Kokoroko: “It’s not a sequel, it’s a different story”

With a new album on the near horizon, the eight-piece band shares insight into their journey and new sounds

Photography by Vicky Grout

Likely a familiar name to UK dwellers and even those living further afield, Kokoroko is an eight-piece London-based band that’s gone from strength to strength in recent years. Fitting the bill of the old saying “like music for my ears”, the band is indeed something that anyone will be happy to hear as it fuses Jazz and Afrobeat into a harmonious merging of rhythms, improv and honey-dripping melodies. Fronting the band is Sheila Maurice Grey – vocalist and trumpeter – who plays alongside her musical family: Yohan Kebede (synthesisers and keyboards), Cassie Kinoshi (alto sax and vocals), Onome Edgeworth (percussion), Tobi Adenaike-Johnson (guitar), Ayo Salawu (drums), Richie Seivwright (trombone and voals) and Duane Atherley (bass, synthesisers and keyboards). And honestly, it’s important to think of them that way – a group of kins who each share different interests and insights. Because when they come together, no matter their differences or likeness, the music is what binds them. Below, in anticipation of the launch of their new album Could We Me More, set to release in August, I chat to the band about their journey and what we can expect from their new sound.

I’d love to hear about how you all met.

We all met at different times and in different places. Clearly we all met for a reason, though! That reason is something we’re still exploring.

To those who haven’t heard your music before, how would you describe it?


What are you all like as individuals, do you all share the same music interests and taste? 

We all have different music interests and taste, I think that’s the special thing about the band – it’s taking the things that make us individuals and marrying them together as a celebration of who we all are and where we come from.

As an eight-piece, what’s it like being part of such a big group? What’s the dynamic like?

It’s amazing. When you find one person jarring, there’s another seven people to talk to, ha. Working and playing in a big group is amazing, but it also has its challenges. This includes learning how to allow space for others as well as figuring out where you fit into the equation of a song. It sharpens you as a musician, and forces you to simplify and revisit the essence of the craft, which is songwriting.

You’re currently on tour, which sounds incredible! Where did you play, are you teasing out your new album?

We just finished an incredible run in the Netherlands and Belgium, with highlights being two sold out shows at Paradiso in Amsterdam and Ancienne Belgique in Belgium! We appreciate the love we get shown all over Europe and we’re looking forward to the France leg of tour next week! We might play a new song here and there.

We’ve been teasing bits of the new album and reworking some classics that kind of tell the story of why and how a band like us exists. 

Speaking of, can you share some details about your new album? What can we expect to hear, and how does it compare to your previous releases?

Our album is a reflection of where we are at in our creative process; it’s an honest album in every sense of the word. Expect to hear mistakes that capture the essence of the song better than perfection could. 

The album is a moment of time captured, similar to our first EP. It’s hard to compare them – they’re from a very different time and a very different place. I think we would all encourage people to try to be present when listening to the album or any album, rather than listening comparatively. It’s not a sequel, it’s a different story.

Can you pick out a couple of favourite moments from the new album and talk me through them?

We Give Thanks was special; it’s a song that really captures the energy of the band. It was amazing to watch Sheila step out of her comfort zone, being adventurous with the way she sang while also paying homage to the 70s and 80s Afro rock/psychedelic bands that paved the way. Another moment is the outro to Somethings Going On; it was the last thing we all recorded together in the studio and the energy in it perfectly sums up the weeks we spent together writing and recording the album. I think a favourite track might be Good Times, I’m torn between that one and Home.

Is there a certain feeling or emotion you’re hoping to evoke from the new album?

There is no specific feeling or emotion we are trying to evoke, we just want people to connect with our stories. Different people will connect with different things and that’s something we’ve learned from each other. That’s the exciting thing about creating something – it kind of takes on its own life as soon as you let it go. We all have different favourites!

What’s next for the band?

Hopefully to start working on another album, a film maybe; some people want to delve deeper into fashion. We are quite ambitious as a collective ha, but basically whichever medium allows us to express ourselves in the best and most fulfilling way.

Genre Fluidity

When it comes to music, Pierre Flasse asks – are we moving to a post-genre world?

The picture is all too familiar. At a party with new faces and the regular conversation markers pass by until you realise there is a connection in the room. You discover a similar music taste and the sparks fly: “I love afrobeat! Do you know Fela Kuti or Dele Sosimi?”

