One big hit and there you go. That was Kokoroko’s story in 2018. At the time of writing, "Abusey Junction" has a total of 28 million listens on the platform. It only took one song for popularity to export the octet well beyond the English borders. On the basis of this track addressed to everyone, Kokoroko has been increasing its sell-outs for several months, and is preparing for a summer full of festivals.
Africa in London
They wanted to make music that resembled them. In 2011, 114,000 people of Nigerian origin were living in London – such is the cultural milieu that the city is comprised of, through ex-empire migration from both West Africa and the Caribbean. They grew up within these families, whose elders participated in the reconstruction of the country after the war or arrived later, during the recession of the 1980s, where the younger generations were raised to the rhythms of Afrobeat and highlife in the long-disreputable district of Peckham, now in the midst of gentrification. The hard core of a certain renewal of English jazz would come from Peckham and South London. Several members of Kokoroko came from there, marked like others by the multiculturalism of these neighborhoods where we can hear in echo the words of Zadie Smith, whose novel, White Teeth, described the Jamaicanizing neighborhood of Brixton, or those of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. The history that England has written for itself over the past 300 years has inadvertently created a center for black global thinking.
First trained in a West African Pentecostal church, Sheila Maurice-Grey, the trumpeter at the head of the group, says only that this natural connection appeared logical to them in keeping with the inclination for continuation. “Most of us are black British, connected to the African diaspora. We wanted to take on a project that resembles us, and Afrobeat is essential to our identity.” After returning from a trip to Kenya, percussionist Onome Edgeworth and Sheila Maurice-Grey expressed two variations of the same feeling, the fear of seeing Afrobeat disappear, since they considered the number of English groups too small, while the desire that the younger generations, including their own, show for it continues.
Created in 2014 as the embodiment of this passion, Kokoroko initially focused on covers of great names such as Pat Thomas, Ebo Taylor, and Fela Kuti, both at reduced prices, to sell tickets, and as a model, to capture all the nuances of this music. Five years and many concerts in the English capital later, their first release was an E.P. of four songs, including “Abusey Junction.” The small number could fuel the frustration of the most devoted listeners. But the EP supports the idea that Kokoroko is much more than what they show on stage (which we love, by the way): a very efficient Afrobeat band but not personal.
The birth of a phenomenon
The explosion of Kokoroko, whose name means “be strong” in the Nigerian Urhobo dialect, was unpredictable on this scale. But the group should be able to keep the bar high, with well-established sets on stage, a flawless record, and the emerging myth that floats above them. “Abusey Junction,” the last track of the compilation We Out Here, designed to focus attention on the young English jazz scene, did not necessarily have the structure to take artists to such high numbers. Brownswood Recordings shines with the success of its founder, Gilles Peterson, and has a hype that puts its artists at the center of attention. So the observation is a happy one; it reminds us that independence and music for music’s sake can still be enough. It also reveals the power of YouTube recommendation algorithms: if you have listened to jazz on the platform in the past year, it is very likely that “Abusey Junction” was automatically suggested to you afterwards.
Caressing for the soul, the quiet melancholy of guitarist Oscar Jérôme’s song is brilliant in that it is as heady as it is touching. The guitarist has achieved something rare, a perfectly balanced formula where grace and obvious simplicity unfold. The fact that he composed it on a roof in Gambia, fed by the place’s vibrations, may explain this magic. When talking about their music, Sheila Maurice-Grey points out that what is simple isn’t easy. “It’s more of a challenge than anything else, because simple things can say a lot. If you look at a table without reading the description, its meaning depends on your interpretation. It’s the same with our music,” asserts Sheila Maurice-Grey. Their slogan is at stake: “This is not idle music.” The eight English musicians all come from jazz bands. Although familiar with Afrobeat and highlife, they had to understand and immerse themselves in the predominance and rhythmic particularities of this music. Fela Kuti himself only founded Afrobeat after studying jazz at Trinity College in London, where several of Kokoroko’s members also went. They are not unhappy with the parallel; they want to preserve the heritage left by the masters and maintain a sense of belonging to their countries of origin. In Okay Africa, Sheila Maurice-Grey explained that she felt British but not English. Common among Afro-Caribbean populations in the United Kingdom, this distinction is reminiscent of the idea of an in-between perpetual foreigner whose status tends to define migrant communities around the world. Neither easy nor meaningless, their music conveys cultural choices that, they hope, will generate a contingent of cultural, societal, historical and political reflection.
Music as a megaphone
When the group started, the desire for Afrobeat to be played and represented by black musicians in London made it clear that its 20-somethings would be committed in the future. Certainly, without the words of Fela Kuti, Ebo Taylor and Pat Thomas, Kokoroko reproduces an approach with a broader dimension than just musical. From Fela, they remember the use of music as a megaphone. “We freely explore the concept of identity and use Kokoroko as a platform for thought. It’s more than just beautiful music.” The very uptempo “Adwa,” for example, refers to the battle of Adwa in 1896. It was won by Ethiopia, leading to the country’s independence on March 2, which became a national holiday. More than the outcome of this war won against Italy, it is its consequences that are being questioned. Pianist Yohan Kebele, who has Ethiopian parents, explained to us what he had in mind when he composed the piece. “Although my parents are proud of this victory, they take pride mainly in the fact that after the war, Emperor Menelik and the Empress declared that all the Italian soldiers still present were allowed to remain in peace or to be sent back to Italy in peace. The Empress herself cared for the Italian wounded!”
What society do we live in? One where stereotypes about black people and, in any case, black women, have not changed much. With “Uman,” Sheila Maurice Grey wanted to pay tribute to the latter, with her mother in mind. “We are hypersexualized far too often! The problem still exists and should be addressed in the media. In Kokoroko, there are three women, instrumentalists, who are put in the spotlight in a group. That alone is powerful! It breaks certain stereotypes!” The octet, united by the power of the group and inhabited by collective performance, finds its strength in repetition, in its hypnotic riffs and penetrating songs, such as when the three musicians sing a single word in chorus, “Uman,” over sober West African scales.
Kokoroko (Brownswood Records)