BOngo-centric drumming, semi-improvised production, and psychedelic grooves were all central tenets of the afrobeat and highlife genres that took West Africa by storm in the second half of the 20th century. Now London-based KOKOROKO is reinvigorating these pioneering sounds for a whole new generation of listeners.
The eight-piece band, whose band name is an Urhobo – a Nigerian tribe and language – word meaning “to be strong”, draws great influence from the sense of strength and defiance in the face of struggle that were cornerstones Afrobeat music. “The name KOKOROKO makes sense when you think of people associated with music, like Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor,” said guitarist Tobi Adenaike. NME.
KOKOROKO was founded by Onome Edgeworth (percussion) and Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet, vocals) in response, says Adenaike, to the “lack of representation of traditional African music through the lens of UK-raised Africans”. There were two questions at the forefront in the minds of the founding members of KOKOROKO: “What would our traditional music sound like coming from London, where there is a huge melting point of cultures? And what would it look like if it were through our perspective? »
“Abusey Junction,” the band’s 2019 polyrhythmic hit, was a reimagining of the Afrobeat sound that bridged the gap between different generations of African descendants. A meditative, flowing seven-minute instrumental, it’s a fine example of KOKOROKO’s blend of afrobeat and jazz that feels distinctly London-based. “We can’t escape London, which is part of our musical DNA: it’s what we grew up listening to,” says Adenaike. “It’s our sound. It belongs to us.
It’s rare for instrumental tracks like “Abusey Junction” to gain such momentum (48 million Spotify streams and counting), but Adenaike clearly feels a sense of pride in how different KOKOROKO is from other hitmakers. “Mainstream music is driven by vocals, and instruments are normally an accompaniment function,” he says. “Our music reverses that. Now the voice is treated like any other instrument.
By giving each instrument equal weight, mixing of genres can be achieved easily. “It’s not just Afrobeat, it’s not just jazz, it’s not psychedelic: it’s very difficult to hammer,” continues the guitarist. “I think that’s one of the things that sets us apart – I think we have a very unique sound.”
Oith their long-awaited debut album ‘Could We Be More’, out now via Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings, KOKOROKO are more than ready to embrace the next stage of their career. After all, it’s a moment they’ve been looking forward to since recording the project in the summer of 2020.
“We were away for about four weeks in a seaside town, living together [and] in each other’s space all the time,” Adenaike recalls the recording process, which he says differs from the experience of creating their self-titled debut EP in 2019. “The influences we absorbed growing up are still there, but the way we put them into our music has evolved: we’ve gotten better. We are starting to explore different ways to include 70s Ghanaian rock with traditional afrobeat, 80s psychedelic and other forces.
With song titles such as “Ewà Inú” (meaning “inner beauty” in Yoruba), “Dide O” (Yoruba for “to arise”) and “We Give Thanks”, KOKOROKO’s debut album evokes feelings of ascension and hope. But the group also does not want to rest on its laurels. “‘Could We Be More’ is deliberately open,” says Adenaike. “Could we be more than just a band that plays Afrobeat? Could we be more than just musicians? Could we be more than the things people use to label you just so they can understand you? Sometimes labels can be used in a negative way to rank you. Could we be more than the labels people give us? »
The issues of mislabeling and cataloging have been faced by black British musicians for decades, and it’s a problem that KOKOROKO intends to avoid. Adenaike hopes the changing face of British jazz music is a step in the right direction that will hopefully allow the band to find their signature sound without getting locked in.
“Things have definitely improved in terms of representation when you think of all the amazing people coming out of the UK, like Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia [and] Sons of Kemet,” says the guitarist. “Each of us is unique: we do not all do the same thing.
Since a number of KOKOROKO members are former The warriors of tomorrow – an educational group committed to increasing and improving diversity in jazz – it’s clear that the band are actively trying to be the change they want to see on stage, while their playful approach to songwriting makes its often accessible and festive sound.
“It’s important to always honor and respect the culture where you come from, and also to celebrate it, because you want to preserve it for the next generation,” says Adenaike. “If we don’t play this music, it will be forgotten, and then a piece of our culture will be lost.”
KOKOROKO’s deep respect for culture and self-aware approach to creating their own music enshrines their own sense of authenticity. Being a member of the African diaspora, says Adenaike, further allows this authenticity to come naturally.
“We exist in two worlds, two countries, two ways of life,” he says. “We are British, but we are also African. I think the identity struggle gave birth to everything we do now as a band. Existing in constant liminality as a Black Brit can be exhausting, but also rewarding. “Difficulties in terms of identity gave birth to all the incredible things that black Britons are responsible for today.”
Throughout the black British community, musicians of this generation have created a sound that is a harmonious fusion of British, African and Caribbean influences, while certain genres, such as drill, Afro-swing and R&B, are considered more recognizable by black Britons than others. Collectives like KOKOROKO can therefore sometimes fall through the cracks in such conversations, but the group is not intimidated by the prospect of being overlooked.
“It’s important to preserve the culture, but it’s not that deep if most people don’t understand it,” Adenaike says. After all, the band is confident they’ve already built up a dedicated fan base over the past three years, and they don’t want their existence used to undermine more popular black genres. “Culture can be militarized,” continues the guitarist. “I think most of the time people don’t know how to celebrate something without weaponizing it.”
“Could We Be More” is the product of an ensemble determined to stay true to themselves. And, with live music back on the agenda, KOKOROKO can finally bring their multi-faceted music to the masses. “We work so well together on stage,” concludes Adenaike. “There’s just an atmosphere, an energy: it feels like home.”
KOKOROKO’s debut album “Could We Be More” is out now