You can trace the seeds of Fongola back to so many different places. It began in Kinshasa in the Ngwaka neighbourhood where DIY experimental musical instruments are made, and the Lingwala neighbourhood where Makara Bianko sings every night on electronic loops with his dancers and where the band first met. We spent our tours across Europe dreaming about what we wanted to tell the world. It was recorded in makeshift studios we built out of ping pong tables and mattresses in Kinshasa and Brussels. Finally, I spent months putting it all together in Abattoir, Anderlecht like a giant electronic puzzle with pieces that don’t fit and no blueprint.” - Débruit
KOKOKO! began in 2016 in Kinshasa. Electronic artist Débruit was in town working on a film soundtrack and began collaborating with Makara Bianko, a charismatic singer who performs with his dancers to electronic loops, and separately with a number of ingenious musical instrument creators and artists. They threw a spontaneous block party, and though many of them hadn’t known each other previously, the energy really clicked between Makara Bianko, Débruit, Boms Bomolo, Dido Oweke, Love Lokombe and Bovic Mwepu (who has since passed away), and together they became the founding members of the group KOKOKO!, which is part of a wider collective of multidisciplinary artists.
Their distorted polyrhythms and spontaneous lo-fi sounds provide a chaotic soundtrack to their home country. When most people think of culture in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s The Rumble in The Jungle fight of Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman and the accompanying Soul Power concert with James Brown in the 70s, Mobutu in his abacost and leopard print hat, les sapeurs in their elegant tailoring, and the king of Congolese rumba Papa Wemba. A faded vintage postcard. KOKOKO! represent the antithesis of tradition, and their debut album Fongola - which translates to “the key” - is a torrid, anarchic, youthful journey smashing a new path through modern life in Africa’s third most populous city.
Life in Kinshasa is tough. Since its inception three years ago the band have lost their drummer to lung cancer, a dancer from their wider collective to electrocution, had homes destroyed by police, safety concerns at election time, visa struggles and a lucky incident with a crocodile. Yet the subject matter of the album is far from a one dimensional lament about struggle and hardship. Their lyrics explore love, sorcery and magic, the need to take things slowly in life, greed and corruption and the importance of being heard and understood. The kind of people who can afford imported guitars and drum kits in Kinshasa live very different lives to the people who make instruments out of sardine tins, water bottles and engine parts. Imitation wasn’t an option, which necessitated innovation. The resulting album is experimental electronic music, but it doesn’t fit neatly within any genre. Most of the sounds on this project can’t be replicated, as anyone trying to tune a one-string guitar made out of a bike brake and a powdered milk tin can attest to! What started as a financial challenge resulted in a creative advantage. Being an artist gives you special privileges in Kinshasa because it’s seen as an important role, and Fongola is an urgent and vitally important expression of the talent which is thriving and leading the way artistically from the toughest and most unlikely of places.