Album Review: Jupiter and Okwess – Kin Sonic

A fire-forged, crucible-hardened Congolese rhythmic wrecking ball.

Genre: Eclectic/unclassifiable, with Congolese, Cuban, Afropop, jazz, and hard rock influences
Country: D.R. Congo
Release date: March 3, 2017
Label: Glitterbeat
Catalog number: GBLP050

Personnel:
Jupiter Bokondji Ilola – lead vocals, percussion
Montana Kinunu – drums, vocals
Yende Balamba – bass, vocals
Eric Malu-Malu – guitars
Richard Kabanga – guitars
with
Warren Ellis – keyboards, overdubs, and violin (tracks 3-5, 8-11)
Damon Albarn – keyboards (tracks 2 and 7)
Sandrine Bonnaire – vocals (track 9)
Anderson Bilomba Mubiayi – guitars (track 9)

1.

Hello

3:45

2.

Musonsu

3:37

3.

Ofakombolo 

2:33

4.

Benanga

2:52

5.

Pondjo Pondjo

3:11

6.

Emikele Ngamo

3:11

7.

Nkoy

3:18

8.

Nzele Momi

4:40

9.

Le temps passé

4:42

10.

Ekombe

4:07

11.

Bengai Yo  

2:45

Total running time:

38:41

One thing that I always end up reflecting upon when listening to music from the West/Central African musical renaissance we enjoy today is the ebullient, relentless, unquenchable joy of it. Even in the Congo, perhaps the most ravaged, misruled, and despoiled country on earth, which has borne the worst cruelties of slave traders, mercenaries, King Leopold II and the Belgian state, Mobutu Sese Seko and his goons, kleptocrats, and European business vampires, multiple civil wars, and now the slavery-based mining operations that provide tantalum for most of the electronics in the world, where most people live in poverty unimaginable to all but the most destitute Americans, the new wave of Congolese bands represented by Jupiter and Okwess, Mbongwana Star, Konono No1, and similar bands bursts with an exultation at merely being alive, and a sense of generosity and goodwill that could hardly contrast more with the music we make here in the West or the Global North or whatever you wish to call the immense accumulation of wealth and power that has accumulated in the spheres of influence of various European empires. And this goodwill is earnest, with none of the irony, tragedy, kitsch, or fantasy that we who think ourselves more cultured and sophisticated than “them” wrap ours in (when we choose to express it at all), as if we are ashamed of it.

And this doesn’t just apply to metal or hip-hop or other obviously malcontented forms of music—listen to any Top 40 radio station in the United States and you’ll hear an endless stream of “love” songs that paint love as a zero-sum game between one man and one woman, and often the man is attempting to “take” a woman who “belongs” to another man. Even a meeting of two (always only two) souls is only complete when disaster befalls a third party, the “he” whom the protagonist says he will treat “you” better than. Death, disaster, and doom lurk in affluent societies, for most, just out of sight, haunting us as phantoms—homelessness a potential consequence of a lost job, unpayable medical bills a “what if?” for lack of things to maim us in the here and now, war that everyone talks about but you never notice happening, death a ticking clock counting down rather than a present threat, global warming a bunch of horror stories from far-off lands with the promise that they’ll happen to your grandchildren after you’re gone. Perhaps such morbid anxieties, especially in abstracted forms like the subject of next month’s review, lack their frisson in a life where real, rather than imagined, calamity is always close at hand.

The other thing that strikes me about these acts, especially the Congolese ones, is their eclecticism and unpredictability. For all its poverty and deprivation, the Congo, as a land whose people are largely considered worthless to the global market, offers the musicians who can survive a musical landscape free of the meddling and genre boundary enforcement inflicted universally upon musicians in rich countries. There is so much going into this music—Cuban son and rumba music (filtered through not one but several African countries), hard rock, punk, Guinea coast Afropop, and the traditional Congolese music known as bofenia that Jupiter Bokondji Ilola inherited from his family—and Jupiter and Okwess, instead of just picking one subgenre and using the other sounds as garnishes, manages to integrate them all into a coherent whole. There are no four-chord pop progressions, no fills that you can see coming a mile away, nothing seemingly there only because “the market” or “the kids” want it (although the market’s tentacles have a bit more grip on this album than the previous—more on that later). Jupiter and Okwess, despite only having exposure in the West for a few years, has been active in the Congo since 1984 (and Jupiter himself played in a rock band in East Germany in the ‘70s), and on their sophomore album sound like the experienced, ultra-tight band of veterans that they are, but without the plodding “old man band” sound so many Western groups with 30-plus-year histories develop—with the exception of the reflective, ballad-ish (but too structually eccentric to fit within the mold of a Western ballad) “Pondjo Pondjo”, “Nkoy”, and “Le temps passé”, these songs explode with energy.


The Rebel General of Congolese music himself, with the rest of Okwess standing behind him.

The foremost contributor to this energy is the drummer Montana Kinunu, who provides the rhythmic motor that drives this album forward. While these songs don’t have any tempo changes, Kinunu does not ride a single groove for an entire song like most drummers performing dance-oriented music, but constantly switches up his approach to the beat while maintaining his energy and momentum. I am not normally fond of four-on-the-floor beats but Kinunu’s are exceptional, with lots of unexpected but completely fitting accents and flourishes that keep the insistent pulse of the bass drum from getting repetitive. Jupiter Bokondji also provides percussion in the form of hand drums, though his rhythmic contribution is much less than on the debut album Hotel Univers, where he was on the percussion almost constantly, and often contributed more to the overall shape and direction of the rhythm than the drummer did.

