KOKOKO! 2024
Photo: Courtesy of the artist

KOKOKO! Electrify on the Intensely Innovative ‘Butu’

KOKOKO!’s Butu is full of heat and movement, from the traffic sounds that start the opening track “Butu Ezo Ya” to the final claps of razor-sharp “Salaka Bien”.

5 July 2024

Against all odds, Butu, the second album from innovative Kinshasa-based electronic collective KOKOKO! is their best yet. Certainly, 2019’s Fongola was an unequivocal triumph of a studio debut, with some of the freshest dance music of the year and beyond, high in volume, energy, and creativity. Butu is that, but even more. The group are dialed in and dialed up, and the intensity is absolutely rapturous as KOKOKO! transform and draw sweaty, exciting club bangers out of the most unlikely of found instruments. 

At the core of the ensemble is a transcontinental pair of collaborators: vocalist and percussionist Makara Bianko, who comes across as an unstoppable frontman, and producer and keyboardist Xavier Thomas, whose work as Débruit has long brought him into conversations with artists and styles from around the world. While other collaborators swing through the mix, Bianko’s command of unconventional Congolese dance scenes and DIY music production and his chemistry with Thomas lies at the heart of the KOKOKO! sensibility. His spirit feels boundless as he calls out impassioned messages of politics and pleasure one after another over driving rhythms intertwined with the engaging melodies of Thomas’s nimble synths and other, often improvised instruments.

Every moment of Butu is vibrationally powerful. That’s something that takes many forms and moods: “Bazo Banga” rings out with a punky thrash, “Donne Moi” and “Mokili” drip with sensual touches of house and trance, and “Mokolo Likambu” offers a sweetness and melismatic depth of feeling via vocals and metallic synths, to describe, roughly, some of the layers of the album’s soundscape. Perhaps the closest track to a microcosm of it all is “Motema Mabe”, which starts with synthesizers running parallel to string instruments made of upcycled scrap. They curve and loop around steady hits of drums, kit, and machine, and a voice that swings easily from rousing shouts to emotional croon without ever slowing down the mix. The record ends with percussion and melody rising together into a massive sonic peak.

It’s unsurprising to learn that Butu is the Lingala word for night and that this album is dedicated to the nightlife of KOKOKO!’s home base. Butu is a record of heat and movement, from the traffic sounds that start the opening track “Butu Ezo Ya” to the final claps of razor-sharp “Salaka Bien”. It is always moving, often unpredictable, with its vital pulse keeping the sound flowing steadily. KOKOKO! are rooted in this nightlife; Bianko and other Congolese members and collaborators with the band got their start there, performing in venues like the bar in which Bianko and Thomas first met.

Butu brings KOKOKO! to the world in a medium that cannot possibly replicate the experience of seeing them live–it’s easy to imagine audiences roaring back to Bianko in breathless call-and-response–but that nonetheless electrifies. It is marvelous. This is an already thrilling group entering a new and even more elevated creative state. As their global career continues to heat up (as it will if this album has anything to say about it), KOKOKO! are getting more interesting in their fusions of techno, tradition, and imaginative DIY techniques.

RATING 9 / 10