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KOKOKO! on their unique sound ahead of Berghain gig

INTERVIEW! Ahead of KOKOKO!'s show at Berghain on Nov 14, the band's Xavier Thomas aka Débruit talks the spirit of Kinshasa’s party music, defying genre and performing at the iconic Berlin club.

Image for KOKOKO! on their unique sound ahead of Berghain gig

Photo by Junior Lobota. Catch KOKOKO! at Berghain on Nov 14, 19:00.

KOKOKO! are a band and collective who defy any attempt at classification. Their sound is based around three elements. One is the industrial stylings of Kinshasa’s instrument creators, who re-interpret discarded materials into unique instruments. Another is the fast loops and electric lyrics of ostensible frontman Makala Bianco, and the last is the expert production of Xavier Thomas or Débruit. Together they have formed a band that is perhaps best described as a synergy of the sonic chaos of Kinshasa. Their newest album Fongola is a representation of every aspect of that experience. With songs in Lingala, Swahili, Kikongo, and French, Fongola tells of both the good and the bad with the irrepressible energy of a Kinshasa block party. We caught up with Thomas ahead of the band’s performance at Berghain on November 14 to try and get to the core of the spirit of Kinshasa’s party music.

What brought you to Congo?

I was invited by a film director called Renauld Barret, who was shooting a film called System K about the music scene in Kinshasa. He knew about my interest in collaborative projects, and it was a natural fit. When I was there, I first met with a lot of local musicians, and we formed KOKOKO! in that first month.

Who is the KOKOKO! collective?

KOKOKO! is made up primarily of instrument creators from a particular area of Kinshasa called Ngwaka. There is Makala Bianco, a singer from Kinshasa that sings on fast electronic loops. He does regular performances in Kinshasa with up to fifty dancers and holds open rehearsals in the city every night for five hours. There’s me (Débruit), and there are also the dancers and a few artistic performers who gravitate around the project. When we travel, at the moment, it is just the musicians. We try our best to give the whole experience, but when we play at block parties in Kinshasa, it is different. There will be body performances, and Makala’s dancers will be there, and you can see those sides in our music videos, but for now, on tour, it is just the music.

The musical history of Congo is based in the Rumba. Is it still the sound of Kinshasa?

Rumba is definitely still a significant style in Congo. The youth grew up listening to that, and there are sound systems everywhere playing it; even the church uses Rumba for religious reasons. But, there is a feeling that Rumba is the music of their parents and grandparents generation, and I think right now, young people are starting to bring faster, electronic music and distorted sounds into the mix. The youth are looking for their own sound, and one of those is Ndombolo. Ndombolo still has elements of Rumba in it, but it’s a sign that people want something more alternative. Congolese music is vibrant, and it does have influences from Nigeria and Angola, but now there is a definite move towards something that is specific to Congo.

Is KOKOKO! part of the new sound of Kinshasa?

It is very early days at the moment. Since we started, there have been a few groups that were influenced by what we are doing. They have started to create their own instruments too, but it’s not all about that, it is more about the way of playing. We play with a sense of passion and emergency, which is very new. In Congo, most music needs to contain a vocal to be popular, of course, there are a few instrumental or electronic projects happening here and there, but KOKOKO! is still a very alternative sound, even in Kinshasa.

Personally speaking, what is your inspiration when you are producing the beats?

I was in Kinshasa five times in the last two years, and I was there for quite a long time each time. Most of what we do is recorded in jam sessions in Kinshasa, so it is much more of a collective experience. The first time I went to Kinshasa, I was there as an observer, I didn’t want to influence people, I just wanted to hear the music that was being created. It took around three weeks until I had a feeling for what was being offered artistically, and I felt comfortable to plug in my drum machines and synthesisers. 

Tell me about that collaborative aspect.

