When most Western audiences think of music from Africa, two artists usually come to mind: Nigerian rebel Afrobeat singer and composer Fela Kuti, and Ghanaian Juju guitarist King Sunny Ade. While these artists are easily among the most recognizable (and iconic) artists to emerge from Africa, they represent only a small fraction of the musical landscape in the world’s second largest continent.
From villages in Niger to metropolitan urban sprawls like Nairobi and Lagos, an entire generation of artists have sprung up to create cross-genre music that refuses to be bogged down by convention. And by forfeiting the established rules of what audiences expect from African musicians, they’re developing alternative music influenced by the continent’s sprawling geography and distinct cultures.
KOKOKO! is a part of this new wave of “African Alternative.” Since the group’s inception in 2016, the Congolese band has garnered international attention and acclaim for crafting off-kilter soundscapes, and for their unparalleled live performances. Known for their signature yellow jumpsuits that the band’s “electronicist” and “metal” percussionist Xavier Thomas described over the phone from Spain, as “a way to stand out in the busyness of Kinshasa.”
Their sound is an elaborate fusion of electronic dance, post-punk, rap, and traditional Congolese musical styles, and the band has used Lingala (one of the many languages spoken in the Congo Region) terms like “tekno kintueni” and “xx” to describe their style. A defining trait of the band’s music is the way they play with form, to construct a wholly unique soundscape. KOKOKO! play on unorthodox DIY instruments made from everything from bits of sheet metal, plastic detergent bottles, and most famously, a one-stringed guitar.
“It has been challenging at times convincing customs officers and officials at airports that we are just carrying instruments and nothing dangerous,” he laughs.
Figuring out how to move between space has been a core element of the band since their beginning. While a majority of the group resides permanently in The Democratic Republic of Congo, Thomas splits his time between Kinshasa and Europe.
“It was difficult when we first started playing together because of technological barriers to communication,” he explained. “Eventually things settled into a rhythm. We now send each other ideas via WhatsApp or share ideas with each other while touring that we will then flesh out when we get back to Kinshasa.”
As a proudly international band, Canada is an exciting and important tour stop for them. “The Congolese community is very strong in Montreal and Toronto and they have been asking us for a while when we are going to play in those cities,” Thomas says. While they’re in North America, KOKOKO! hope they can meet another famous Congolian—Serge Ibaka, the superstar defender on the Toronto Raptors. “I mean, if any of your readers know him,” Thomas said laughing, “Maybe they could pass it along.”