Over the past few months Kinshasa-based music collective KOKOKO! made up of artists, dancers and inventors have gained the attention of many unexpected fans. The reaction to their music, their performance and their energy is understandable in the first few seconds of finding them, because it isn’t like anything you would have heard or seen before.
Kinshasa is the third largest city in Africa but there is no internet, the electricity cuts out intermittently and instruments are so expensive they are only really hired by members of Evangelistic churches. But, despite this, the collective’s members have managed to create electronic music, without ever hearing it and by building instruments out of scraps that others would discard. KOKOKO!’s members display creativity in its purest sense and as they say: “Survival fuels creativity.”
KOKOKO!’s beginnings started when Brussels-based producer Débruit went to Kinshasa with filmmakers Belle Kinoise. While Renaud Barret and Florent De La Tullaye of Belle Kinoise began by concentrating on the city’s art scene, they were introduced the instrument inventors who perform in and around the streets, “because there is no museum or any frame for this,” Débruit tells It’s Nice That. Once the producer met the members back in July 2016, “we started to see the skeleton of the band,” and an introductory film to the group and a music video for single, Tokoliana gives a taste of their emphatic energy.
Débruit explains his first visit to Kinshasa as “something quite surreal, you can’t be ready or prepared for this city.” The first site he was met with was a long road, “really busy, 12 – 15 million people on it stretching really far,” he explains. “It’s highly polluted so at first it is really hard to breathe, it’s very dark as there’s not a lot of electricity.” However he was whisked away to a gig “behind a curtain with little florescent lights” where someone was playing a circular saw, “then we went to another gig, with 200 motorbikes on the side of the road in front of a stage as they are all motor taxis, people were dancing on top of motorbikes this really loud electric sound, that was the first night”.
These initial elements, Débruit explains, display the creativity KOKOKO!’s members have conjured up from nothing. “The people who invent the instruments, they had an idea of making techno without knowing exactly what techno is,” he says. “I’m always really surprised to hear alternative music that sounds like some references I have but they don’t actually. In places it’s experimental, or industrial with circular saws to make rhythms, there is a bit of post-punk, and I could hear that without references.” Another contribution to the originality of the project is that many of the collective’s members are from different tribes, “everyone has their own language and their own traditional inspiration, but they want to bring it to something modern,” says Débruit. “They call them research instruments, they really listen to it and try to find different textures.”
Texture is the main counterpart of the sound KOKOKO!’s members base their instruments around. When asking how exactly they find their materials they explain that “we’re always looking for innovation, to find new sounds, the city is already very sonic so with your eyes closed you know who is around you,” he translates from Dido, a primary member who makes the musical objects. In turn, the instruments are built from rhythms of everyday life: “The street sellers each have their own rhythm, people who sell nail polishes bang them together to a certain rhythm, those who shine shoes have wooden boards which add another sound or people announcing destinations on minibuses.” The instruments as a result are so intricate that “only the person who invented it can play it,” which again adds to the uniqueness of each layer of the band. “To really play it is a skill.”
The scale of Kinshasa means it is a city which changes very quickly. Money consistently drops while prices rise and its community is tasked with “always having to find different resources,” the collective explain. “There are no jobs, people leave their house in the morning to pretend to go to work so they’re seen leaving,” Débruit continues. “It is sad and you’re not fully aware until you go there, but we don’t want to really talk about it too much of this because it’s not what we want KOKOKO! to be. It’s so fantastic what they’re doing with such energy behind the creativity that we don’t want to play the card of “oh it’s so tough”. I think it’s obvious, as they’re making these instruments, but we don’t people to pity us too much.”
This decision on how KOKOKO! represent themselves is in keeping with the attitude of people from Kinshasa. It’s an attribute Débruit noticed on his first visit and in comparison to other cities on the continent. “In Kinshasa the way people dress, party and make music you really want to be looking different and more eccentric — that is encouraged rather than fitting in society,” he explains. “That’s also something they can’t have taken away, the chaos and the hard parts are very tough to witness especially when it happens to the people around you, but the balance with the creativity is just endless, you feel like there is no limit.”
Consequently having no limit is KOKOKO!’s plan. When asking Débruit what their plans for the future are he explains they “have the ambition to create the full experience with dancers, performers, stage design with still music at the centre, but for it to be more theatrical.”
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