Interview: Jupiter Bokondji – Jupiter & Okwess (July 2017)

There are musicians who follow the traditional styles of their country and those who create brand new ones, assembling together and evolving what their country has to offer.

One of the best examples of the latter (not too densely populated) category is Jupiter Bokondji, founder and band leader of Jupiter & Okwess International, essentially one of the most original Congolese artists and creator of the so-called Bofenia rock.

His 30-year career has acted and is still acting as the pole star for the new generation of Central African musician. His unique sound bringing together quintessentially Congolese styles like soukous, rumba and kwassa kwassa with more universal ones like rock, funk and blues has won him followers all over the world, among them Damon Albarn (who asked him to contribute to the Africa Express project).

In a few weeks’ time, Jupiter & Okwess will bring their Bofenia rock to London’s Camden Assembly, for what looks like an electrifying night also involving Mali’s very own BKO Quintet. We, at Rhythm Passport, are more than excited to be part of the event and had a chat with Jupiter just a few days ago…

RP: Your music career started more than 30 years ago. How has your sound changed in the last few years? 

JB: “My project started in 1983. After many different experiences, I gained maturity. After years of work, a man must evolve, and I reached a musical level at which people started to recognize me. 

I oriented the sound of the project towards a more international style. Some instruments like the brass and also the choirs had to be abandoned, but it was mostly due to the fact that we could not travel if there were 14 musicians on the road, so I had to get the team smaller, adapt and go straight to the essentials (bass, drum, and guitar)”.

RP: How would you describe Bofenia rock and why did you decide to call it that?

JB: “Music genres do not fall from the sky. People have to name the style for the music they listen to, so why can’t I name my own genre?

Bofenia is a rhythm played in my ethnic group. It was played in ceremonies where my grandmother was healing people during the Ebola pandemics. I was using this rhythm and mixing it with rock influences, so I named the style Bofenia rock”.

RP: Your songs and their lyrics always hold strong meanings. They can move people’s bodies, but their spirits too. Has your music always been an instrument to reach people’s consciences?

JB:Many revolutions started with a cultural revolution! I always wanted to change things in Congo. I especially wanted to change things about music because it was all about Rumba, but I knew there were so many other styles.

I believe that the lyrics of the songs should speak about daily life, injustices and people’s social conditions. These are strong themes that were not among the music I heard. Telling the truth [in the lyrics] we can change people’s minds. It needs to be done”.

RP: You spent many years abroad, but you always aimed to go back to Congo. What does Congo represent for you and how do you feel about it today?

JB: “Congo has always been my country and the country of my ancestors. Even though I travelled the world, I would rather stay home and get inspiration. I am only inspired when I’m home, in my own country”.

RP: Today, you and your music are rightly considered as a Congolese cultural example. How do you feel about representing Congolese music abroad?

JB: “It is a great joy for me. I am glad that people get to discover Congo’s cultural wealth. If people say that I am the ambassador, it’s fine with me, but all I really do is play music and show the cultural diversity we have in Congo. In the end, I’m feeling fine when I show people there is something else besides rumba coming from the Congo”.

RP: Congolese music, and particularly the sound coming from Kinshasa, has always been very vibrant and inventive. What is happening in the last few years is a clear signal of this, with new bands stepping into the African music market every year. What bands or artists would you recommend we listen to?

JB: “The Kinshasan music scene is boiling. There are many bands following my steps. There always will be. I presented Staff Benda Bilili to the world and I am the president of an association which promotes Kinshasa’s music scene. However, to be honest, you need to come to Kinshasa to really discover what’s going on there”.

RP: Kin Sonic, your new album, was released only a few weeks ago. How do you feel about it and how would you describe it? 

JB: “Kin Sonic represents the new sound of Kinshasa, and what I think about it is, ’Finally, there is a new record that everybody can listen to,’ and that makes me feel great!”

RP: To record and produce Kin Sonic, you worked with an entirely new team. How was it to start a new project with them and what influenced the sound of the album?

JB:It was a great experience! An artist cannot work alone. He needs a team to work with him to complete the recording work. Thanks to them, the new album is out now. They provided me with all that I needed to record and gave me advice too. I am really happy with the work we all did!”

RP: Next to the music and lyrics, another meaningful element of Kin Sonic is represented by its cover, which was designed by Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja and symbolizes some bold concepts. Tell us about that. 

JB:Artists always want to put their photo on their album cover. I don’t want to do that. Robert’s artwork is significant to me. First, the character has golden eyes, which means he has wisdom. 

Then, there are two hearts. That portrays empathy. Finally, the planes carry a double message. They can mean travel but they can also be a threat, like war”.

RP: On the 25th of August, you will play with BKO Quintet at Camden Assembly in London. What can people expect from your show and how would you describe your music?

JB: “They have to expect fire and explosions, that’s all! I am a healer and with our rhythms, we free minds.

What we play is the new sound of Congolese music. I feel that’s the best way to describe my music!”

Photo ©: Florent De La Tullaye