Democratic Republic of the Congo

REVIEW: KOKOKO! - Tokoliana / L.O.V.E. // Tongos'a / Likolo


Phillipe Roberts

Go ahead and drop those thoughts of trying to tie KOKOKO! down by boxing them into any lineage of influences. These Congolese DIY revolutionaries are their own heroes, positioning themselves at the forefront of a groundswell of artistic radicalism currently seizing their native Kinshasa. A loosely organized collective of musicians, their relentless grooves are quite literally designed from the ground up; without a speaker in sight, the crew assembled a small hoard of junk instruments using readily available metal and plastic scraps. KOKOKO! are purpose-built, recycling and refining yesterday’s rubbish into “the sound of Kinshasa’s tomorrow.” For now, that sound is distilled into a scant four tracks that manage to cover a tremendous amount of emotional and musical territory without skipping a beat.

On the two EPs that make up their current discography, the band is produced by French artist Débruit, an enthusiastic musical excavator whose last album, Débruit & Istanbul, fused his modern electronic and hip-hop sensibilities to collaborations with local musicians. Débruit took an even more active role here, playing in live incarnations of the band at clubs and street parties until those freeform jams crystallized into discrete songs. On the recordings, however, his influence is felt to varying degrees, and comes through more clearly on the earlier Tokoliana EP, where his thick slabs of synth lend some familiar tone and take a more commanding role in dictating chordal structure.

But even on his most pronounced turn, the title track, Débruit is keen to highlight the harsh textures and mangled beauty of KOKOKO!’s organic instrumentation. The track has a post-punk strut to it, courtesy of an scratchy one-stringed bass line that croaks with just the right amount of distortion, light reverb on the drums, and dark, insistent vocals from singer Makara Bianco that deliver a hypnotic warning in Lingala: “We are devouring each other.” A sharp staccato rhythm from an impossible “guitar” (made of what I imagine to be steel pipe) blasts along, adding a funky edge that makes “Tokoliana” their strongest candidate for neon-lit success. The B-side, “L.O.V.E.,” winds down the pace for a smoother vibe without sacrificing any grit. Live or sampled, the brittle bent notes and unpredictable harmonics played on the wire harp are unnerving but mesmerizing, snapping you to attention if you get lost in the whirl of R&B vocals panning from right to left.

Tongos’a, arriving two months after Tokoliana, throws a similar one-two punch, but the closer, “Likolo,” may be the most intriguing track of the handful. Showing off the band’s frightening versatility, “Likolo” rounds off those edges for a slow-burn, bass-heavy disco track that piles on the anthemic chanting to elevate existential lyrics to a collective battle cry. “We are all naked bodies under the sky,” Bianco cries, heart tearing at the seams, “We all know how it’s going to end.” Given how thrillingly unpredictable KOKOKO!’s journey has been so far, here’s hoping they keep that particular spoiler to themselves. Four tracks in, they already sound limitless.