JUPITER – Kinshasa’s rebel general stands tall

Jupiter and Okwess International at Carlisle Railway Station, September 2012. Photo by Andy Morgan

Jupiter and Okwess International at Carlisle Railway Station, September 2012. Photo by Andy Morgan

In the early years of that epic conflict known as the cold war, an Irishman wrote a funny-sad piece of theatre, a kind of excruciating fairy tale about a pair of old tramps who sat around waiting for this guy called Godot. Except that Godot wasn’t a person of course; he was an idea, a fantasy, a spectral solution to every ill who lurks just out of sight but never actually arrives. Life is what happens when you’re busy waiting for Godot, the play seemed to say.

The Democratic Republic of Congo reminds me of that play. The whole country is waiting for Godot. Godot in the form of fat hand-outs from foreign aid-workers who glide around in their brand new Toyota Land Cruisers; Godot in the form of a passport, a visa and a plane ticket to Europe or El Dorado; Godot in the form of a winning lottery ticket, a bag of diamonds, a super rich husband, a bucket of full gold, neodymium, europium or cerium uncovered by pure fluke; Godot in the form of an honest politician, who really and truly loves all his people and is ready to sweat blood for their well being; Godot in the form of God Almighty, with the keys to the pearly gates jangling at His belt and the lure of everlasting bliss in His eyes.

Unlike those taciturn old tramps in Samuel Beckett’s play, the DRC sings and dances and taps out rhythms of an incredible variety, endlessly, while it waits. Most of its better known pop tunes are about love. Ma cherie this or mon amour that. Most of them bounce along on a beat known as soukous, which is the African love-child of Cuban rhumba, American funk, Antillean zouk and a jumble of local rhythms. In cultural terms at least, soukous is the DRC’s greatest export. It’s the heads-down-no-nonsense-fuck-art-let’s-dance pop beat of sub-Saharan Africa. And it’s the nation’s tonic, its Viagra, Valium and Mogadon all compacted into one enticing musical pill which, while it waits for Godot, the DRC downs like tomorrow never knows.

But not the Rebel General. Not Jupiter Bokondji

Tall, languid and lean as a beanpole in his khaki fatigues and red epaulettes, with his beaten up snot-green Merc and his voice that rumbles like tectonic plates, Jupiter refuses to play the waiting game. At least, not THAT waiting game. In his own solitary way, he’s been refusing to play it for the past 20 years. Godot can go and take a leap in the majestic Congo River for all he cares.

Jupiter knows all about Europe. As a young boy and teenager, he lived there for ten years with his father, a diplomat and card-carrying member of the Congo’s elite, who was posted to the Congolese Embassy in East Berlin in 1970. At that time, President Mobutu was the darling of the CIA and Zaire, as Mobutu’s ‘fiefdom’ was then known, was considered by the Western powers to be a bulwark against the red menace in Central Africa. So communist East Germany must have been quite a situation for Bokondji senior. As for his seven-year-old son, experiencing the cold war gloom of Alexander Platz and Unter Den Linden for the first time must have been like landing on the darker side of Mars. Make that Pluto.

“I crossed the wall twice daily to go to the French school in the West,” Jupiter recalls. “I was always being called neger. The word reached my ears almost every day. I asked, ‘what does this neger mean?’ and I was told it meant ‘nigger’. Poor people, I thought. They understand nothing. They call me nigger but they’re like prisoners, whereas I can cross the wall and leave this place when I want. They knew nothing about black people. They were blinkered and they were living in misery.”

Jupiter formed a band called Die Neger with his mates. Nice touch that, turning an insult into a badge of honour. The band did covers: the Jackson 5 (NOT Michael Jackson, Jupiter insists), James Brown, the Commodores, Kool and the Gang, Boney M, maybe a bit of Deep Purple. The harvest breeze of rock and funk’s greatest decade wafted in and out of Jupiter’s ears. He learned a lot in Berlin, not least that Europe is no stranger to misery or tribalism.

