On the first night of South by Southwest 2019 in Austin, Texas, five-piece Congolese band KOKOKO! find themselves shooting pool in the lounge at a college dormitory a few blocks from the University of Texas campus. A horde of students, plus a dozen platinum-badged industry types, surround a makeshift stage in the dining hall watching an opening band. KOKOKO! look twice as old as the students, but keep to themselves like shell-shocked freshmen. This is their first college party and no one else speaks Lingala (although it would be an opportunity for these kids to practice their French).
Anything can become a venue at SXSW, and a communal hippie living space like Pearl St. Co-op is no exception. This isn’t an official show, but rather one of the many unsanctioned DIY events. As such, the sound man looks like he should be studying for a biology test, not running a mixing board for an international band. He looks befuddled as KOKOKO! begin setting up instruments made from debris found on the streets of their home city of Kinshasa.
The genre-defying cacophony of oil barrel drums, homemade guitars and vintage synths send the crowd into a frenzy, but after a couple of songs the speakers red-line and blow. If the music wasn’t gritty enough, now the PA also sounds like it came from a junkyard. The crowd notices the shift in fidelity, but it doesn’t stop the kids from erupting into a mosh pit. The band’s frustration translates to a wild performance. Vocalist Love Lokombe bounds into the crowd twisting like Busta Rhymes. He howls out “Koko!” and then thrusts the mic towards the students for a response. They scream out their best Lingala impression… with Texas accents.
We use the trash to create instruments. There’s no need for words, our instruments are the message.
KOKOKO! aims to prove that musicians can innovate and thrive without money, infrastructure, or even proper instruments. Makara Bianko, Dido Oweke, Boms Bomolo and Love Lokombe make music that reflects life in Kinshasa, but refuses to be constrained by it – the fifth member is Xavier Thomas, a globe-trotting French electronic musician known as Débruit, who brings an international perspective from a career spanning nearly 15 years. The band formed in the summer of 2016 and have since released three singles, an EP, toured Europe and destroyed a college dorm’s soundsystem.
Although the Democratic Republic of Congo has a rich musical history and many musicians gain international acclaim, it’s a hard industry to break into. The most popular music is still rooted in the Congolese rumba, imported from Cuba in the ’30s and ’40s and melded with traditional African elements. More experimental and electronic sounds have been exported internationally via the Congotronics compilation series from Crammed Discs. Hip-hop and R&B have also gained popularity, but many of the biggest stars of Congolese origin, like Maître Gims and Dadju, live outside the country. KOKOKO! notes that churches are the most common place to find professional instruments and most citizens can’t access production tools.
The DRC contains some of the world’s most valuable natural resources, but the wealth doesn’t trickle down to the capital city’s sprawling population of 11 million. The band doesn’t want sympathy, but they don’t have easy lives. Musicians who can’t afford traditional instruments make due with DIY creations crafted from debris and broken electronics. Detergent bottles serve as a combination of xylophone and congas. A steel air duct box becomes a kick drum. Speakers and mics from old phones make for functional amplifier pickups. If you want to play bass, find some discarded wire and learn to wind strings.
“Our raw materials are stolen, all our riches are taken from us. They’re used to build technologies elsewhere… When the world is done with our products, they come back here worn out,” the band says in a voiceover in a forthcoming documentary on Congo’s DIY art scene entitled System K. “We use the trash to create instruments. There’s no need for words, our instruments are the message.”
Filmmaker Renaud Barret invited Débruit to Congo during the production of System K to learn about the music community, but he didn’t expect to become a part of it. “I went to the compound where they make the instruments, and before I plugged anything in, I spent two or three weeks just listening. They had this punk funk sound going on, I was really blown away,” says Débruit.
The band doesn’t identify strictly with one genre, preferring to call themselves tekno kintueni, zague style, or just hot temperature music. The most notable reference point is Konono No. 1, another Congolese band who plays DIY instruments, but KOKOKO!’s music sounds more globally informed. There’s elements of DFA-style dance punk, no-wave and electro. Lokombe takes vocal inspiration from both Papa “the King of Rumba” Wemba and the Wu-Tang Clan. Hip-hop attitude runs through the whole endeavor, which you can see in Bianko’s fresh orange t-shirt reading “Fuck y’all, I’m from Texas.”
Débruit brings Detroit and Berlin influences into the mix, as well as a more familiar arsenal of instruments. A Yamaha DX100 supplies noisey digital bass tones, a warmer analog Vermona adds melodies and an MFB-Tanzbär drum machine emulates the sub range of a Roland TR-808. They form an electronic safety net, but the soul of the music comes from the handmade instruments, which reflect the streets of Kinshasa.
“A lot of inspiration comes from the city. It’s a very noisey city,” says Débruit. “The streets all have a sonic signal, the nail polish guys have two bottles and they bang them together in a specific rhythm. The shoe shiners have wood blocks, the egg sellers have elastics. With eyes closed, you can see who’s around you.”
