Photo: Nina Manandhar.

Kokoroko: "Jazz & Afrobeat Shouldn't Stay Within Our Parents' Generation"

We talk to the buzzing London afrobeat group's bandleader about their debut EP and much more.

Last February saw Brownswood Recordings release the fresh and exciting compilation We Out Here, assembled by Shabaka Hutchings, which celebrated the new generation of London jazz musicians who've been organically fine-tuning their craft for the last decade.

In an epoch where streaming numbers and views can often precede the foresight of quality and legacy, this grassroots family is welding their formal education at Trinity Laban and Guildhall alongside the energetic tutelage of Tomorrow's Warriors and Kinetika Bloco to create an essence for your ears that is unmistakably from the Big Smoke.

One band who feature triumphantly on We Out Here are the empress-led Kokoroko, an 8-piece afrobeat band hailing from the UK capital. Drawing influence from West African highlife and jazz, they sit at the intersection of past and present, well-marinated in enough polyrhythm seasoning to induce fires on the dance floors they play.

We spoke with the talented bandleader, trumpeter and visual artist Sheila Maurice-Grey about paying homage to highlife heroes, the burgeoning London jazz sound and their new self-titled EP, Kokoroko.

Where are your parents from?

My mum is from Sierra Leone and my dad is from Guinea-Bissau, but I grew up with my step-dad who is from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Kokoroko's mission statement is "This is not idle music." What was your musical grounding early on?

I guess it was typical in the sense that I grew up in the church. I first started playing guitar and then keys before I started playing trumpet, which was in secondary school. It played a massive role in terms of what West African Pentecostal churches are like. It's very charismatic and it was really good music to be honest. It was my first encounter of my heritage in that sense. I started playing keys maybe when I was eight, and playing in church between the ages of 12 to 14. It wasn't something I took too seriously but it was something I enjoyed doing.

Which part of London was that in?

That was in South London actually around the Stockwell and Brixton area.

The band's name is of Nigerian Urhobo origin meaning "Be strong." How important was it to maintain a connection to Africa?

Very, very important. I guess that was the whole point of starting the band. I started the band with (percussionist) Onome Edgeworth. I remember us having a conversation in Kenya about afrobeat, and afrobeat bands in general in the UK. We said there aren't enough afrobeat bands that represent the diaspora and I was like 'we should start one.' The importance of it is that it's very powerful and we keep the legacy of the music. Jazz is important in terms of its legacy, so is afrobeat. It's not something which should stay within our parents' generation, especially now with the massive rise of afrobeats. It's great music but it's just as important to keep the roots of it alive because politically, socially and historically, it's important music.

Photo: Nina Manandhar.

Within that, you speak about empowering this new generation of young people that listen to the music and share the experience of having that dual heritage.

Yeah. I don't know where you're from?


I don't know if you have, but I think most of us have that experience being here in Britain. We'll never be English but of course we are British. Then when you go back home you're not really considered Ghanaian. I don't know if that happens for you, but in my case I'm always seen as the English girl that's come home. So I guess it's about keeping that connection and being like, although we haven't lived back home, it's a very important part of our identity and I think that's quite powerful in itself.

I liken it to walking across a plank, especially when people describe you as being British-Sierra Leonean or British-Ghanaian. That hyphen is a tightrope where you're essentially stuck.

Definitely, for sure.

You started out paying homage to highlife and afrobeat via covers of legends like Pat Thomas, Ebo Taylor and Tony Allen.

And Fela Kuti… It's important to say!

What rhythmic elements of their music have inspired your growth as a collective?

I guess it's trying to understand the music in terms of little things like how melodies are structured and, compositionally, how things work. It's just different from any type [of music]. Most of us have come from a jazz background, a few of us went to school to study jazz. I guess it's just very different, simple things like where the horn lines are placed, how the bass lines have been written... I think especially with that type of music…rhythmic nuances are the main thing that make the music what it is before you even get to the harmony or the melody. It's different from a lot of music, but I feel like it's the foundation to a lot.

I understand what you were saying earlier and how difficult it is to learn Ebo Taylor's work.

Yes. It sounds beautiful but it's not the easiest music to play! (laughs)

Fela also shares a closer connection to Kokoroko as he also attended Trinity Laban when he first arrived in 1950s London. To what extent has he resonated with your collective?

