There are probably only a few styles of music that can be traced back to a single musician, a single band. There may only be one: Afrobeat. The term was coined by the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti, who practically invented Afrobeat in the 1960s together with drummer Tony Allen, then musical director of his band Africa ’70.
Raised on Ghanaian highlife music, Kuti had left Lagos to study music in London and returned to Nigeria after touring the US with a passion for soul and funk. Afrobeat is a mix of all of that, charged with ideas of political liberation.
With its polyrhythmic structures, Afrobeat has had an enormous influence on western pop, from the Talking Heads album Remain in Light to Damon Albarn, who recorded in Africa with musicians there and worked with Tony Allen in the band The Good, the bath
Afrobeat is “politically, socially and historically important music,” said bandleader and trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey in an interview with the US web magazine “okayafrica”. Above all, it is important that Afrobeat “does not remain in our parents’ generation”, i.e. at some point it has yellowed like a museum. Her mother is from Sierra Leone and her father is from Guinea-Bissau. She grew up in south London with a stepfather from South Africa.
Maurice-Grey formed the band after talking to percussionist Onome Edgeworth about the London Afrobeat scene in Kenya. They agreed: there are many Afrobeat bands, but not enough, representing the African immigrant community. Edgeworth later said he “kinda hated” the way Afrobeat was staged in London, in so-called Afronights. “When two of us were on stage, we were the only Africans in the room.”
“Could We Be More” begins with the soul brass fanfare of the opening track “Tojo”, a gently grooving call to relaxation interspersed with glittering retro synth loops. African traditions advance in two drum interludes, “Blue Robe (Pt. I
Kokoroko started out as a purely instrumental ensemble, now four of the 15 tracks from “Could We Be More” feature singing. Hissing voices, partially modulated by autotune, assure: “Oh, how free we were in those good times” and indulge in memories of nights of dancing in the moonlight, with heated bodies “so close enough to Fahrenheit”. In another song, mantra-like assurances are given: “Something’s going on / Something’s happening.”
In the Urhobo language spoken in southern Nigeria, Kokoroko means: Be strong! The band had their first performances in 2015, and an EP with four tracks was released in 2019. The musicians say they are just slow to produce. The somnambulistic ballad “Abusey Junction” went viral after being included on a UK Jazz Renaissance compilation. With two singles and the EP, the newcomers reached 60 million streaming views on Spotify. They have long been considered an essential part of the booming London jazz scene.
Some members have attended Trinity College of Music, London, 60 years after Fela Kuti trained there. What the band wants: to “recreate music that fills you with pride.”