Naturally the band could only bring a fraction of their gear to Texas. Boms Bomolo, who handles bass and percussive duties and serves as the band’s principal craftsman, most prizes metallic parts of machines or engines sourced mostly for their pitch, but almost anything from a typewriter to a hard drive can work.
“In 2010, I started with the detergent bottles for bongos and then the plastic whisky bottles with different water levels inside to adjust the pitch,” says Bomolo. “Little by little I got more into researching and combining elements.” At one point early on, someone cleaning his compound mistook the instruments for trash, threw them in a pile and lit them on fire.
Now, everyone asks before they touch anything.
“People thought we were crazy, picking up trash. They would not value the instruments at the beginning. To believe that one day something like this would happen was so far outside of our minds,” says Bomolo.
Lokombe’s engineering skills and Débruit’s understanding of electronic instruments have taken the instrument crafting to new heights. With their vision, a cassette player, tweeter and bending shower nozzle turns into a working talkbox.
“They started copying instruments that exist, then began designing instruments from scratch to make something unique. You create your own instrument, then you learn how to play it. So you might be the only person who knows how to play that instrument,” says Débruit.
Case in point, Oweke’s one-stringed guitar. A makeshift capo sets the tuning, and the simple design has its benefits. “It’s great for getting melodies and lead loops that will stick into your head, you can also focus on the rhythmic aspect and be more precise,” he says.
You wouldn’t know it without a Lingala translator, but the same DIY ethos behind the instruments inspires the band’s name. Ko means knock, but colloquially the phrase has an urgency that comes through in the music.
“It’s like when someone comes from danger, but he doesn’t have the time to wait for an answer. He knocks, but he can’t wait to come in,” says Lokombe.
The phrase also symbolizes the band’s place in the musical landscape of their hometown. Traditional rumba beats still corner the market. Musical gatekeepers consider other genres a threat and actively hold back new talent, making it difficult for bands like KOKOKO! to build an audience. Speaking out against this type of monopoly, or any type of political injustice, requires allegorical lyrics for fear of retribution. The band’s drummer and vocalist Makara Bianko makes it a point to challenge the status quo by holding public rehearsals experimenting with electronic loops that draw dancing crowds.
“The Congolese rumba has been around for 40 years – there’s a need to turn the page,” says Bianko.
Despite the uphill battle growing locally, their polished recordings and Débruit’s involvement has caught the ear of international dance music fans. That’s brought the opportunity to tour, a daunting task given no one makes flight cases for air duct kick drums and durability isn’t guaranteed.
At Pearl St. Co-op, Bianko drummed a hole straight through the plastic oil container he uses for a snare. The following day they scoured the streets looking for a solution, but gave up and took a trip to Home Depot. They bought the type of paint bucket often played on subways, but it didn’t create the same tone. At their next show in the mid-afternoon sun at an outdoor venue called Cheer Up Charlie’s, they repaired their original snare with a thick layer of gaffer tape and attached smashed aluminum cans to the bottom for additional resonance. “Stuff breaks, there’s a lot of improvisation,” says Débruit.
Compared to the entry-level PA at the dorm, Cheer Up Charlie’s sounds immaculate. This time the band appeared in yellow jumpsuit uniforms, worn to convey a sense of workmanship. The pitch of the detergent bottle xylophone rang out across the crowd. Makara’s hi-hat, comprised of six layers of steel with a makeshift clutch, sounded straight out of a dirty lo-fi house track. Oweke, the most stoic member of the group, wandered up and down his wooden guitar neck with stoic precision.
But once again, things didn’t go to plan. The Vermona couldn’t handle the Texas sun, gliding unbearably out of tune before overheating and powering down. Thomas tried to shield it with the lid of a plastic tub, to no avail.
Once again the frustration sends the band into a fervor. Bianko leaps from his drum kit, sun bouncing off his wrap-around golden sunglasses. He grabs the microphone, pacing the stage and rapping furiously. Débruit throws up his arms in exasperation as the synthesizer once again loses power. The band ends the set 15 minutes early, not because the scrapyard instruments failed, but because of the German-engineered synthesizer.
Thankfully the band didn’t travel nearly 8,000 miles for two dud shows. They obliterated the stage at the Main to become one of the week’s most buzzed bands, and their controlled chaos on the Hotel Vegas patio rivaled headlining band Oh Sees. At the best moments, their musical prowess overshadowed the medium of creation, and even in the rougher concerts the power of turning trash into music was undeniable.
But the technical and logistical difficulties beg the question of how a band like KOKOKO! can export music so rooted in a specific place to a global audience. Would it be more effective to play the same notes on more conventional instruments? And given the influx of funds from touring, have they considered upgrading?
“We won’t change,” says Lokombe. “It isn’t about copying instruments anymore. We want to show people how to innovate.”