Celtic Connections 2020: Kokoroko at St Luke’s

By Ryan Harley

Kokoroko’s show at St Luke’s this Sunday was a triumph of everything that Celtic Connections aims to be. Vibrant, exciting, and founded in a rich cultural heritage.

The band introduced themselves to the crowd in a flurry of dissonant brass. The chords struck by the horn section in the opening moments of ‘Uh-Man’ didn’t quite figure, and for a moment the clashing notes were almost hard to get your head around but once this dissonance resolved itself the party had well and truly begun.

Kokoroko make no bones about where the music that they make comes from – and this comes across in their live performances. On stage, trumpet player and band leader Sheila Maurice-Gray paid homage to the musicians that had come before them, and who had paved the way for bands like theirs.

Featuring prominently throughout the set was the band’s love for Ghanian jazz vocalist and Afrobeat pioneer Pat Thomas – whose songs with the Kwashibu Area Band were covered twice by Kokoroko on the night.

Other West African influences on the group were also called out by name during Kokoroko’s set with Afrobeat pioneers Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor making the band’s honourable mentions list.

During these Pat Thomas covers, the musicians on stage really came into their own. Maurice-Gray’s virtuosic trumpet solos shone through particularly strong as a highlight on the night but, in all honesty, it was the way that all eight musicians worked together as a whole in perfect synchrony that made the night so special for those in attendance.

Stemming from London’s resurgent Jazz scene – Kokoroko have made a significant impact on the state of popular Jazz in the UK since releasing their debut EP in 2019. With contemporaries such as Ezra Collective getting significant airplay in recent years, it is hard to think that the future has anything but success in store for the band.

As the set approached its end, the audience watching on were absolutely at the mercy of the musicians on stage. As the shouts went up for the audience to get as low as they could, and then back up to their feet, the audienced in the packed church dutifully obliged. The St Lukes audience shouted and shouted for more and the band obliged, launching into the final Pat Thomas track of the night, to a joyous reception.

Celtic Connections in spite of all of its many qualities as a festival can sometimes stray a little close to the realm of staleness. The world of folk music by its very nature is in danger of becoming stuck in the past – but it is heartening to see the inclusion of vibrant and exciting new acts like Kokoroko, who bring a different type of folk music to the table.

Perfectly situated at the nexus of modern popular jazz and the Afrobeat of 70s West Africa, Kokoroko are a band which use heritage and identity to their advantage making them perfect candidates for a starring role in the finale of this year’s Celtic Connections.