Afrobeat is technically any combination of West African music and jazz influences with a focus on the interplay of rhythm, percussion and live energy. For me, it’s a platform for political speech, crazy drumming and getting down to slick horn lines. But that’s one person’s interpretation. It took momentum under Fela Kuti in the late 60s in Nigeria with the modernisation of native harmonies, and political confrontation, which swept across the African continent.

The precise story above happened to me last month, and I met someone who played me their favourite afrobeat tracks, who, incidentally had never heard of Fela Kuti and the product was an eclectic combo of rap, dancehall and R&B, to the name of some artists such as Iyanya and EL (Elom Adablah). This is afrobeat of the 21st century, a relation of the 70s Kuti strain, but actually an entirely different sound under the same label. This confused me, and yet piqued my interest – how could we call these two different musics by the same name?

After some research of my own, I discovered that this is afrobeats: a slyly placed ‘s’ changing a multitude of rhythm, percussion, instrumentation and style. However, the ‘s’ is so often lost by the artists, and from this simple misspelling arises confusion between the two musical second-cousins. To be clear, these artists are doing nothing wrong. They create modern and approachable music within a label that defines their identity. The artists of the new genre see themselves as pioneers of a new movement, however the issue arises from semantics as they are sharing “afrobeat(s)” with political, historical and musical legends whom speak a different musical dialect. As a result, one genre and label ends up sharing a cluttering of sound.

Why is this important? Genre comes from two places. In one sense it is a creation by the record label conceived to help sell music. Another creation can be by social sub-culture where groups create a musical style and ideology against a standing norm. The concept of genre comes from a human desire to understand, and we understand by compartmentalisation. However this idea of creating music firmly within one genre actually negates the natural process in which music is made.

When you make music, you are acutely aware of the direction of your sound, and of your own influences but you rarely think “this record is 20% neo-soul, 30% R&B, and 50% jazz”, which actually would sometimes be a more accurate depiction. Naturally, we are the product of our influences and these are rarely one particular style of music – it’s a postmodern society with a postmodern mixing of music. To try and create music that is quintessentially “reggae” or “blues” is on the surface quite easy, as there are musical features which would identify the genre, in the case of reggae: offbeat guitar stabs, a laidback bass groove and smooth horn riffs all underneath a soulful voice. However due to individual tastes, the music might increase the tempo and fall into ska. You might have a tendency towards low frequency synthesisers that transports you into the realm of dub. By pigeon-holing into sub-genres, we potentially lose the fluidity to move across genres as freely as we might have with “rap” or “jazz”.

Why has this reliance on sub-genres appeared? In one sense, people don’t necessarily identify with the overarching musical terms. We have a society with an inconceivable amount of music being made and circulated. With that, individual identity can be difficult to appreciate with so much music; perhaps the sub-genres reflect each artist’s need to wave their hand in the crowd and be noticed. It comes as the population of the world increases, smaller communities of niche interests will keep appearing as a protection of the new and individual.

But are these genres still relevant? Take Hiatus Kaiyote for example. I personally would place them within jazz. A friend of mine refers to them as soul, and another would call it electro-pop. Go to a concert by Nils Frahm and you will spy within the audience: music students, sesh-heads and grandparents. Each group ascribes the music as a different genre – one of structural minimalism, one of grungy techno and another of “classical”.

Genres are important to define our own choices, influences and ideas. However we live in an age where music isn’t just recommended to us by friends who understand our tastes, but algorithms, whether random (YouTube) or precise (Spotify) – that often defy traditional genre tastes and encourage fluidity between styles. We keep on creating more and more sub-genres to try and explain the music we hear, resulting in names like “future soul”, “catstep” and “ectofolk”. In EDM there is a multitude of sub-genres such as complextro and fidget house separated by a mere few BPM. What does it all mean? In a semantic multiverse, it all really feels a bit pointless when our individual conceptions vary from person to person.

So, maybe my jazz is different to your jazz, which is the same as Sarah’s second wave funk, but somehow is also the same as Dan’s neo-soul. Sub-genres are becoming useless pigeon-holes in a bracket as wide and ambiguous as “rap” or “rock”, that are down to the semantic taste of each individual. The way forward is not through individual definitions, so maybe it’s time to ditch genre entirely.