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Kokoroko: A living legacy

Blog
Kokoroko: A living legacy

02.08.2019

Text: Leyla Aksu
Collage: Sadi Güran

Following the through line from Afrobeat to jazz, the London based eight-piece Kokoroko stretches the roots of their musical heritage into the present day. An important presence in the capital city’s thriving underground jazz scene, the band found international acclaim with their track “Abusey Junction” in 2018, a sprawling, blanketing ballad that hinted at the enticing polyrhythmic grooves the ensemble had in store. Now before they head over to Istanbul to heat up the Babylon stage on October 26 as part of 29th Akbank Jazz Festival, below we take a look at Kokoroko’s influences, the ensemble’s take on afrobeat, and their fresh, self-titled debut EP.

  • Led by trumpeter and visual artist Sheila Maurice-Grey, the idea behind Kokoroko (meaning “strong” in Orobo) was first planted while she and percussionist Onome Edgeworth were on a trip to Kenya. The pair was lamenting the state of Afrobeat in the UK; “the music I grew up listening to was being treated badly,” says Edgeworth. And the band leader Maurice-Grey immediately sprung into action, bringing the genre to a whole new generation: “We said there aren’t enough Afrobeat bands that represent the diaspora, and I was like ‘we should start one.’”
  • Taking this shared love of Afrobeat and fusing it with a jazz approach, Kokoroko is now comprised of eight unique musicians, each exciting artists in their own right. Rounding out the band’s driving horn section is Cassie Kinoshi on saxophone and Richie SeiveWright on trombone alongside Maurice-Grey, with Oscar Jerome on guitar, Yohan Kebede on keys, and a hypnotic rhythm section featuring Mutale Chashi on bass, Ayo Salawu on drums, and Onome Edgeworth on percussion.
  • Wearing their influences on their sleeve, Kokoroko’s music was shaped by the sounds of Fela Kuti, Ebo Taylor, Tony Allen, and the rich musical traditions of Western Africa, all steeped in London’s cultural diversity. “We play the music we love, we grew up with, and our parents got funky to… we put on a performance to honour the masters that taught us,” the band says. And with most of its members getting their start in jazz, Kokoroko reignites afrobeat’s connection to the genre, while imbuing it with a distinct contemporary flair.
  • While the band started off playing covers, they gradually began to write their own songs, capturing an organic energy that allows room for each instrument to breathe. In 2018, they appeared on the We Out Here compilation, a sample of the city’s new generation of jazz artists released by Brownswood Recordings. Put together by Shabaka Hutchings, the album closed with Kokoroko’s “Abusey Junction,” a seven-minute instrumental written by guitarist Oscar Jerome on a trip to Gambia, enveloping the listener with sweeping horns and moving guitars. Eventually reaching over 20 million plays on YouTube, the song was selected as Track of the Year at the Worldwide Awards in 2019.
  • Kokoroko then released their self-titled debut EP in the spring of 2019, after having played together for almost five years, fine-tuning each track with every live performance. Featuring four self-written tracks, with each band member contributing to the writing process, Kokoroko offers tight, swaying rhythms and crystalline melodies, as the band dip their toes into touches of soul and highlife.
  • Sharing their views on the continued resilience of and jazz, the band has stressed the power of the genre and its legacy, as well as its contemporary relevance: “It’s not something which should stay within our parents’ generation… It’s great music but it’s just as important to keep the roots of it alive because politically, socially and historically, it’s important music.”

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