Credit: Bill Farrington

On Kokoko!’s first and only Chicago visit till now, the Congolese group put on the most bonkers fun show of the 2019 World Music Festival. Decked out in their signature yellow jumpsuits, they moved like they were sunk in trance or electrified by emergency, and their bracingly cosmopolitan junkyard beats—which they call “hot temperature music”—had the crowd dancing so hard that sweat fogged the air. The band’s setup included a table of metal rods, pots, plates, and trays, a row of plastic bottles tuned to different notes with water, and a steel air-duct box that served as their relentless kick drum. This bustling matrix of trash percussion meshed with hooky, acidic ostinatos on homemade one-string guitars to form rickety rhythmic contraptions that barreled like locomotives, cushioned by plush electronics and inflamed by rousing chants and sing-along melodies. 

Kokoko! perform “Polo Munene” from Elongi Na Elongi at Chop Shop in 2019. Video by Philip Montoro.

Kokoko! are oddballs even in their hometown of Kinshasa, whose population of around 16 million leaves room for every kind of human. The collective formed in 2016, when French producer Débruit (aka Xavier Thomas) visited the city’s Ngwaka neighborhood. He met lead singer Makara Bianko, who brought aboard instrument builders Boms Bomolo, Dido Oweke, and Love Lokombe to complete the five-piece lineup that performed in Chicago in 2019. Kokoko! share the practice of recycling discarded objects with many other avant-garde Kinshasa artists, including the band Fulu Miziki and the costumed collective Ndaku Ya La Vie Est Belle, and it isn’t just a response to privation. While it’s true that professional instruments are so expensive for Congolese musicians that most will only see them in church, creating music with garbage is also a comment on extractive postcolonialist practices in a country where censorship suppresses explicit political expression. The coltan in your smartphone was probably mined in the Congo, but the country is one of the five poorest in the world.

“Our raw materials are stolen; all our riches are taken from us. They’re used to build technologies elsewhere,” a member of Kokoko! says in a French voice-over from Renaud Barret’s 2019 documentary Système K. “When the world is done with our products, they come back here worn out. We use the trash to create instruments. There’s no need for words—our instruments are the message.” 

Homemade instruments complicate touring—road cases don’t exist, of course, and when something wears out or breaks, replacement parts may not either. But they have clear advantages too. “You may have an instrument that nobody else has, and nobody else knows how to play,” Thomas told Exberliner in 2019. “That makes you the only person who can do what you can do, and that is very empowering.”

Kokoko! have only one album so far, 2019’s Fongola, which Noah Berlatsky described in the Reader at the time: “The mix of smooth grooves and rusted, serrated beats is weirdly accessible and accessibly weird—a soundtrack for a hole-in-the-wall party with guests from everywhere.” Their most recent release is a two-song EP from last summer, Elongi Na Elongi, but in January they teased what might be a forthcoming album called Bazo Banga. (I couldn’t get a reply from the band’s publicist or management to confirm.) At home in Kinshasa, Kokoko! shows get even wilder than the gig I caught in Chicago—their block parties bring out the parts of the collective that don’t tour, including dancers and costumed performance artists—but I’ve found evidence online that the band have had to slim down on the road since 2019. Photos and video from European dates late last year appear to show a trio, with no one-string guitars or homemade drums—I could see three rototoms, a snare, and sometimes the plastic bottles and metal scrap from the old setup. But even when Kokoko! rely heavily on Thomas’s synths and programmed beats—as they do on many of their recordings—they can have a crowd hanging from the rafters in 20 minutes flat.

YouTube video

Kokoko! Oui Ennui and Flores Negras open. Thu 4/27, 9 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, $16, 21+

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.