Updated: Jun 2, 2019
8 March 2019
Album Rating 4.5 / 5
Live Potential 4 / 5
Solo Performances 4 / 5
Diversity in Songs 3 / 5
Favourite Songs Abusey Junction, Adwa
KOKOROKO’s self-titled EP is their first release of recordings after playing around the London circuit since 2014, and what a solid introduction the four songs on this record are to cement themselves at the forefront of the new afrobeat and jazz music coming out of the UK.
In between gaining valuable experience in live performances including with jazz re:freshed, Sofar Sounds and Boiler Room sessions, their only other previous recording is the fourth and final track on this EP, ‘Abusey Junction’. After releasing it on Brownswood’s 2018 compilation album We Out Here (featuring some of London’s best and brightest young jazz musicians), it was clearly the stand-out tune to promote this ever-increasingly influential music scene.
Exceeding 24 million views on YouTube and 5 million streams on Spotify, ‘Abusey Junction’ is really the ultimate chilled song and its popularity embodies the success the latest jazz scene has had in changing people’s preconceptions of what jazz is and introducing them to this wonderful new form of it. Albeit KOKOROKO are predominantly more on the afrobeat spectrum but all of the band members have been playing with one another for years in the jazz scene, starting from the excellent London youth projects Tomorrow Warriors and Kinetica Bloco, and now in jazz outfits such as Nérija and SEED Ensemble.
What makes ‘Abusey Junction’ fantastic is Oscar Jerome’s guitar crooning and weaving from different notes effortlessly, as you can savour the soulfulness throughout the whole seven minutes of the song. The soft, sereneness of Jerome’s guitar is amplified by the deft, delicate touches of Yohan Kebede’s keys and Onome Edgeworth’s percussion, and pushed along by Mutale Chashi’s (Jorja Smith, Sarah Tandy) minimal bass line.
As Sheila Maurice-Grey (Nérija, Nubya Garcia, SEED Ensemble, Sarah Tandy) on trumpet, Cassie Kinoshi (SEED Ensemble, Nérija) on saxophone and Richie Seivwright (Nérija) on trombone enter the song with a horns phrase that sways with the groove of the song, Jerome plays an outrageously magnificent and melodic solo that is equally matched by Maurice-Grey’s trumpet solo that changes its dynamics in such a pleasurable and pleasing way.
However, there is far more to this EP than just ‘Abusey Junction’, as the hype generated from such a heart-warming song is lived up to with the other tracks. Starting with ‘Adwa’, Kebede’s jaunty keys intro and Chashi’s soothing bass are joined by the quick, little guitar flicks and the horns on a riff that crescendos before adding some sharp stabs.
Named after the town in Ethiopia that was the centrepiece battle of the First Italo-Ethiopian War in 1896 which successfully fought against Italian colonial ambitions, the song has a joyful afrobeat bop similar to Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor vibes as Jerome’s guitar solo moves into Kinoshi’s swift, momentum-building sax solo, alongside Ayo Salawu’s (Oscar Jerome, Julia Biel) tight groove on the drums.
It seems quite apt that KOKOROKO write a song about ‘Adwa’ that reinforces the band’s literal message (Kokoroko means ‘be strong’ in the southern Nigerian language of Urhobo) to stand up for yourselves in what you believe in; bandleader Maurice-Grey has said the band started because they wanted to represent the afrobeat genre as there wasn’t enough groups doing so already, and they have strongly pushed this genre back into our record collections once again with their modern spin on afrobeat.
‘Ti-de’ is almost ‘Abusey Junction’s’ sister track as Jerome, who is successfully putting out a constant selection of his own indie-jazz-lofi style songs under his own name, yet again plays another hypnotic guitar riff that billows over Chashi’s slow old-school-esque R’n’B bass line. This eloquently constructed song has horns solos that places the song in a tranquil, emotive state as they ooze out over the rhythm section with a nice addition of vocals to end the song.
The horns start ‘Uman’, which was the first single released in January, as the arrangement escalates to a shimmering ensemble before the rhythm section turn up the tempo to create another dance tune to boogie to. Maurice-Grey explains the song is a celebration of black women and this can explain the upbeat main melody that passes the pattern back and forth from the women on the horns, as it’s a welcome change to see women leading a new music group, let alone a jazz group.
Though it’s hard to create a diverse range of songs in four tracks whilst making sure there is some kind of common musical sound to resonate and establish a clear band identity, there is almost a feeling at the end of this EP that more songs are wanted and needed to really prove just how good KOKOROKO are.
The quality of the songs is evident and having started out playing afrobeat and highlife covers, their understanding of how to construct this style of music is exemplary; but even in such few a number of songs it would have been good to push Kebede’s keys into some solos and allow Jerome’s guitar to take a back seat in some songs for a new dimension.
In an interview with Music in Africa, Maurice-Grey states the importance of letting their original songs grow live before recording them, and this is clear in this EP in how passages seamlessly fuse and merge together in each song; these songs will only get better in their European tour of Germany, France, Switzerland, Netherlands and Belgium in the next couple of months too.
KOKOROKO is a fine debut release as the West African inspired band generate a warmth to their music which will make gigs lively and bouncy in the afrobeat spirit, but also has an idyllic peacefulness which is no better represented in the ‘waa-ooh-a-ooh’ that rings out at the end of the EP.
Sheila Maurice-Grey – Trumpet; Cassie Kinoshi – Saxophone; Richie Seivwright – Trombone; Oscar Jerome – Guitar; Yohan Kebede – Keys; Mutale Chashi – Bass; Ayo Salawu – Drums; Onome Edgeworth – Percussion.