If music and technology have never felt more accessible, Congolese outfit Kokoko! are redefining the meaning of being a modern DIY act. The Kinshasa-based group has been filling dance floors the world over with a distinctly analog take on electronic music, featuring polyrhythmic grit and rapturous choruses that reflect the vivacity and chaos of their home country.
The seven-piece ensemble was brought together by the French futurist producer Débruit, whose eclectic taste has yielded ambitious collaborations with artists from Sudan and Istanbul. While researching music in Kinshasa, Débruit encountered musicians operating on the fringes, creating their own takes on electronic music by reassembling old computer parts and building instruments out of recycled scrap materials—think dish soap bottles, cans and car parts—in lieu of access to traditional instruments and equipment.
Despite the Congo’s rich musical history, breaking into the industry is difficult. Most popular music centers around Cuban-imported Congolese rumba, alongside ascendant hip-hop and R&B, but even those genres’ stars tend to live outside their native Congo. In a country still marred by government censorship and heavily restricted Internet access, making and accessing other kinds of music can be an inherently political act. But Kokoko!’s members were keen to collaborate, and Débruit was soon lending synths and loops to round out the vocals and instrumentation of its other members.
The result is this year’s Fongola, the group’s striking debut album that fuses techno, punk, No Wave and Congolese jazz, a raw snapshot of pop forged outside the dictum of Western tastes and music industry trends. On stage, that sound and energy takes on an urgent full form, with members sporting Devo-style yellow jumpsuits and galvanizing crowds with bullhorn chants sung in their native Lingala, joined in on by audiences around the world.
In the midst of the band’s first major U.S. tour, which ends this Saturday (Oct. 12) in Seattle, Billboard Dance spoke with Débruit about Kokoko!’s origins, cultural politics, and the problem with “world music.”
What are the emotional and stylistic influences on Kokoko!’s music?
They always say that they really get their influences from the city of Kinshasa itself. It’s just a very sonic city. You can walk around with your eyes closed and know who everyone is based on the sounds they’re making — different calls or rhythms made by street vendors to get your attention.
Some influences come from this kind of electronic music making approach based on loops and drops, or sometimes it comes from the instrument you just made. You need to learn how to play it because it didn't exist before you finished it. And the frequencies of the instrument itself will tell you what other thing you can play with. And that's how songs come about.
How do you preserve the authenticity of this music while also marketing it to unfamiliar audiences? How do you avoid getting pigeonholed into something like “world music”?
Yeah, “world music” is a term we find problematic. Sometimes I see us in sections like “African music,” when there’s no such thing as “European music.” It’s something we have to always fight for. It’s about showing the actual image of what Kinshasa is like. And there's not actually much we have to direct on stage. It feels very edgy or alternative, and people come and see these improvised performances that you've never seen before. We just prepare something to surprise you.
If you weren’t in the band, as a white, Western electronic musician, do you think audiences would be as receptive?
It's something I've been thinking about since the beginning. Electronic music, its most important generators, come from black communities where it's techno, house, drum and bass, jungle. This is the music coming from Detroit, Chicago or the U.K. It’s a challenge, and I totally understand how it can look with institutional racism in the music industry. For us it was really just about the music to start with. Obviously I've been making the music and releasing records and doing collaboration for 10 years, so I could act to accelerate the process with my network, and from there it became something that we just knew should happen.
What role does creating this music have in your bandmates’ day-to-day lives, and in the Kinshasa community?
Well, first it's just that the people don't want to wait. Life is short. The average life expectancy is quite low there, so I think people have no time to lose. So if you can't buy or afford instruments, you're gonna make them. You’re going to seize on that energy, and going out and listening to music or performing can help with the frustration of daily life. It’s difficult to talk freely, so the band turns to performance. They express something that they can't say with words, because it would be too dangerous.
How does that translate to the music?
It can vary from straight-up lyrics to making people move, because for the guys that's a bit hard to talk about politics. It's a bit dangerous, so there's some songs with hidden meanings. So there might be a story with animals in the north of the country, in the forest, that’s talking about the situation in Kinshasa. There's stuff kind of disguised or sometimes using words that sounds like another word that you don't want to say. And then sometimes the audience would just repeat the word, because they understood what you really meant. And then they can say “No, no, I didn’t say it, I wouldn't, they said.” So there's stuff like that. It’s very allegorical.
How does the band feel about bringing their culture and themes to foreign crowds that don’t understand them? What is it like to see kids at festivals chanting along?
First, I think they’re just really proud to travel to places where not many Congolese musicians go and start to understand the notion of success. They're really happy to have a different crowds and not just Congolese people. And then the reaction of crowds, it's quite amazing to make this music in one place and and expose it elsewhere and see it resonate.
We listen to all the types of music that we don't understand the lyrics in — there's so many languages in the Congo already, like 400 dialects, that people are used to hearing in each other’s music. So the singer Love Lokombe tries to make people repeat things when he's on stage. Like, you might not understand, but I'm going to give you some piece so you can sing along with it. He still wants to communicate and find something between him and the crowds. Even though there's no possibility to talk to each other, but you can sing the same thing at the same time.