Returning to the Congo aged 17 was another shock, but not an altogether unpleasant one. “I discovered that all the sounds I’d been hearing in Germany existed back home,” he says. “But in a raw state. And I said to myself, ‘Hey, all that music I listened to on the other side, it comes from my homeland, from Africa. It’s not their music, it’s our music. It’s just raw and we have to modernise it.’ So that became my mission in a way.”

Although Jupiter travelled extensively around the Congo in his 20s and 30s, working the cargo boats that plied the Congo river or managing the affairs of a government minister, who had interests far and wide, he’s never been to the northern Equatorial province where his ancestors, the Mongo people of the rainforest, come from. But in the Congo, you don’t have to travel with your feet to discover the musical riches of this vast territory, the eighth largest country in the world and one of the richest in terms of its cultural diversity. You can stay in the capital Kinshasa and just travel with your ears. Every single tribe and clan is represented in the capital. Moreover, Jupiter’s grandmother was a traditional Mongo healer who took her grandson along to rituals and wakes from an early age, and, when he came back from Germany, it was that underrated world of street-level musical culture that pulled him in like the overpowering gravitational pull of some celestial body.

“People would come and fetch me to play at mourning ceremonies and wakes,” Jupiter explains. “I became famous for that. And at those wakes I heard the music of all the ethnicities of the Congo, all 450 of them. And I said to myself, ‘Wow! What a story.’ After that I recorded a lot and went deeper into the documentation of Congolese culture. I just woke up, you know.”

It was, to mint a phrase, a revolution in the head, made all the more powerful by the anomaly of discovering one’s own musical culture at the advanced age of 17.  The musical variety and vitality that the young Jupiter stumbled upon in Kinshasa formed the basis of a credo that has motivated him ever since, one that sees the current might of soukous as an suffocating anachronism detrimental to all the other myriad styles that exist in the country.

“First, I really wanted to convince the population of Kinshasa that we’re very rich in culture. It has nothing to do with gold or diamonds and all that stuff which the multinationals are suffocating us with. There’s this other wealth that no one can steal from us and it’s huge.”  Certain words keep tripping off Jupiter’s tongue; “diversity”, “riches”, “immense”, “unexploited.”  “We’re sleeping on a mattress stuffed with dollars,” he likes to say, “but we’re dying of hunger!”

This belief in the cultural rather than the mineral or agricultural wealth of his country underpins Jupiter’s latest album Hotel Univers. The Congo is a universe in one hotel. The swimming pool has no water in it and the lifts don’t work, but the potential of the place is none the less astounding.

“With this album, I wanted to show that Congolese music has no limits,” he says, “You can play almost any rhythm that can be found in this world. ‘Hotel Univers’ is a new sound for Congolese music.”

Bokondji senior gagged at the idea of his European-educated son singing at wakes in the ghettoes of Kinshasa. So he kicked him out of the house and Jupiter became homeless for a while, at least until his mother’s family took him back in. “When I dived into that world, it was a discovery for me,” he says. “I rebelled. I think that this rebellion was first and foremost about changing mentalities. During the Mobutu dictatorship, a certain way of thinking was imposed on us, of begging. The brakes were put on the development of the youth. But now we have to find ways of evolving and imposing a different mentality. We mustn’t always wait to be given something.”

Jupiter calls Laurent Désirée Kabila, the longstanding Congolese rebel leader who overthrew Mobutu in 1997, his hero. Unusually, he doesn’t seem the least bit sentimental about the memory of Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first President, who was assassinated only a year after independence with the connivance and even active participation of a cabal of opposition leaders, Belgian grand colons, CIA operatives and, as has recently been uncovered, agents of the British secret service MI6. Kabila senior lead the political rebellion that ushered in what Jupiter calls “our timid democracy.”  Jupiter himself, the Rebel General, lead and is still leading a complementary musical rebellion.

