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SXSW Music Review: Kokoko!

SXSW Music Review: Kokoko!

Originally published in The Austin Chronicle.

Tuesday night, as a mismatched crowd of SXSW Music nomads and Rico Nasty die-hards waited for Kokoko! at the old Emo’s – now Main and Main II – the collective high from Japanese grind punks Otoboke Beaver’s opening act soon waned into curious confusion. A filling room watched traditional guitars and drums being replaced with instruments made from trash.

In slid a drum set made out of duct-taped wood slabs stabilized by a heavy bag of pebbles. At the front of the stage sat percussive instruments fashioned out of bowls and empty bottles of laundry detergent and soda, along with hand-carved stringed instruments held together by paint cans. The only familiar pieces of musical instrumentation were the electronic controllers and interfaces that sat next to a laptop at the back of the downstairs main stage.

Uncertainty lingered until a “ko-ko-ko” chant emerged from the back of the crowd. The urgent call was led by Kokoko! singer/percussionist Makara Bianko, who yelled into a bedazzled megaphone and withered toward the stage wearing a yellow jumpsuit and after-dilation sunglasses. Bianko and the rest of the five-man band on stage also in yellow had made it to SXSW all the way from Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, to showcase truly DIY music.

Described variously as Congolese electro-junk and Congotronics, Kokoko! fuses a percussion-heavy clamor of recycled instrumentation with experimental electronic music. 

A 40-minute spew of continuous energy, the group’s SXSW debut felt like a tribal drum circle inside a futuristic nightclub. Songs melded into one continuous heart beating oscillation between anxious buildup and cathartic release. Rhythms rooted in chants and drum patterns rose into modern electronica with the introduction of computerized melodies formed by thumping 808s, hypnotic tech synth loops, and industrial thrust.

Chanting intensified as beats churned toward crescendos resolved by improvised percussion solos, cymbal splashes, and chimes from upside-down metal trash can tops, bowls, and pans. During crowd favorite “Azo Toke,” “ko-ko-ko” chants stabilized upbeat dancehall, while remnants of ESG’s No Wave disco permeated wiggling closer “Affaire a Mbongo.”

Focusing euphoria out of chaos, Kokoko! returned music-making to its initial purpose: to empower, unite, and overcome

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