Under the Influence: Jupiter & Okwess International
This year Africa Oyé festival celebrates its 25th anniversary, and invites a number of artists who've played in the past back on stage. Eagerly anticipated returning act Jupiter & Okwess International tell us about some of their inspirations
Jupiter Bokondji stands in the fire. The leader of Kinshasa pioneers Jupiter & Okwess International, the charismatic catalyst is bringing his troupe back to Liverpool’s Africa Oyé festival this summer.
In 2011, after a decade spent spreading the word across Central Africa, the band – who hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo – took part in an Oxfam project driven by Damon Albarn, which led to their fusion of traditional and Western rhythms and melodies being featured on the resulting DRC Music – Kinshasa One Two album.
Since then, Bokondji has stayed true to his aim: to honour the idea of reactivating and reinvigorating the forgotten rhythms and melodies of Congo. “What matters now is to lay the foundations for our children and grandchildren,” he says. “But I’m not too interested in the past.”
Bokondji’s is a past that doesn’t hide from the political and economic troubles of his country, however. “Following independence in 1960, the country was in good condition and utilities worked,” he says. “But our parents were unable to pass the independence ‘test’... and they blew it. They were given the chance but they messed up and sacrificed a generation.”
Tough words, but that’s what you get from an artist who refuses to compromise. Yes, there’s a Western fusion in the music of Jupiter & Okwess International, but their international debut album (2013’s Hotel Univers) sacrificed nothing owing to their origins.
Since then, Bokondji and his band have toured extensively and injected the urban groove of modern Congo into hearts and feet around the world. “When I return to the daily hustle and want time off from the streets of Kinshasa, I rent a room at Hotel Univers,” he says. “Many of the ideas for my songs are made up between my room there and the bar – I get a whisky and go meet the characters that inhabit my songs.”
We asked him to provide us with a guide to the sounds that shaped his outlook, and to let us in on what Western music to have made it to Congo might pass his acid test.
Alpha Blondy – Cocody Rock and Jérusalem
[Cocody Rock!!!, 1984; Jérusalem, 1986]
“I love the reggae sound of Jérusalem, but I didn’t understand the language so well. To me, the album represented the conflict between Jerusalem and Palestine. I discovered Alpha Blondy through Cocody Rock!!! though and that remains my favourite – it’s so powerful. The lyrics throughout the album are amazing and the social commentary and commitment moved me. I really felt this album.”
Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution
[Handsworth Revolution, 1978]
“I love what Steel Pulse bring to reggae… I call them ‘crazy reggae’ because of their energy. I remember giving my friend a copy of a disc, because I only had cassette and vinyl players! I’ve been listening to Steel Pulse for a long time and also bands like Third World, too, who brought a more ‘rocky’ sound to reggae music. Everything about Handsworth Revolution still inspires me nearly 40 years on – after all these years I can still feel the same love and passion that created the record. It’s very peaceful to me.”
Claude François – Le Téléphone Pleure and Magnolias For Ever
[Le Mal Aimé, 1974; Magnolias For Ever, 1977]
“Le Téléphone Pleure was such an important song when I was young. It’s disco, but you can hear elements of funk, soul and salsa… which is what disco music is! Everybody loves the energy of disco, don’t they? Magnolias For Ever is a lot of fun, but it’s more pop music than funky disco…”
The Doors – Light My Fire and The Rolling Stones – Jumpin’ Jack Flash
[The Doors, 1967; Jumpin’ Jack Flash single, 1968]
“I don't know the music of these bands that well, but we got to hear the songs in Congo when we were younger and it was ‘noise’ to us… and we liked ‘noise’! Our fathers also told us not to listen to this music as it was influenced by alcohol and the devil.”
Bob Marley – Catch A Fire
“The man became 'the singer' and a star after Catch A Fire, but I discovered reggae music with Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh – they were my first reggae loves. I don’t have a favourite album by Jimmy or Peter, though, I listen to everything they’ve done and groove with all the rhythm and melodies.”
“My link with Pygmy music is truly eternal. The polyphonic song people far in the forests keep it real, but the modern kind of Pygmy music plays in the city and stays very close to those origins. For me, Pygmy music is the origin of music…”