KOKOROKO’s percussionist Onome Edgeworth on the band’s ascension
Anoushka Khandwala
15:01 11th December 2019

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Eight piece outfit KOKOROKO have had a heady year. Following the release of their wildly-popular single ‘Abusey Junction’, the band’s visibility has risen exponentially, bringing more gigs, more streams and more "funny, terrible moments" than ever before.

We know that their music centres Afrobeats drenched in jazzy undertones, supple vocals and an inimitable spirit...but we wanted to find out more! Gigwise sat down with percussionist Onome Edgeworth to discuss a monumental year. 

Gigwise: Hi Onome! How did you decide to start the band?

Onome Edgeworth: The band was born from me and Sheila (Maurice Grey) in Kenya together – we spent a lot of time talking about Afrobeat, particularly Afrobeat nights in London. I always loved that music and so did Sheila. But I kinda hated the way it was played in London, it wasn’t fun to go to, it was a very particular ‘world music’ theme. 

GW: Was it like the whole ‘ethnic music’ thing?

OE: Yeah yeah, 100%. It’s like two Africans on stage, then we’re the only Africans in the room. So we spent a lot of time talking about that, and Sheila was like, okay, well let’s start a band. We both went to find some musicians and she took it way more seriously than I did, because she had gone to Trinity and had been in another Afrobeat band before that, so she kind of pulled in people that she thought could work. We did the first gig in 2015 with a group of those people, thought ‘this is kinda fun’. Then the band grew from that and we just got offered small, random gigs after that in pubs or small venues. The lineup changed over the years, but that core lineup is still there. 

GW: You’re quite a large outfit with eight people. Do you feel that helps you in terms of music or hinders you in terms of production? 

OE: We’re very slow with producing music. It’s a blessing, everyone’s super talented and really open to each others’ ideas. But on the other hand you have a lot of voices, so trying to make everyone feel heard can be difficult. Initially when you’ve got eight people… there’s more than eight of us actually because the lineup changes, there’s about ten or eleven. And when you’ve got that many people to contribute ideas or contribute on stage, it makes things constantly enjoyable, and there’s always something new. 

GW: How did you know that you first wanted to pursue music?

OE: As a kid, my mum used to work at a lot of festivals, she used to perform, so I just grew up around music. The house we lived in had a Senegalese drummer couple living downstairs, and they would have musicians from Senegal coming over all the time. There was a festival my mum used to run in the area, which had musicians from all over the world coming in and playing. And then later on I was really into producing. I stopped when I hit adulthood really, until we started the band. 

GW: Did it feel like jazz wasn’t that cool?

OE: Yeah jazz was never cool. Probably a small select group of people could pull off being a musician in school and being cool, especially amongst black kids. And as a kid, when everyone’s doing grime, to pick up a trumpet is a brave thing to do. 

So when people got to 20 and they’re still playing that instrument and they’ve gone through everything, doing something that’s uncool, you tend to play in a different way, you wanna try more things. You see that now in younger musicians, that they’re pretty fearless guys, they’re super comfortable. A lot of them you don’t see any nervousness and you look at them and think ‘how are you that age and not nervous in this environment?’ That part of growing up in London makes you brave.

GW: Is that where you got the band name, which means ‘be strong’ in Orobo?

OE: I guess so. It speaks more from just ‘Strong.’ You say ‘strong like Kokoroko’. I’m Orobo and when you name someone, you name them based on what you want to see, rather than what you first see. That’s definitely present in the naming of the band. 

GW: What’s your weirdest musical influence? 

OE: It would probably land with something that Cassie likes. Cassie loves sci fi and it comes out in her. Whether it’s a soundtrack or a movie, she loves it.

GW: That’s so funny because when I last saw Comet is Coming they had a huge sci fi vibe. Is that the future of jazz now?

OE: [Laughs] I hope not. I guess it’s because in sci fi movies it’s often about being in a state of travel and music that can put you in that place is an amazing thing.

GW: And I guess it links to Afrofuturism as well.

OE: Yeah, 100%.

GW: Do you sometimes feel like because 'Abusey Junction' blew up so much, it sometimes overshadows your other work?

OE: When you put out a song it takes on its own life. We’re obviously super grateful for it because it’s enabled us to do a lot of things and a lot of shows. But we play it at about 40% of our shows, it’s not our favourite song to play necessarily. We go and play our show in the way that we feel is going to fit the night and the musicians that we’ve got with us. The beautiful thing is that people who want to listen to our song, may listen to the rest of our music. If they have that one song that they wanna stay with, then still, it’s a beautiful thing.

GW: You were talking about how when you play live you like to switch things up a bit, and it feels like particularly in this genre the live experience is so monumental that sometimes that doesn’t always translate on album recordings, because it just doesn’t compare to live jazz. How did you try to keep the buzz of your live shows going in your recorded music?

