Album of the Week \\ KOKOKO! create DIY futurism with their debut ‘Fongola’

5th July 2019
KOKOKO!’s debut album ‘Fongola’ is the product of their hometown Kinshasa: makeshift, patchwork and marching steadfast into the future.

Words: Harry Stott

KOKOKO! are a multidisciplinary collective from the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo who say they have created ‘the sound of Kinshasa’s tomorrow’. It’s a bold claim, especially given that on their new album, ‘Fongola’, which releases 5 July, the band use a variety of crude, homemade instruments, including ‘a one-string guitar made out of a bike brake and a powdered milk tin’. It’s a curious juxtaposition, the sound of the future emanating from a source so basic. But hear the sheets of synths and the boisterous, anarchic drum machine loops that accompany it, how the band utilise that single string to create such forward thinking music, and that ‘sound of Kinshasa’s tomorrow’ tag begins to make a lot more sense.

‘Fongola’ is entirely makeshift, both sonically and in its recording process, which occured in studios made up of table tennis tables and mattresses in the DRC and Belgium. Much of this makeshift idea can be traced back to Kinshasa itself and one of it’s areas in particular. Nestled in a corner of the Congolese capital, a patchwork city made up of sprawling neighbourhoods, is Ngwaka, a part of town where residents are renowned for creating their own experimental instruments, like the ones you can hear on KOKOKO!’s debut. It’s a DIY spirit that puts all others to shame: radical ingenuity necessitated not by trends but by absence, and a refusal to let a lack of resources stymie the creation of art. The track ‘LOVE’ captures the sound of Ngwaka perfectly, where a homespun guitar is plucked in a warping, bending riff that feels almost atonal, but in tune enough to be bluesy.

But playing the blues on a one string guitar is nothing new in itself – the ‘diddley bow’ is a common training instrument that young blues musicians learn to play on). It’s what KOKOKO! do with that self-made sound, and what they combine it with, that is so innovative. A single from the record, ‘Buka Dansa’, begins with a seething guitar ostinato before suddenly being joined by lush, warm synth chords – it sounds like Gary Numan interrupting a Ali Farka Toure studio session: antithetical but incredibly entertaining. The synths and drums combine a little more smoothly, with pop-y reggaeton-y thumps on ‘Tongas’, and layers of quintessentially West African polyrhythms on ‘Buka Dansa’, which satisfyingly translates as ‘dance till it breaks’.

With all those delicate juxtapositions, ‘Fongola’ feels like little else, past or present, so labelling it the ‘sound of Kinshasa’s tomorrow’ really is the only option. You could maybe align the shouts and refrains that cut through each song with the improvisatory wails of Fofoulah’s 2018 record ‘Daega Rek’, but sonically the two are operating on different planets. KOKOKO!’s leader Makara Bianko conducts proceedings on ‘Fongola’ with a ringmaster’s authority, giving the whole thing a visceral, live feel, which, unsurprisingly, is how the band themselves started.

Bianko met French producer Débruit in the Lingwala neighbourhood of Kinshasa, where the former could be found performing the sort of electronic loops that make KOKOKO!’s music so very potent and futuristic. But Bianko’s performances in Lingwala were not solely musical: he played with a troupe of dancers who are now as much a part of KOKOKO! as he is. Performance in Kinshasa is a collaborative space where lines are not drawn between artistic creeds, and where movement can express something equally as well as music or speech. 

This live aspect somehow translates into the record, as does the multidisciplinary nature of those street performances in Kinshasa. There’s something in the album’s cries and beats being allied with sweeping synths that feels multi-sensory: a blinding, spectral mass of sound in colour. ‘Fongola’ demands complete immersion if you want to experience this, and the collaborative spirit that birthed it. But do so and you’ll see how the music is tied to Africa’s past and Kinshasa’s present, even as it looks steadfast into the future.

Order KOKOKO! debut album, ‘Fongola’ on Bandcamp

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