I had already done the album in Istanbul, and even though Kinshasa has nothing to do with Istanbul, KOKOKO! really felt like the next step. In Turkey, I had worked with people like Okay Teniz, whose body of work is so incredible and so well known in Turkey that it was very intimidating to try and suggest something. I learned from that. For me, first and foremost, it is essential to listen to people and meet people and try to understand the local scene. I think if I had proposed something that people were not excited about, I would have felt it. When I heard what Makala and the DIY instrument creators were doing, it was clear that the music scene was very open and very experimental, and that was perfect for us creatively.

What is the underground music scene like in Kinshasa?

It is very open. The first gig I saw in Kinshasa was a guy playing a circular saw in a rhythm. He was hidden behind a curtain, and you could only see his silhouette, and he was projecting the sparks from the saw onto the audience. At that point, it was obvious that there is this huge space for creativity there, and people are open to experiencing it.

Tell me about the DIY aspect, what do these thrown away objects contribute to the music?

Kinshasa is a massive capital of over twelve million people, and it is very dense. Because of that, people really want to stand out with their art. There is also, comparatively speaking, less pressure from tradition and religion, and people are finding a lot of ways to stand out from the visual and sonic chaos in the city. You can see it in everything. The way people walk, talk, and dress. One expression of that is people using the things that you can find for free on the street to make music because hiring musical instruments is too expensive, and owning them is entirely out of the question. It has led to a culture of musical experimentation where people are really researching different textures of sound, which are totally unique. You may have an instrument that nobody else has, and nobody else knows how to play, and that makes you the only person who can do what you can do, and that is very empowering.

What about the performative aspect?

It is huge. Obviously, for me, when you think about that performance with the man behind the curtain, it had elements of industrial music to it. I was thinking of bands like Einstürzende Neubauten. In Kinshasa, it is done with total spontaneity, and behind a lot of it is a frustration that you can not realistically own the ‘real’ instruments or frustration with your situation, and a lot of people share that. It is expressed through a very creative, performative energy which people are open to because a lot of people are experiencing the same thing.

In that sense, is the sound of KOKOKO! a reflection of the experience in Kinshasa?

You could say that. One of the instrument creators in the band, Boms Bomolo, always says that Kinshasa is very musical, and he can already hear the sounds of KOKOKO! in his everyday life. It could be the shoe shiner banging wood with a specific rhythm, or the nail polishers banging their small glass bottles of paint. There are these loops on megaphones for mobile phone credit everywhere, and all together it has a distinct sound. Boms says when he makes the instruments from the things that he finds, he is looking for a way to organise that chaos. When we jam, or record, or perform, we always bring a part of Kinshasa with us, both literally and musically.

There is a big linguistic gap for a lot of your audiences. Many of the tracks sound quite joyful, but is there a message beneath that energy?

It is impossible in Kinshasa to be openly political in music because it can be dangerous. We have a song called Tokoliana which tells the story of a forest where the animals are starving and devouring each other, and nature is degrading around them. It is obviously an allegory for the situation in Kinshasa. There are some different ways of getting around it, though. It might sound naive, but one way that is popular in Kinshasa is to use a word that sounds like the thing you cannot say and because the ultimate meaning is so bizarre people obviously come to understand your original intention. It isn’t all political though, some of the tracks are real party tracks, while some of them deal with the rich cultural history in Congo. There’s a mix of different topics there. Makala Bianco says that he sings about what he sees on the streets every day and whereas Rumba is all about love stories, Makala is saying that he doesn’t always see love and KOKOKO! reflects that.

You’ll be performing in Berghain, but would you consider this to be dance music, what is KOKOKO!?

It’s hard to put one genre on it. Our live show is a bit more energetic than the album, and people do dance at our shows, so I guess that one aspect of it is dance music. For us, playing at Berghain is quite surreal, but I think it is important for us to play in places that have that alternative label. We really don’t want to want to be considered ‘World Music,’ it’s such a reductive label which is totally disconnected from what we are. It is very much alternative music, and I think in that sense it is a fantastic place for us to play.

KOKOKO! | Berghain, Friedrichshain. Nov 14, 19:00.