions he tinkered with the recordings back in Brussels. What that layover also gave him time to contemplate was where the lyrics were coming from; KOKOKO! are joyous by nature, but at no point did that mean that they had nothing meaningful to say. “There’s a few different topics on there,” he says. “There’s the sounds and the street life of Kinshasa, but there’s also a couple of songs about the ancestors, and then another two that are just party tracks, designed to get people dancing.”

All of this sounds markedly unpolitical. “That’s not the case,” says Thomas. “There are songs on there that are really about politics, but they’re disguised, because it dangerous to talk about that. They’ll say something, and it’ll sound naive, but the audience understands.” There are references, he says, to the perpetually-delayed presidential election in the Congo. It’s not just that Fongola represents the opportunity for African music to permeate a market that has not traditionally been friendly towards it; it’s also that it carries with it a summation of the day-to-day state of present central Africa.

And yet, that leads KOKOKO! to what might be their crucial dilemma in our corner of the world: how do you categorise a band that so vigorously throws so many different ideas into the same pot? “That’s so hard!” says Thomas. “We’ve tired to steer away from people calling it ‘world music’. It’s not like we’d call anything ‘European music’, is it? We all have our own names for it. Makara has a name for his own style, and Boms thinks that everything he makes is his own take on techno! There’s no way to make it easy for websites or record shops. Sometimes we’re dance, and sometimes we’re not.”