Tuesday, Jan 27 2009 | 18:44

3665“Yeah, we’ve got our own thing”, states matter-of-factly Ray Lugo, leader of New York City powerhouse Kokolo. Based on the spiky and hyper-funky grooves found in their latest album, “Love International”, it would be difficult to argue with the man. Few groups in today’s global Afro scene generate as much attention and excitement as they do debate and criticism as Kokolo. “It’s the result of going against conditioned expectations”, expands Lugo. “People often expect the familiar, but I’m doing my thing in my time. This music comes from my heart, it’s humble music for the whole world. “Kokolo’s ever-growing international appeal (to date, the band has performed in over 20 countries) appears to lend weight to Lugo’s words.

A former punk rocker who grew disenchanted with the promise held by that genre, Lugo formed Kokolo in 2001 in the Big Apple’s Chinatown district. He took the name from Spanish Harlem slang used to refer to devout fans of afro music. From the outset, he sought to carve a path of his own. “There may be better afrobeat, funk, latin or polka groups around … but we were going to be the best Kokolo in the world.” Within weeks of the group’s formation, they recorded their urgent “Fuss And Fight” debut at Gabe Roth’s Daptone Studios. Soon after the album’s release in 2002, the band found themselves playing to receptive audiences both at home and abroad.

Their second album, 2004’s “More Consideration”, further expanded their audience and afforded the band performances in a score of new countries and on some of the world’s premier stages, such as The Montreal Jazz, Glastonbury Festivals and many others, where they shared the spotlight with acts ranging from Gilles Peterson, Roots Manuva, Taj Mahal and Issac Hayes to Zap Mama, Chic, Roy Ayers and Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.

During this time, their discography grew exponentially as well (to date, Kokolo has been featured in over 30 international releases), giving them the opportunity to reach new audiences through a number of releases that also feature acts such as Zero 7, Femi Kuti, Masters At work, Ladysmith Black Mambaso, Quantic Soul Orchestra, U-Roy, Tony Allen, Afro Celt Sound System, Jazztronik and many others.

Kokolo’s reputation for mounting an explosive live show is the reason they continue to rack up frequent flyer miles year after year. “Each musician brings an important element … everyone just comes as they are”. “Our bassist loves his reggae, the tenor saxophonist is a Jazz and Country music head, our congero is Mr. Salsa personified, our trombonist loves his Zappa, the trumpeter is on the experimental side of the dial, the lead guitarrist lives for Hip Hop and lately, I’ve been getting into lots of classical music, actually”, says Lugo, “These guys have a lot of soul … and together, this mix, this authenticity … makes Kokolo unique onstage.”

On Kokolo’s third album, “Love International”, released on Adrian Gibson’s Freestyle label, Lugo astutely combines an intoxicating blend of afrobeat, funk, latin, hip hop and jazz elements into a sound that is at the same time thoroughly familiar yet remarkably fresh and intriguing. On tracks like the muscular “Our Own Thing” he spells out in no uncertain terms where he stand on the issue, on the brilliant cover of The Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven” he masterfully injects more fire into a song that was burning to begin with, musical worlds collide on the irresistible “The Way Up”, and we get transported to the motherland on the hypnotic “Let Compassion Be Your Fashion”. The Lyrics, half-sung, half-scatted in English, Spanish and even Portuguese, wiz by like sparks after an explosion at a firecracker factory. Yes, this is in fact, something new, different. An original sound.

Lugo’s ideology draws more from modern human potential philosophy than from conventional socio-political ideas of right and wrong. “Billions of people today are manipulated via empty political slogans and organized religion”, he continues, “Only through changing how we educate future generations can we begin to move the human experience towards a universal spirit of brotherhood … the eradication of fear.” The socially conscious aspect of the group is reinforced through their consistent participation in a variety of projects and benefit concerts for causes ranging from the environment, to the Darfur Crisis, youth empowerment groups, and urban development organizations. “It’s not about ego clichés … it’s about the luxury that is to be alive and have the opportunity to bring a positive message to people.”

The future looks bright for Kokolo. For the moment, expectations seem to be the least of their concerns.

On February 27, 2009, Kokolo are going to release their fourth longplayer “Heavy Hustling” on Record Kicks.


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