In 1983 he formed his first band Bongofolk, or “the people of the tam tam” as he subtitles the name. “It was my first laboratory,” he says. The band mutated into Okwess International in 1990, ‘okwess’ being the Kimbunda word for ‘food’ or ‘nourishment’. For a while the band flourished and became a kind of unofficial music school through which a stream of well and lesser-known Congolese musicians passed. In 1999 Jupiter and Okwess were chosen to represent DRC at the MASA Music fair in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Then the Congo experienced one of its periodic descents into hell. President Laurent Kabila attempted to oust the Rwandan and Ugandan troops who had helped him to topple Mobutu and seize power and this lead to the Second Congo War, one of the bloodiest Africa has ever known. Over four years, millions perished and hundreds of thousands fled the country. Kinshasa limped along among the blood and chaos. Jupiter refused to leave but gave up the music and band leading for a while. It was only in 2003, when a delegation of young musicians including his nephew, the seraphim-voiced Yendé Bongongo and the percussionist Claude Kinunu Montana, also a member of the late-lamented Staff Benda Bilili, came to see Jupiter and asked him to recommence operations, that Okwess got back on its feet and the mission continued.

Then in 2004, by the kind of fluke that might be mistaken for the long-awaited arrival of Godot, Jupiter met the French filmmakers Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret. “When they arrived, I told them that I’d been waiting for them,” Jupiter recounts. “Waiting for them for far too long. Because I’m a visionary and I knew then that things would begin to happen.”

And happen they did. Through creative happenstance and fate rather than any bold or preconceived master plan, the film that Barret and de la Tullaye eventually made about Kinshasa’s extraordinary grass roots music scene was loosely focussed on Jupiter and they called it Jupiter’s Dance. To my mind, it’s a classic of African music cinema, a precious snapshot of a musical giant in the process of reawakening. By ‘giant’ I refer mainly to Kinshasa but also to the Congo and Jupiter himself.

“We filmed Jupiter a lot. He was the most interesting character for us and the most incredible musician,” Florent de la Tullaye told me, adding that Jupiter was doubly attractive because he was one of the rare musicians in Kinshasa to speak French at the time and neither De la Tullaye or Barrett had yet mastered Lingala, the local lingua franca. “But it was also because his music was totally different, quite complex and well mastered, even too much so perhaps,” he went on to say. “At the same time he had a culture and was well travelled. He knew about music from everywhere. He also had quite an unusual message. He was very critical of his own society and wasn’t the kind of guy to spit at whites.”

Neither is Jupiter under any illusion about what the white man’s burden had done to his people and his country. “The whites came to civilise us,” he says with tired irony. “We had the land. They had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. And when we opened them again, they had the land and we had the Bible.”  But he’s equally critical of the Lumumba and Mobutu generation, the generation of his father, which, in his opinion, “sacrificed” the generation that followed, his own. “When talking about the older generation, it’s the result that counts,” he says. “Where are we now? We’re fucked. We’re a lost generation. So we have to think differently now and not listen to the advice of the old any more.”

The release of the film Jupiter’s Dance in 2007 set off a chain reaction that ricocheted involvement with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express off against Okwess’s first European dates, the recording of ‘Hotel Univers’ and a seat on the Africa Express train tour of 2012, all leading without too much of a slalom to the main stage of Glastonbury on a glorious Friday in June of 2013. Jupiter and Okwess International had been asked to step in for a malarial Toumani Diabate to become the opening act of the world greatest fiesta of rock’n’roll. The crowd was small at first, but swelled nicely as Jupiter laid out the fruits of his thirty year long mission in a rainbow of rhythmic colours. “For me, it was one of those joys,” he says. “I really don’t know how to express it. And what’s more I represented Africa, the great continent, with its cultural and musical diversity that remains unexploited. It was a proud day for me.”

When we met for the first time, six years ago in Kinshasa, I asked Jupiter as simple question: “How’s it going?”. “On se bat!,” he answered with a gentle knowing smile, “We’re fighting.” He’s still fighting now, but perhaps his long wait is over. I wish I could say the same for millions of his fellow countrymen.

Andy Morgan. (c) 2013

First published in Songlines – October, 2013

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