OE: What’s missing from the studio is the audience. Music, especially Afrobeat is a conversation between the audience and the performer. When you play a solo, if the crowd responds, you go with that, if they don’t respond you move off somewhere else, that conversation is happening constantly. You can’t replicate the live environment in the studio. 

With the new project, we’re breaking the songs apart a lot more, and we play the songs live a lot, so we perform and work out what people respond to. It’s basically just a completely different art form. We know that this song when we play it live is going to sound like this, but when we record it, this could be the most prominent thing. I guess songs are a picture of a time and group of people in that space, so you want it to be as honest as possible. If we think about a song as painting a picture, we think about how we feel and then ask does the song feel like this? How do we make it feel like that? Then we get a more accurate picture.

GW: I was reading an interview you guys did with Music in Africa and it was so interesting what were saying about attracting a diverse crowd which actually reflected the band. It feels like recently this has been happening a lot more in London in terms of Cross the Tracks festival: that felt so much more representative of what the scene actually was. How do you ensure that the audiences that you’re really trying to address turn up to your gigs?

OE: We were anxious about it, it’s a really big thing that we would go play a show and the crowd would be twice our age and white, and it’s amazing that our music is reaching those people, but I also want it to reach other people. We’ve thought about it less and less because it has progressed and changed, not only in England, but when we’re doing shows in different countries we’ve noticed that there are black people at every show now, no matter what we do. It’s super exciting to see that, and we’ve got a bunch of artists doing this kind of thing from our community, whether it’s us or Ezra [Collective] or Yussef [Dayes]. Through all of us taking the art seriously and being honest and being ourselves.

You can’t trick people into coming to your show. It’s also about like making shows accessible, especially when choosing venues. If we play Ronnie’s all the time we can’t expect the crowd to change. 

GW: You talk a lot about finding inspiration from Fela Kuti. Does politics imbue your music in the same way that politics was so involved with his music, do you think?

OE: Yeah, I would say completely. We’re living in a completely different place and time, so the politics are different. All our songs have been instrumental, but it’s not without thought and the band’s existence is not without thought and what we want to do. You don’t have to shout about things and shout about your issues to be heard. 100% it’s got political thought behind it and that will grow as we move into an album and do a lot more songwriting and bring lyrics into it, it’s definitely going to become more present in our music. You can look at Fela’s journey and he wasn’t always that person. We need the space to first find the music, then an audience, and grow, then naturally it will all come together.

GW: In terms of your upcoming tour, what are you hoping for as a band? 

OE: More of the same, this year has been the most beautiful year. We couldn’t have ever imagined this: we’ve done so many shows and the crowd’s been pretty much amazing everywhere. We ended in India - it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Just more good crowds, more good energy, we have some funny, terrible moments on stage, more of that.

GW: Can you give me an example of a funny, terrible moment?

OE: Just moments when someone gets a whole wrong song, or that moment where everyone’s like ‘does anyone know what we’re doing now?’ and everyone’s like ‘nope, we have no idea!’ We all make mistakes constantly, we say stupid things onstage. I think it's knowing  that you’re with a group of people that you’re growing with.

GW: That conversation that you’re having with the crowd, do you feel like that differs massively when you’re in London to when you’re in India?

OE: Yeah 100%... like we played in Brazil and they love seeing three women playing instruments. A lot of girls came up to us afterwards saying they were crying during one of the songs, because they’d never experienced that before and I was like ‘why are you crying when we’re playing music? I don’t get it, what’s going on?’ But there’s obviously something in that country that makes people really open and ready to connect with that. They need to see that. And in other countries the drumming will really connect with people, it really varies from place to place. That conversation, because it changes so often, I know for me personally I’ve gone to places and people have really spoken to me about my percussion afterwards, whether good or bad, and I’ve been like oh, people are really listening here. And you go into the next gig feeling completely different, and it feeds how you play it, because you get that response to what you do.

GW: That representation of having such a women fronted band: do you think that has a massive impact on the audience?

OE: The first thing ever that was successful was our Sofar sounds video which had the image of the three girls playing. I don’t think 'Abusey Junction' would have done well without that video which hit like two million streams or something. I think part of that was because the music was good and we had three women playing it.

And the beautiful thing is that they’re solely there based on their musicianship like there were no other thoughts going into that. My cousin is a ten year old Nigerian girl and she saw the girls playing it and she straight away wanted to play an instrument. So it has a massive impact on how people see the band, and we’ve heard that over and over again from people. It’s mad because they’re legit here because they’re amazing musicians and that’s all.

GW: Thank you Onome!

KOKOROKO will play In The Round at The Roundhouse on Tuesday 29 January 2020.

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Photo: Nina Manandhar