Jupiter & Okwess International’s international debut album Hotel Univers takes you right into the heart and onto the streets of modern day Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a politically and economically troubled country. Band leader Jupiter Bokondji is the charismatic and outstanding representative of the innovative scene of street musicians in Kinshasa, a scene which became internationally well-known through the success of Staff Benda Bilili, a band who they share close ties with. His idea is to reactivate the forgotten rhythms and melodies of Congo, by injecting the urban groove of the city. “At independence in 1960, the country was in good condition, utilities worked. But our parents were unable to pass the independence “test”, they blew it, they were given the chance but they messed up
and they created a sacrificed generation”, Jupiter says, “but I’m not interested in the past. What matters now is to lay the foundations for our children and grandchildren.”
When Jupiter wants time off from the daily hustle on the streets of Kinshasa, he rents a room at Hotel Univers. There he can hide from the noise of the streets and seek new inspiration. Many of the ideas of his songs were made up between his room and the bar where he drinks whisky and meets the characters that roam the streets of Kinshasa at night. The song “Magerita” is dedicated to the dangerously attractive women in Kinshasa’s nightlife. It became an immediate hit in Lemba, the area on the outskirts of Kinshasa where Jupiter is from. He identifies with this place where many better educated people stay still struggling to find a job.
The middle class is small in Congo and many of the country’s riches leave the country immediately or end up in the hands of a small elite. “Bapasi” has become a common expression for the daily life struggles of the community in Lemba. It is a catchphrase people use to search for new motivation in order to tackle their daily difficulties – for instance when the public cleaning service doesn’t work, the people in Lemba decided to take care of cleaning up the streets themselves.
Jupiter, who refers himself to be the ‘rebel general’ of Congolese music, doesn’t see the richness of the country in its mineral resources of coltan and diamonds but in the undiscovered talents. “The material is but an elution,“ he sings in the song “Bakwapanu”, “but only the spiritual remains eternal”. Unlike many of the commercial successful Congolese pop-stars, he doesn’t want to praise the ones in power, but relies on the musical richness of the county. To him big musical stars like Kofi Olomide or Werrason often wash down the musical heritage, when their connection to the ones in power as well as their fancy dresses becomes more important than the music itself. Jupiter knows that he won’t be at the top of mainstream music in Congo, a place that is quite conservative when it comes to pop music. But he has a brighter vision.
Through his music Jupiter tries to encourage people to take the future into their own hands. Instead of seeking a better future and immediate wealth by emigrating to the west, common expectations shown in many local pop music video clips, he wants people to draw from the talents they already have. “I saw how immigrants struggled in Europe and didn’t want this for my life. I wanted to make something for my country. I realized that it is my mission to bring a new sound into the Congolese music.”
Jupiter has indeed seen this himself. In 1974, as a young boy, he left the Congo to go to East Germany with his father who was appointed executive assistant for the Congo’s embassy in Germany. There he spent his adolescence and discovered Europe and its vibrant music scene, and artists such as the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and James Brown. He set up his own rock band called Der Neger (The Negro) with fellow young Berliners. Their sound was a strange cocktail of Mongo percussions and Zeppelin-esque guitar. The song “The world is my land (Deutschland)” he captures the experiences of this period of his life.
At the age of 20 his father’s mandate ended, and Jupiter went back to the bubbling 80s Kinshasa, his head full of dreams, glory and sounds unimaginable to most of his friends. He left the family home, earning a living singing at funerals and playing percussion in several local orchestras. “From 18 to 20 years, I have lived as a street child. To earn some money, I was doing music in traditional ceremonies. I worked with families from all ethnic groups in the country, this is how I was able to discover the richness of our heritage.” He started developing his own unique style, surrounding himself with musicians from Europe. He named this explosive mix ‘Bofenia Rock’ and in 1983, succeeded in forming his first orchestra, Bongofolk. Then in 1990 he founded his own band: Okwess international. The band developed a vision of a new Congolese sound experimenting with the musical heritage of a nation with more than 450 different ethnicities.
In early 2004, Jupiter met two French travellers, Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye. The connection was immediate, so much so that the Barret and de la Tullaye returned to record the songs of Okwess International and other groups surrounding Jupiter, such as Staff Benda Bilili. “I knew something like this would happen, I was convinced.” Jupiter’s Dance, a film documenting his musical exploration was released in 2007. On screen, we see his slender silhouette exploring the various districts of Kinshasa, discovering talent artists undiscovered and unknown by the rest of the world. Little Jupiters, he calls them. “Today, there are plenty of young bands who are like me to do music research, dipping into our historical resources. My mission is accomplished transmission. Even if I disappear today, I achieved my goal.” The film became his international introduction and worldwide recognition. Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame worked with him on several projects including the electronic album DRC Music – Kinshasa One Two (Warp). Albarn also invited him to perform at the 2012 Africa Express tour in the UK. Jupiter and his band also toured the world with Amadou & Mariam.
After an extensive tour around Africa, Jupiter & Okwess International will be on tour in Europe from May 2013. His debut album will be released on 20 May. Later this year a collection of remixes will be released, including 3D (Massive Attack), Spoek Mathombo, Aero Manyelo and DJ Mo.
released May 11, 2014
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