Before Fela Kuti created afrobeat he went to study jazz which I think people forget sometimes and, as I was saying, afrobeat is important in terms of what it's come through historically. It's something that I feel like people will see as music of the past. They should take the time to realise how relevant it is to now. I guess those are the connections I make with jazz and afrobeat, it's very important and it should be around for generations to come. As much as we give importance to jazz, it's the same kind of importance we should give to afrobeat as well.

I think at present everyone has their eyes on London as a city with Brexit happening. What you're a part of within the young jazz realm is really unapologetic and shows people that the experience of growing up in London is still unique and can't be sold off. As a Londoner, what are your thoughts on that?

I think we're living in strange times where as much as the UK is an island, it feels like London is an island within an island. In the sense that culturally what's going on is amazing and beautiful. You have so many cultures living side by side and you're hearing the music and art but a lot of things that come out of London are taken from a mixed match of diversity, which is really important. It's a weird time as soon as you leave London, you kind of realise the reality of where we're living. I think the beautiful thing about London is that you have so many things to draw [inspiration] from. The other day I was in Dalston Market and it was so beautiful to see many cultures side by side. You have the Turkish people selling the Turkish food then you have Nigerians, Ghanaians selling their traditional African food. That's very beautiful to see within itself.

"Abusey Junction" was your first release a year ago as part of the We Out Here compilation. Since then it's been streamed over 20 million times on YouTube and has gone on to win Track of The Year recently at the Worldwide Awards. How did that song come together and can you describe the personal impact it has playing live?

Oscar wrote it when him, Onome, and I went to Gambia a few years ago. He wrote it on the rooftop of a place where we were staying. I think it's more the energy and the vibe that was recreated at that moment. That's what makes it really special. It was very organic how it came together, especially how it was recorded. To be honest it's been hard to recreate that same vibe on a live stage as it's very different from everything else we've written… Not necessarily everything else but what we play in our set.


How was the process of composing and writing your self-titled EP Kokoroko?

We've been working on it for quite a while. Before "Abusey Junction" was recorded we had already recorded the EP but it wasn't quite ready, so we decided to continue playing and writing more music. Earlier last year we went to the studio with the mind-set of trying to record tunes for a potential EP and it sounded great. Now we're looking forward to writing the album.

What's your favourite track on the EP?

I think it has to be "Ti-de" as it's just a little similar to "Abusey Junction" but still quite different. I really like that tune but all the tunes are really different and they are tunes we've all written.

So how does the dynamic work in the group with eight of you? Is it led or does everyone have an input?

I'm the bandleader and I get things together to make sure things get done but in terms of writing music everyone contributes. I guess what makes a band a band, rather than the Shelia Maurice-Grey project, is that you have eight really strong and important characters that I can really value for their sound. When we write tunes, someone will bring a tune in we will play it and reshape it a little. Sometimes we don't even reshape it. Our set is comprised of tunes that everyone has written.

What's been your favourite gig so far?

Favourite destination to play with the band was Worldwide Festival earlier last year in Sete which was very beautiful.

Who designed the artwork for the EP?

Her name is Kasmir Jones (The Afrodigiac) who is from New York. I really like her stuff and I think it's great.

What is it about the energy and support that has made everyone in this London jazz "scene" grow?

From my perspective I think it's the fact that a lot of us came through different music programmes. The main ones were Tomorrow's Warriors and Kinetika Bloco. I guess the fact that I've known a lot of these people since I was 12 and I've been playing with a lot of people since. I'm 27 now so that's a long time to know a lot of people and I think that's a key thing. By the way not everyone is from South London! (laughs)

Just imagine if you played football with some guys since you were 10 and eventually all these guys ended up being footballers and you ended up being the best. I guess it's just natural. When you have a community of people you grew up with I think you're bound to create something which is quite unique and special to your group.

What would be your dream collaboration?

With Kokoroko I think it would be great to be in the same room with Seun Kuti. It would be a dream to play with and just gain more knowledge about the knowledge of the music. Seun Kuti or Femi Kuti would be a dream.

And then end up at the Shrine.

That would be amazing!

The new self-titled EP by KOKOROKO is out now.

Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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