Album Review: Jupiter & Okwess Turn Congo Turbulence Into Ferocious Grooves

Jupiter Bokondji Ilola, now 54, didn’t choose a comfortable path. As the son of a diplomat from Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo — a country long ravaged by poverty, corruption and civil war — he spent much of his childhood in Tanzania and East Germany, and he could have pursued an education in Europe. Instead he left his family as a teenager to live in Kinshasa, the capital, and began working as a musician.

He had listened to American and British funk, rock and R&B while living in Germany in the 1970s. Back in his home country, he recognized the African foundations of those styles. The band he joined in the early 1980s was eventually renamed Okwess — “food” in the Kibunda language — as he became its songwriter and lyricist (often collaborating on music with band members) and lead singer.

Like many African musicians, Jupiter writes socially conscious admonitions to be carried by dance grooves; he has billed himself as the “rebel general.” He delivers his messages with a low, raspy edge and, in more than one song, a hearty laugh. His songs urge listeners to reform and rebuild Congo while they decry the legacy from his parents’ generation of kleptocracy, inequality and factionalism.

The lyrics on Jupiter & Okwess’s new album, “Kin Sonic,” concentrate on positive thinking rather than open protest; they insist on unity, mutual respect, justice, humility and thinking about the long term. But the album also includes “Benanga,” a parable set to a galloping beat and twin guitars: “The king organizes his marriage with the money of the people, and he doesn’t even invite them! The king is a thief.”

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“Kin Sonic” is the follow-up to Jupiter & Okwess’s international debut album, “Hotel Univers.”Credit

The Congolese pop best known worldwide is the re-Africanized rumba that defines styles like soukous and kwassa kwassa. Jupiter & Okwess have delved instead into Congo’s many other local and regional traditions: a pushback against homogenization, an example of multiethnic solidarity and a trove of possibilities. “I decided to reactivate this material and show the world that all musics come from Congo,” Jupiter said in a 2013 video interview for the band’s forceful international debut album, “Hotel Univers.”

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That album’s successor, “Kin Sonic,” has just been released in the United States, while Jupiter & Okwess are on an American tour. (The band plays the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s free noontime R&B series at MetroTech on July 19.)

Okwess uses rock instruments: guitars, bass, drums. On “Kin Sonic,” guest rockers also sit in: Warren Ellis (from Dirty Three and the Bad Seeds) on violin and keyboards and Damon Albarn (from Gorillaz) on keyboards. Superficially at least, the music registers overall as vigorous, inventive variations on funk.

Still, the album insists on the music’s specific local heritages, crediting each song with the language of the lyrics (among them Lingala, Tetela, Ekonda, Mongo and Tshiluba) and an underlying traditional rhythm. The subtleties of those traditions may well explain the wily rhythmic gamesmanship throughout the album, particularly from Eric Malu-Malu and Richard Kabanga on guitars. Picking, strumming, scrubbing quick rhythm chords or tangling little tendrils of melody, their parts constantly tease and rewire the songs.

On “Musonsu,” a call for unity, guitar licks play cat-and-mouse with the downbeat; in “Ekombe,” a celebration of dancing, they set up a brisk stereo call-and-response under the verses. And in “Bengai Yo,” as Jupiter bitterly asks, “How many deaths and wars because of men’s injustice?,” the guitars’ stuttering repeated notes, modal patterns and a six-against-four rhythm (called zebola) maintain a tightly coiled tension.

For all the seriousness of the songs, Jupiter & Okwess make sure to keep the party going. “Nzele Momi” claims a rhythm called bonyoma, but the hi-hats in the drumbeat and the quick, dry rhythm-guitar strumming are also the tools of vintage disco. The song happens to call for the respect and protection of women: All the better.

Jupiter & Okwess
“Kin Sonic”
(Everloving)

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