Performing in April at XOYO, London, Alex Zawadzki met with Boms Bomolo, Debruit and Makara Bianko; three members of collaborative art and music collective Kokoko!
Formed on the streets of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a lively and raw city frustrated by political instability, media gagging and the crippling outside exploitation of Congolese natural resources.
Kokoko! is a visual, audio and sensory representation of Kinshasa’s streets; a collision of mass dance-troupes, instruments fashioned from tin cans, plastic containers and discarded telephone components, experimental off-beat electronic production and loud-hailers spitting chants, all borne from illegal street junction bloc-parties where Kinshasa’s creative scene finds a space for expression.
AZ- Most of Kokoko! are from The Democratic of Congo; Kinsaha and Debruit, you are from France, how did you meet and how did Kokoko! form?
Boms: We met in 2016, thanks to a film director called Renauld Barrett. He was making a film called System K presented at Berlin Film Festival, it will be released in November. It’s about performance art, contemporary art and in general, the cultural scene of Kinshasa.
Boms: All of us were making music on our own. In Kokoko! on the musical side there are 3 entities. Myself and the people from my neighbourhood, Gwaka; we create music instruments, inventing and making them from recyclable parts, metal, plastic and, well all kinds of things. Makara is from another area called Lingwala. Makara is a singer and performer and he has a group of around 50 dancers. He performers in public rehearsals for 6 hours each night, apart from Mondays! He was already singing on electronic loops and playing around with feedback and stuff like that, before we started to work together.
Debruit: And I am Debruit; I make electronic music, I am ‘an electronic producer.’
AZ- How many people are a part of Kokoko! ?
Debruit: It’s quite open really, people tend to gravitate around the events, but if we count Makara’s dancers alone, that’s already perhaps 50. Other performers perhaps between 15 and 30, video makers perhaps 3 or 4 and musicians and singers, maybe another 20 or 15.
Kokoko! call themselves an arts collective – what for you is the difference between labelled as a collective, rather than a group or band for instance.
Makara: So, there are all kinds of creative people involved, my dancers are part of the collective, there are more performers, there are more musicians, there’s all kind of video makers. There is a new style of dressing called ‘Japanese People’ in Kinshasa, these people dress in a way that is really structured, with black clothing, and they are also part of our creative scene. These creative styles have now become associated, so when we travel and move around, we meet with performers and other artists when we are travelling. When we are back in Kinshasa all these creative people, for example the people at Beaux-Arts School, all gravitate around each other. Sometimes we don’t play, we just go and see the other performers, sometimes they come and see us. We feel like it’s a bigger movement of people who gravitate around each other rather than a closed group or ‘band.’
You use a really unique mixture of hand made instruments and electronic sounds – can you tell me more about the evolution of these instruments and your style?
Boms: Instrument making started out of necessity. Not being able to rent or buy instruments in Kinshasa, we first began by copying existing instruments; and then our imagination led to creating unique types of instruments.
Deburit: Boms has explained many times to me that different members of the collective, either have a visual idea and they build from that; and some people take some things they have found and create something around what they have. For example, they take a keypad from a telephone which has different tonalities and this is the starting point – then they make something from there.
Makara: In the band we are from different tribes so we all bring our different musical styles. Boms and I didn’t know each other before. We all came together and brought our styles together to create a new fresh one. There is a style called Congolese Rumba in Kinshasa and, it’s lasted too long! The musicians in the scene have created a control a little like the mafia. Because these older musicians have no interest in a new style coming in, they put a lot of pressure on new and young artists. They have strangled young artists – not literally, but they’ll say “either you come and play for me, to ‘big me up’ and get young people to my shows or i’ll make sure you don’t get to exist as an artist.’ It’s very important now to turn a page, we’ve heard Congolese Rumba for years, and young people have to get exposure to new, modern and different sounds.
AZ- A lot of elements and the evolution of your style of music are quite raw, how does this, travel when you tour across other countries? Do you think audiences respond and understand the rawness of your background or references ?
Boms – Our inspiration comes from Kinshasa, it’s a very sonic city. You can hear the sellers, and smell the nail polish salons and so on. With your eyes closed you can tell who’s around you.
The political aspect of our country…well you can’t really talk about it literally, because it’s a bit dangerous. So in our lyrics there are ways to tell a kind of naive story that actually means more.
Debruit: Not all the music is political, there are some that are a just party tracks and some that have messages, but in the shows in Kinshasa, Boms and Makara have told me there are ways of shouting out one word on stage, which provokes the crowd to shout back what may be a political or ‘forbidden word’ in Kinshasa. They don’t use the actual word! But it’s so close to the actual word that the crowd shouts back the forbidden word. Then if the police question or accuse you on this, you can always says ‘I never said that word, I said this word!’
And, then there’s all kinds of other ways like this. The story and lyrics may sound naive sometimes but they have a deeper meaning.
When we tour, because it’s hard for people to travel to Kinshasa, I think we’re creating a way for people to come and experience the countries energy. The musicians are well aware that all the resources are going away from the Congo, and their own population are not benefiting from these resources anymore. For example, there is virtually no internet and people don’t have smartphones or laptops, although perhaps maybe 80% of what is used to make them is produced using materials from DRC.
Boms makes instruments, and another Kokoko! Artist Love Lokombe. They make electronic instruments, but they are using materials that were made in Congo, sent away for sale, and then are coming back to the Congo as 2nd or 3rd hand items! It’s a consequence of the country’s situation. Now we are travelling they are all questioning this situation.
AZ My work and research is rooted in costume and masks, and I’ve been interested to interview you and understand more about why masks became a part of your identity, along with your distinctive yellow overalls.
Performers in Kokoko! Have a distinctive on-stage look, and sometimes wear masks in videos, publicity shots and on stage. Where did that idea initiate from?
Makara – The yellow outfit is our work uniform, it’s a way to stand out from the visual chaos of Kinshasa. The mask is a way of being hidden, to trigger a question and make audiences question ‘who is under the mask?’
It’s also a way to reincarnate. There is a lot of talent in Kinshasa, talent that the world doesn’t ever see and the mask is a symbol of that hidden talent.
AZ- I’m really interested in the different reasons people use masks in different ways. Has the use of a mask created any unexpected results or have they become any more attractive as a proposition to use in your work, for example, maybe building on stage confidence?
Debruit: In the band we haven’t worn the masks as much as the performers, but the confidence aspect is something that definitely can play a part.
For performance artists; performance is based on things you want to say, but you can’t say with words. The message is hidden, because you are not allowed to talk. I think the masks are about being hidden while you take creative risks. Also people want the performance to talk for itself, and not for the audience to be distracted by who the person or personality is on stage; this way the audience is not distracted from the message at the heart of the performance.
AZ- What’s next for Kokoko?
We have a new album coming out at the end of June on UK label Transgressive and we are touring the rest of the year, next for us is the U.S leg of the tour.
In May, we play back in DRC. This will be a moving block party in Kinshasa, with 3 gigs in one night. All the artists and performers will be moving on the back of a truck and we will document this bloc party, which is a big part of Kinshasa’s street culture.
Alex Zawadzki is a curator and cultural producer who specialises in folklore, ritual and contemporary art.