On Kookabakka Music

What is Kookabakka music?

Read on, and you will know!

Musical terminology is failing to label many things, but surely one of the most glaring omissions is what shall henceforth be known as Kookabakka music (Dutch: Koeckebackemuziek, German: Kucke-backe-musik, French: Musique quooque-baque).

What is Kookabakka music?

It’s music that features the specific sound created by quickly and rhythmically strumming across the dampened strings of an electric guitar equipped with a so-called Wah-wah pedal that should be rocked back and forth in the same rhythm.

The Platonic Ideal of the Kookabakka sound is embodied by ”Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes. That scorching, whipping kookabakka playing comes straight from the Great Big Funky Jamsession in the sky and knows no rival. Shaft is a movie about a badass cop dealing with badass bad guys, so it is obvious that the Kookabakka sound is associated with notions such as sensational, funky, urban, excitement and cool (albeit a particular hot shade of cool), which explains why it is often used in theme music and, especially, chase scenes in police tv shows from the ’70’s and ’80’s.

While I can now listen to, and even enjoy Kookabakka music without feeling awkward and embarrassed, it was very different when I first became aware of it as a child. That was in the hit song “I love to love”, sung by Tina Charles. In that song (which I found unspeakably boring) a kind of electronic retching can be heard on several occasions, always on the fourth beat:

“I love to love …  *kooWâckakkéKKah*why don’t my baby then love to dance *kooWâck* got to dance *kooWâkkeBakka*” (etcetera)

I was stupefied and even a bit shocked: why on earth would someone emulate the sound of throwing up in music?

It seemed an altogether rather tasteless and insipid idea to me. However, a large part of my distaste was due it being so very much out of place in that glib song. I mean, there you are, minding your own business while the radio is idly jabbering and bleating out pop ditties, and then this massively overproduced thirteen-a-dozen polyethylene song comes slithering past. You ignore it until, like a bolt from the blue, you’re hit in the head with that retching. As if the cat’s being sick in the next room. On something expensive and very difficult to clean.

But most of all: it annoyed me that I had absolutely no idea how that sound was produced. My imagination tried hard and gave up: that’s because it doesn’t sound like a musical sound at all, but rather like something produced by a biological process*.

After that initial shock, Kookabakka seemed to be everywhere: in disco hits, in themes of police series (for some reason it seems to be associated with LA especially) and eventually even in rock music, for instance in “School” by Supertramp:

“And don’t say this kooka-bakka kooka-bakka kooka-bakka … and don’t say that kooka-bakka kooka-bakka kooka-bakka

Though, none of all those Kookabakka’s seem to have that particular repulsive quality found in “I love to love”. Yes, I eventually started to appreciate it when I learned to associate it with movies like Shaft or other truly Funky people such as Undercover Brother. It also helped that it finally dawned on me how it is created: I even own a Wahwah pedal now myself, and do not feel ashamed or embarrassed about it at all.

Footnotes:

  • * of course I now understand that the Wahwah-effect is a formant filter that imitates the characteristics of the human voice** producing the vowel range from OO to AA *** (Dutch: OE tot AA). In quick succession, this sounds as “oowaawwooowaauwoo”. It also explains my early association with retching: that activity also varies the vocal resonance cavity, producing a similar formant shift
  • ** interestingly, it was not invented but discovered by a technician who made a mistake when wiring a volume pedal for an organ, creating a formant filter by accident. They first thought it would be great as an organ effect, imitating the similar formant effect used by Big Band trombone sections. But then someone hook up an electric guitar to it, and that was that.
  • *** I once saw a Wahwah pedal that could be switched to emulate the formants producing the vowel range “EE to OH” (Dutch: “IE tot O”), producing something like “yoiyyOiyOiyOiy” ****.
  • **** Interestingly, you can try by yourself that voicing the formant range OO-AA involves opening your mouth more or less but holding your tongue on the same place; while producing the EE-OH range involves keeping your mouth in the same half-open state and moving your tongue back and forth *****.
  • ***** I suppose this corresponds to how the changing resonance cavity shifts the first or the second main formant filter spikes. I suppose that with two Wahwah pedals (serial or parallel, that’s the question?) one could emulate all possible vowels.