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Congo's Jupiter opens door onto sonic sound

By Alison Hird

Congolese singer "Jupiter" Bonkodji has developed a new Congolese sound, bofenia rock, with his band Okwess International. Taking the country's myriad of traditional rhythms as a base, he uses electric guitar, drums and a punk rock attitude to make music of the future. We take off on their new album Kin Sonic.

Jupiter got international recognition on the international scene through the documentary film Jupiter's Dance in 2006 about the vibrant music scene in Kinshasa. It also brought Staff Benda Bilili to the fore. But he'd been making his own brand of Mongo music tinged with European rock for many years. 

The son of a diplomat, Jupiter grew up in East Berlin where he founded his first band Der Neger. Africans were a rarity in Eastern Europe in the 70s.

"At the swimming pool people would get out when I arrived, they thought I’d turn the water black," he says philosophically. "It was like that in East Berlin at the time."

That formative experience led him to write the song Ich bin ein Berliner and the world is my land.

"It was a way of telling my story. How they’d call me negro when I walked down the street. How I could cross the Berlin wall and they couldn’t. And then how when I went back to Congo it seemed rich but was politically very poor, and that people didn’t have enough to eat. So I sang 'I’m a Berliner, I’m Congolese, the world is my oyster, the world belongs to no one'.

"You can't take land with you to the grave," he says prophetically.

So much unexploited sound

He listened to a lot of 70s funk when living in Europe, but when he returned to DRC he became interested in traditional Congolese music.

"The DRC has more than 450 ethnic groups and each one has a sub-ethnic group. I’m from the Mongo ethnic group. We have different rhythms: bofenia, loya, imboyo, zebola, yaya... 11 or more. Just do the maths! There’s a huge wealth of sound: it’s endless and just not exploited."

Jupiter has made those traditional rhythms the backbone of his music. 

"Then I give it an international dimension by using modern rather than traditional instruments, guitar and drums, and I try and project this music into the future."

Indie rock musicians Damon Albarn and Warren Ellis feature on the album Kin Sonic, playing keys and violin respectively. 

"I didn't ask them to play in a particular way, I just said I was leaving the door open because music has no race, no colour, no tribe. It’s a universal language. I left the door open so they could take me into the future. And they did!.

©F de La Tullaye

Life in Lemba

During Congo's civil war in the 90s, many of Jupiter's musicians left for Europe. But he opted to stay in Kinshasa, in a suburb called Lemba, where he still lives with his father.

"My mission was to open the door and I’ve done it. I haven’t finished the job but the new generation know it's open now.

"They ask me for help and lean on me. Maybe a bit too much," he admits. "They say I’m a role model, the founder of this new Congolese sound, they call me the Rebel General, the living monument, the troubadour…  they’re the ones who gave me the name Jupiter in the first place."

He revels in being an inspiration but regrets there aren't more opportunities to bring young talented musicians on. 

"The big problem is we still don’t have the structures in Kinshasa to be able to play, and develop a music industry," he says. "Maybe long term I’ll have to put those structures into place myself, with the help of the Congolese government."

Jupiter and Okwess International are currently on tour in France. Follow the band on facebook



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