While there is a lot of rock influence in the drums and bass, it does not extend to the guitars, as Eric Malu-Malu and Richard Kabanga largely stick to the African style of high-register fingerstyle guitar playing with few of the heavy chord-based riffs and progressions found in most rock music from the early 1970s onward, except for the punkish main riff of “Ofakombolo”. The guitars in general, like with a lot of African popular music, largely stay in the background while the rhythm instruments and vocals do most of the heavy lifting, and without loud guitar distortion everywhere, Kin Sonic boasts a strikingly clear and transparent mix for a modern album, even in digital form. The LP is, of course, even better with its added dynamic range, and boasts a remarkably sturdy and luxurious jacket considering the crap a lot of modern records come packaged in. The only demerit for the LP edition is the extremely limited liner notes—track listing, credits, and virtually nothing else, and certainly no lyrics. Considering that all the lyrics are in Congolese languages except “Le temps passé”, which is in French, the Anglophone listener has only the barest hints from press releases to go on as far as what these songs actually have to say, lyrically—they are apparently mostly veiled commentary on Congolese society and politics, but that’s about all I have been able to gather.

A technically gifted singer like, say, Salif Keita from Mali, could use the subtleties of his voice to overcome the language barrier, but Jupiter’s voice, while strong, lacks the tone colors and expressiveness of a classically trained singer, and there’s a hoarseness to his tone that never quite goes away, even in the softer tracks. It’s really kind of a shame, considering that he wrote nearly all of these songs, that he gets a lot fewer opportunities to use these competitions to showcase his talent as a performer as well as a composer, since he is on the percussion, where he really shines, far less on Hotel Univers. His best moments are on “Nzele Momi” and “Le temps passé”, where he’s on the hand drums for most of the song, and the latter lets him stretch his range a bit as a vocalist, exploring his upper register and even employing (quite natural and well-done) vibrato, which he otherwise never uses at all. You can’t fault him for his energy, charisma, or stage presence though, and he is an absolute force live, as I saw when attending his performance in Asheville, North Carolina last month.

Since energy is Jupiter and Okwess’ greatest asset, it is only natural that the most hectic of the tracks on Kin Sonic are also the best ones. “Ofakombolo” therefore comes out as the obvious pick for the standout song of the album. It’s not quite the destroyer of worlds that “The World is My Land” from Hotel Univers was, but it’s close. “Ofakombolo” lasts barely over two minutes, but flies through its material at breakneck speed, working off a skeletal four-on-the-floor groove that the rhythm section is constantly elaborating upon and altering its approach to keep fresh. It’s also catchy as absolute hell despite not having much in the way of verses or choruses, with a brief shout of “ofakombolo!” being the only thing it has that qualifies as a refrain. It’s more or less a pop single, with the music video to match, but there are more interesting musical ideas here than in Shawn Mendes’ entire discography. It’s probably also an amazing song to dance to as well, if you have the skill and nerve to keep up.

However, the other songs are much less distinctive; there are some that are more engaging and others less, but nearly all of them draw from the same well of elements—there might be a lot going into this music, but it features largely the same ingredients in every song, while Hotel Univers, and other prominent Congolese albums such as Konono No1’s Congotronics, not only had much more variation in structure, arrangement, and influences between songs, and thus more memorable songs, but also more idiosyncratic and unusual elements in general. Jupiter Bokondji places great importance on reaching an audience outside the Congo, but such international exposure always comes with the price that the “international” (Western) way of doing things, and its attendant library of tropes and genre conventions, is to some degree imposed upon the musicians and music thus “exposed”. Since Jupiter and Okwess remind Western listeners of rock and funk music, this means Jupiter and Okwess, to some extent, had to become like a Western funk-rock band, at the expense of some of their original character. The fact that they still retain so much, despite all the adversity they have faced and going unrecorded for almost two decades, is a testament to the band’s, especially Jupiter Bokondji’s, skill, perseverance, and vision.

But I doubt Jupiter himself would see it that way. For the vast majority of humanity who live and have always lived without affluence, change, entropy, and dissolution are a stark, non-negotiable reality, necessity rules above all other considerations, and freezing a moment or an art scene or a band’s “sound” at some supposed peak, as we try to do in the middle-class West, is as ludicrous as landing on the sun. Kin Sonic could never have sounded like Hotel Univers, nor could Hotel Univers have sounded like the Jupiter and Okwess that played Kinshasa clubs in the Mobutu era, before the civil war, and now exists only in the memories of the people who were there. Jupiter and Okwess is whatever it needs to be at any time to get Jupiter Bokondji’s message to the world out, and Kin Sonic is an excellent and entertaining bearer of that message—energetic and rhythmically tight enough to keep a dance party moving while also being intricate and surprising enough to invite close listening. I heartily endorse this record for any fans of hard rock, funk, psychedelic soul, hip-hop, and especially West African musicians, and it makes a great point of entry into the wider, weirder Congolese/central African music scene.

Rating: 85%

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