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World Music Matters

Kokoko! alternative dance music crafted in Kinshasa

Audio 11:03
Kokoko! on tour
Kokoko! on tour La Belle Kinoise

Kokoko! are a musical collective with a new, raw sound produced entirely on instruments made from recycled scrap material. They've shaken up dancefloors in their native Kinshasa, now they're turning heads in Europe. RFI caught up with them at the recent Chorus festival at the Scene Musicale in Paris.


The five musicians know how to draw attention to themselves. Dressed in canary yellow DEVO-inspired jumpsuits, they deliver a raw, ear-splitting sound hammered out on a range of DIY instruments.

Kokoko! (meaning knock knock in Lingala) make electronic music without computers, techno without technology.

Instead, they've built their own instruments from recycled scrap material: a typewriter rigged up to hit a piece of scrap metal serves as a drum machine, glass bottles pitched with different amounts of water give a touch of melody. The drum set is built out of a toaster, saucepans and tins of baby formula; the upright harp from a steering wheel and wires strung up to old coffee cans.

And of course there's the guitar: one-string attached to what looks like a broom handle stuck in a jerry can.

Innovative sounds of chaos

The Kinshasa musicians were into dance music, but didn’t have the means to make the conventional stuff, and the city's intermittent power supply didn't help. But making their own sound machines from junk was more innovative in any case.

"We picked up any kind of junk that resonated and tried to make instruments out of it," says Boms, team leader and creator of dozens of instruments. "We didn’t set out to make electronic music as such, it was more about creating new instruments, being innovative, making new sounds."

The sounds are powerful, edgy and seem to reflect the chaos of trying to survive in downtown Kinshasa. Their dance music tries to distance itself from the sometimes oppressive heritage of Congolese Rumba.

The band’s vocalist is Makara Bianco. He’s what’s known as a crieur, performing six nights a week at the Couloir de Bercy club in the Lingwala neighbourhood in Kinshasha, along with the Makoka dancers. The video We are Kokoko gives you a good sense of the clubbing universe with its very explicit choreography.

Makara describes himself as a "singer, a showman" with lots of energy. "At one of the block parties I sung on a loop for 40 minutes, and then did another one," he says.

He's dubbed the band’s sound tekno kintueni - raw, hypnotic dance music blending local rhythms such as the sounds made by sellers of nail varnish as they tap their bottles on the streets of Kinshasa.

"We’re inspired by all the sounds of Kinshasa," says Makara. "People selling nail varnish, petrol, cigarettes, the shoe repairers. Everything!"

The joys of repetition

The collective came together in its current form two years ago thanks to French electro producer Xavier Thomas aka Débruit. He met Boms and the instrument makers first and helped them amplify their accoustic sound.

"What I liked was the repetitive patterns in their music," says Débruit. "It was quite close to some of electro music references I had, but which they didn’t because there isn’t much internet. Most stuff is from Angola, Nigeria or South Africa, plus they have their own Congolese Rumba.

"I was really impressed to hear things that reminded me of punk funk or New York house music from the 80s. But with their own sounds and rhythms from different ethnic groups. We jammed together and set up this band. There are five of us here tonight but there are a lot more who didn't travel.. musicians, dancers and "performers".

Street performers' soundtrack

Street performers have taken off in Kinshasa over the last few years. Just as Kokoko! make instruments from recycled scrap material, so performers use similar materials to make their elaborate costumes. French filmmakers Renaud Barré and Florent de la Tullaye - who run Kinoise Productions in Kinshasa and introduced Debruit to the instrument makers - are making a film on this new Congolese art form. For Tullaye, Kokoko! is the soundtrack for street performers.

"It’s the same generation, same youth culture," Tullaye told RFI. "[They're] tired of everything the politicians and Congolese Rumba represents. They can’t really speak out, so they express themselves physically. They appeared quite spontaneously on the streets of Kinshasa in about 2011 when Kabila was elected for the second time."

Tullaye cites the example of characters with light switches that kids have fun turning on and off, or artist Freddy Tsimba who exhibited a house out of machetes.

"What’s extraordinary is that everyone understands what they’re expressing through their performances, dealing with subjects like water or electricity - a big problem in Kinshasa - and the influence big countries or groups are having on their country."

Kokoko! are in experienced hands. Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barré brought Kinois musicians Staff Benda Bilili and Jupiter & Okwess International to world audiences. A debut album is in the pipeline.

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