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Jupiter & Okwess In Verdun, France, Saturday, July 16th, 2022

Jupiter & Okwess
Jupiter & Okwess

During my vacations in France, I managed to catch a free concert along the Meuse River in the small town of Verdun, a location sadly famous because of War World I. On Saturday night, Jupiter & Okwess, a band from the Democratic Republic of Congo, animated a warm summer night with exotic African rhythms. Just after the concert, I checked the Instagram page of frontman Jupiter Bokondji and had the pleasant surprise to see him jamming with Warren Ellis and Flea in a Parisian garden, just five days ago, so I knew I was in very familiar territory in this small world of music. But aren’t we always in familiar territories when it comes to African music?

On stage, Jupiter & Okwess (Okwess means “food” in Kibunda) is a high-energy spectacle, they move and dance while installing grooves and rhythms that seem to have always existed in our collective psyche. Jupiter fronts the band with his tall, thin silhouette and long arms that he stretches in all directions while singing with a low nicotine-tainted baritone. “Ça va? On est là!” [How are you doing? We are here!”] he told us several times in a reassuring tone. Astonishingly, Bokondji is 57 (or 58) but doesn’t look his age at all with a young silhouette and very agile moves on stage; he resembles a wise sorcerer with a benevolent presence.

The show was colorful, and their patchwork of clothes reflected the diverse chaos of their music: A guerrilla jacket and a red beret, an African-inspired tunic, and a mask (worn by the drummer) that looked much more like a Mexican wrestling mask than an African thing. If the sonic roots run deep in African music, they seem to have engulfed a lot of influences and I could not stop noticing the funky bass that accompanied almost every one of their upbeat tunes. Five on stage, they made the public dance non-stop during a 90-minute performance filled with throbbing rhythms and a unique combination of styles from Congolese rumba, soukous, kwassa kwassa, with the help of Cameroon guitars and diverse Western influences. The music has been compared to a Latin Fela Kuti or a tropical James Brown, but their anarchic chaos of sounds also made me think of Fishbone with a more affirmed African approach, whereas Jupiter has called his multi-international mélange, “Bofenia Rock.” The goal was to make people dance: “Since the dawn of time, humans have danced,” he told us, “Danced at weddings and funerals, even danced before wars!” However, the message was deep, and the lyrics were socially conscious: there barely were protesting lines and the songs rather concentrated on respect, justice, unity, and positive thinking. “On peut faire mieux que ça” [We can do better than this”] was the title of one of their songs. “On this earth of humans,” he told us, “There are always problems!” Meanwhile, languages (Lingala, French, and even German) were intertwined from one song to the next one.

Besides some slower African ballads, most of the songs were delivered with electrifying urgency and always carried by extended dance grooves, producing a Pan-African trance-triggering party, with infectious beats evoking both a traditional past and innovative detours. Their most recent album, “Na Kozonga” (“Everloving”), involved the participation of artists as diverse as Brazilian rapper Marcelo D2, Louisiana Preservation Hall Jazz band, and French multi-instrumentalist Yarol Poupaud who worked with Johnny Hallyday, while Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis, Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn, and Massive Attack’s 3D have collaborated to their 2018 album “Kin Sonic.”

This international cast may be explained by Jupiter Bokondji’s life as a globetrotter. “I grew up in Berlin in the ‘70s,” he told us, “And I would cross the wall twice a day to go to school,” he continued explaining he was attending a French school in West Berlin. “Sometimes, in East Berlin, they would call me N*** but they were communists and could not cross the wall as I could!” Sharing with us this slice of absurd freedom he experienced before returning to his country to reconnect with the abundant richness of African music.

During one of their funky Afrobeat songs (it could have been “Nzele Momi”) they invited women to come on stage, and the dance that had started at the first note continued on a very crowded stage. For an hour and a half, the dynamic band barely slowed down, playing Congolese rumbas injected with multi-ethnic rhythms, ‘70s funk, and hypnotic grooves. The only traditional instrument on stage was a Tam-Tam, in plain view on the back of the stage and used by Jupiter at times. It was a symbol of their African heritage and a link between past and future.

The trio Thibaut Sibella and The Graveyard Shift opened the evening with a blend of bluegrass, folk, and vintage rock. Although the trio was French, they had chosen to compose their songs in English, inspired by folk pioneers. Using banjo, upright bass, guitar, and harmonica, their original compositions brought harmonies and emotion with concrete storytelling. Storytelling in English? It was not even exotic.


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