Bongo-centric percussion, semi-improvisational production and psychedelic grooves were all central tenets of the Afrobeat and highlife genres that took West Africa by storm in the latter half of the 20th century. Now, London-based KOKOROKO are reinvigorating these pioneering sounds for a whole new generation of listeners.
The eight-piece, whose band name is an Urhobo – a Nigerian tribe and language – word meaning ‘be strong’, draw great influence from the sense of strength and defiance in the face of struggle that were such cornerstones of Afrobeat music. “The name KOKOROKO makes sense when you think about the people associated with the music, like Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor,” guitarist Tobi Adenaike tells NME.
KOKOROKO were founded by Onome Edgeworth (percussion) and Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet, vocals) in response to, Adenaike says, the “lack of representation for traditional African music coming through the lens of Africans being brought up in the UK”. There were two questions at the forefront of the minds of KOKOROKO’s founding members: “What would our traditional music sound like coming from London, where there is a massive melting point of cultures? And what would it sound like if it came through our perspective?”
‘Abusey Junction’, the band’s polyrhythmic 2019 breakout hit, was a reimagining of the Afrobeat sound which bridged the gap between different generations of African descendants. A meditative, free-flowing seven-minute instrumental, it’s a fine example of KOKOROKO’s blend of Afrobeat and jazz that feels distinctly rooted in London. “We can’t escape London being a part of our musical DNA: it’s what we grew up listening to,” Adenaike says. “It’s our sound. It belongs to us.”
It’s rare for instrumental tracks like ‘Abusey Junction’ to gather such momentum (48 million Spotify streams and counting), but Adenaike clearly feels a sense of pride about how different KOKOROKO are compared to other hitmakers. “Mainstream music is driven by vocals, and instruments are normally a backing feature,” he says. “Our music turns that on its head. Now, the voice is treated like any other instrument.”
By giving every instrument equal weighting, genre-splicing can be achieved with ease. “It’s not solely Afrobeat, it’s not only jazz, it’s not psychedelic: it’s very difficult to hammer down,” the guitarist continues. “I think that’s one of the things that makes us stand out – I think we have a very unique sound.”
With their long-awaited debut album ‘Could We Be More’, out now via Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings, KOKOROKO are more than ready to embrace the next stage of their career. After all, it’s a moment they’ve eagerly been waiting for ever since they recorded the project back in the summer of 2020.
“We went away for around four weeks to a seaside town, living together [and] in each other’s space the whole time,” Adenaike recalls of the recording process, which he says differed to the experience of creating their 2019 self-titled debut EP. “The influences we’ve absorbed growing up are still there, but the way we put it into our music has grown: we’ve gotten better at it. We’re starting to explore different ways to include ‘70s Ghanaian rock with traditional Afrobeat, ‘80s psychedelic and other forces.”
With such song titles as ‘Ewà Inú’ (meaning ‘inner beauty’ in Yoruba), ‘Dide O’ (Yoruba for ‘arise’) and ‘We Give Thanks’, KOKOROKO’s debut album evokes feelings of ascension and hope. But the band are also keen not to rest on their laurels. “‘Could We Be More’ is purposefully open-ended,” Adenaike explains. “Could we be more than just a band that plays Afrobeat? Could we be more than just musicians? Could we be more than the things people use to label you just so they can understand you? Sometimes, labels can negatively be used to pigeonhole you. Could we be more than the labels that people attach to us?”
Issues of mislabelling and pigeonholing have faced Black British musicians for decades, and it’s a problem that KOKOROKO are intent on avoiding. Adenaike hopes that the changing face of UK jazz music is a step in the right direction that will hopefully allow the band to find their signature sound without getting boxed in.
“Things have definitely gotten better in terms of representation when you think about all of the incredible people coming out of the UK, like Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia [and] Sons of Kemet,” the guitarist says. “Each of us is unique: we’re not all doing the same thing.”
Given that a number of KOKOROKO’s members are alumni of Tomorrow’s Warriors – an education group committed to increasing and improving diversity in jazz – it’s clear how the band are actively trying to be the change they want to see in the scene, while their playful songwriting approach makes their sound one that is often accessible and celebratory.
“It’s important to always pay homage and respect the culture that you’ve come from, and also celebrate it, because you want to preserve it for the next generation”, Adenaike says. “If we don’t play this music it will be forgotten, and then a piece of our culture is lost.”
KOKOROKO’s deep respect for the culture and self-aware approach to creating their own music enshrines their own sense of authenticity. Being members of the African diaspora, Adenaike explains, further allows for that authenticity to come naturally.
“We exist within two worlds, two countries, two ways of living,” he affirms. “We are British, but we’re also African. I think that the struggle of identity has given birth to everything that we as a band are doing now.” Existing in constant liminality as a Black Brit can be exhausting, but also rewarding. “Out of hardship in terms of identity has birthed all of the incredible things Black British people are responsible for today.”
Across the Black British community, this generation’s musicians have created a sound that is a seamless fusion of UK, African and Caribbean influences, while some genres, such as drill, Afro-swing and R&B, are seen as more recognisably Black British than others. Collectives like KOKOROKO, therefore, can sometimes slip through the cracks in such conversations, but the band aren’t daunted by the prospect of being overlooked.
“It’s important to preserve culture, but it’s not that deep if most people don’t get it,” Adenaike says. After all, the band are confident that they’ve already built up a dedicated fanbase over the past three years, and they don’t want their existence to be used to undermine more popular Black genres. “Culture can be weaponised,” the guitarist continues. “I think most of the time, people don’t know how to celebrate something without weaponising it.”
‘Could We Be More’ is the product of an ensemble determined to stay true to themselves. And, with live music very much back on the agenda, KOKOROKO can finally bring their multifaceted music to the masses. “We just work so well on stage together,” Adenaike concludes. “There’s just a vibe, an energy: it feels like home.”
KOKOROKO’s debut album ‘Could We Be More’ is out now