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Kokoroko: Kokoroko

Chris May By

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If you ask an Afrobeat fan to name their favourite bands—excluding lineups led by Fela Kuti during his lifetime—the probability is that their top five choices will include Seun Kuti's Egypt 80 and Femi Kuti's Positive Force, both based in Lagos, along with Dele Sosimi 's Afrobeat Orchestra, based in London. Other credible outfits have emerged, but none which has so far seriously challenged that tripartite ascendancy. London trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey's Kokoroko is an outfit to watch, however, combining, as it does, a firm grip on the post-Afrika 70 tradition with some striking new directions.

Kokoroko debuted on record as part of the Brownswood label's 2018 compilation We Out Here, a showcase for emerging young London jazz artists which was recorded under the light-touch supervision of reed player Shabaka Hutchings, feted for his own work with Sons of Kemet, Shabaka & the Ancestors and The Comet Is Coming. Kokoroko has now released its first disc (and download), a 4-track EP which clocks in just shy of 25 minutes.

Kokoroko is a horn-led mainly-instrumental album. It is also an ensemble work, but one which includes space for uniformly compelling solos from Maurice-Grey, saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, trombonist Richie Seivwright and guitarist Oscar Jerome. A deep-strata rhythm section is anchored by bass guitarist Mutale Chashi .

Kokoroko turns out tough, classic Afrobeat grooves on the up-tempo "Adwa" and "Uman" and also reveals a sensitive touch with ballads from beyond the standard Afrobeat paradigm. Closing track "Abusey Junction" is particularly lovely and at just over seven minutes it is the longest track (it was also the closer on We Out Here). The tune was written by Jerome, who confirms his position as an important voice on the new London scene, as previously announced on his self-released EP Where Are Your Branches? in 2018. On "Adwa," Jerome turns in a gritty solo at times reminiscent of early period James Blood Ulmer, while on the ballads he evokes a glistening melodicism in the same league as that of two benchmark West African guitarists, Kante Manfila, the Guinean electric guitarist who was Salif Keita's collaborator in Les Ambassadeurs, and Koo Nimo, the Ghanaian palm-wine master.

Kinoshi, who recently released the luminous Driftglass (Jazz re-freshed, 2019), the debut album by her SEED Ensemble, is another top-rank young talent and she blows a coruscating solo on "Adwa." Seivwright, who has played with Maurice-Grey and Kinoshi in the Nérija collective, is less widely known but welcome both in her own right and also for her instrument—the trombone is rarely heard in Afrobeat, but it fits in snugly here, both as part of the horn section and also as a solo instrument. As leader, Maurice-Grey modestly refrains from hogging the solos, but she turns in blinders on "Uman" and "Abusey Junction," the first full of fire, the second shimmeringly beautiful.

From every angle, Kokoroko is a hugely impressive debut.

Track Listing: Adwa; Ti-de; Uman; Abusey Junction.

Personnel: Sheila Maurice-Grey: trumpet; Cassie Kinoshi: saxophone; Richie Seivwright: trombone; Oscar Jerome; guitar; Yohan Kebede: keys; Mutale Chashi: bass; Ayo Salawu: drums; Onome Edgeworth: percussion.

Title: Kokoroko | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Brownswood Recordings

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