Kokoroko's secret to success

© Nina Manandhar
| Sheila Maurice-Grey (centre, wearing a red sweater): “You have to use music to make your voice heard”

A standard-bearer for young people who are passionate about jazz and its traditions, the Kokoroko collective draws on its African roots to make modern, multicultural music.

In London, south of the River Thames, a new generation in the culturally diverse English capital is changing the rules of jazz. A leading member of the Kokoroko collective, trumpet-player Sheila Maurice-Grey grew up in those cosmopolitan surroundings. With a mother born in Sierra Leone and a father from Guinea-Bissau, the young woman’s family heritage has shaped her repertoire, in which jazz meets Afrobeat. Just before the release of her first recording – an EP entitled Kokoroko – and a sell-out concert in Flagey, the musician looks back on the band’s incredible rise to fame. Headed for greatness.

Kokoroko has existed since 2014. Why have you waited so long to release your first recording?
Sheila Maurice-Grey: I had the idea of setting up Kokoroko following a discussion with our percussionist Onome Edgeworth. We had attended a concert in a London club that was billed as Afrobeat. The ambiance was strange, really lame. Musically, the band that were performing onstage were saturated with clichés. I found the performance quite disrespectful to the music I grew up with. That was when we came up with the idea of creating a group that would revive the great West African traditions. We brought musicians together around that idea. That’s how Kokoroko came about. To start with, we found our feet covering Highlife and Afrobeat classics. After cutting our teeth on covers of Ebo Taylor and Fela Kuti, it was time to compose an original repertoire. With Kokoroko, we have always taken the time to do things properly, never rushing.

Why release an EP instead of releasing an album straight away?
Maurice-Grey: It partly comes from a desire not to rush things. We think of this first EP as our calling card. Four tracks is a good way of presenting ourselves to the public and expanding our audience a bit before we release an album. We already have enough material to record one, but we don’t feel obliged to reveal all our tracks at once.



This time last year, you released the track “Abusey Junction” on YouTube. That Kokoroko track, which was uploaded with no video and no promotion, has now been viewed more than 22 million times. Why do you think it was so successful?
Maurice-Grey: That “success story” is quite a mystery. Even for us, it’s extremely hard to explain the craze for it. The only credible explanation is that we had taken part in one of the Sofar sessions. It consisted of a video short recorded in a secret place and then released on YouTube. Each group that was invited had to perform a piece to a small audience. At the end of 2016, we played a piece called “Colonial Mentality” to a few people. The day after it was released, our video received an avalanche of positive reactions. People were congratulating us and said we had the same spirit as Fela Kuti. I think that session laid the ground for “Abusey Junction”. Without meaning to, we created this sense of anticipation. The track also featured on We Out Here, a compilation released by the Brownswood label, which is owned by the highly influential Gilles Peterson. The compilation was aimed at highlighting the vibrance of the new London jazz scene.

Do you think that famous compilation was your big break?
Maurice-Grey: Bringing everyone together on one album was a good idea. The artist Shabaka Hutchings was central to the We Out Here compilation. Through his various projects (Sons of Kemet, Shabaka and the Ancestors, The Comet Is Coming, nal), he already had a certain media reputation abroad. By being featured alongside his name, projects like ours, Moses Boyd’s, and the Ezra Collective’s definitely gained visibility. Being chosen for that compilation was also a kind of recognition for Kokoroko. It shows that we are part of a musical movement that is happening in England now.

On that subject, respected daily newspapers such as The Guardian are currently talking about a “British jazz explosion”. Is that a journalistic gimmick or a reality?
Maurice-Grey: I think the media always need to stick a label on new musical trends. On the one hand, it’s extremely reductive. On the other hand, it’s a good indicator for the public. You can’t deny that there is an appetite for jazz at the moment. London is what connects all the artists associated with that scene. Our music expresses all the cultural diversity of the English capital. Some people mix jazz with electronic music, others with Afrobeat, calypso, or dub. We use the different elements of our respective cultures to create something typically English. So, yes, you could say that there is a new jazz scene in England.

Kokoroko’s brass section is made up exclusively of women. In the context of the #MeToo movement and of demands for greater equality in our societies, should that be seen as a political statement?
Maurice-Grey: We are not a political organisation, for a start. It’s important to make that clear. We chose our brass section on the basis of the musicians’ abilities. It’s a question of quality, of love for Afrobeat, not a matter of representation. So, it’s not a political statement. They just happen to be women. In the music industry, they are under-represented. There is a huge imbalance between the sexes. We need more women in the field. In Kokoroko, we believe that you have to change people’s mentalities. That’s why we’re here. From that point of view, Fela Kuti remains an inspiration. He wasn’t a perfect man by any means, but what we learned from him is that you have to use music to make your voice heard.

> Kokoroko. 23/2, 21.00, Flagey

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