KOKOROKO are at the beginning of something big.
The Afrobeat eight-piece – led by the inimitable Sheila Maurice-Grey on trumpet – have built a reputation for traversing the intersections between jazz, Afrobeat, high life, and the sounds of London.
Their debut EP dropped via Brownswood in March, making serious waves, and the record’s final track ‘Abusey Junction’ – a masterpiece in meditative, mellow mood, both warm and melancholic – is the jewel in that crown.
It struck a real chord, winning track of the year at the Worldwide Awards, garnering over 20 million plays on Youtube and making end-of-year lists, but why has a seven minute long instrumental broke through? “It was a big surprise,” says Sheila. “It’s both pop and jazz and proud.”
“People had to listen to it to know they wanted it,” adds saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, speaking to that intangible element that hooks listeners into a great track. “People have said there’s a nostalgia to it,” agrees Oscar Jerome, whose lyrical guitar lines weave through Kokoroko’s melodies.
“That song came from a recording of Oscar playing guitar out in Gambia. I’m definitely nostalgic for that weather!” says Onome.
“We listened back to it though and when Brownswood asked us to record something we reworked that. Abusey Junction is a real place – it’s special. I’ve been treated better there than anywhere in the world. It’s also a place that’s going through struggles, along with the rest of Gambia. Maybe all of that is present in the song.”
KOKOROKO are reflecting on their breakout track backstage, about to play their biggest ever headline show at London’s Moth Club, after finessing their live performance at venues like Ronnie Scott’s and Church of Sound, and playing with the likes of Ezra Collective.
Something the group have spoken about before is the desire to see more diversity at their live shows. When bandleader Sheila met percussionist, Onome Edgeworth – first working together in London’s Wood Green, then on a musical project in Kenya – the two discussed how UK Afrobeat bands so frequently played audiences that didn’t reflect the musicians.
They decided to start a group to challenge that, and KOKOROKO was born. “You know what, it’s happened naturally,” says Onome, reflecting on how the diversity in gig crowds has been improving.
“This city has so many different people in it,” says Onome. “You’re exposed to the whole world here. A lot of our influences are West African, and that’s home to some of us. Anything else I guess you can put down to London. The fact that we know each other or even play music is thanks to this city.
“Also though, I know we expect a certain energy at shows and from music. You’ve gotta connect with crowds, you’ve gotta get a reaction, people have to dance or feel something. Those expectations come from what we’ve been exposed to in London.”
About to go onstage at their biggest headline show to date, in their hometown, it must feel to KOKOROKO that they’re experiencing something significant, especially as the city’s young jazz scene is simultaneously exploding with vibrant dynamism, producing some of the most exciting records and performances London has seen in years.
“You know what, it’s so good to see everyone doing well,” says Onome. “I don’t think we’ll even realise how special this moment is for a long time. It’s one of those things we’ll have to reflect on.
Right now it just feels like we’ve got a mad amount of work to do. It feels like the start of something for everyone. It’s amazing to be a part of, but we’re really trying to make this grow and last.”
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Words: Emma Finamore
Photos: Adiam Yemane
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