Jupiter Bokondji: 'The cultural riches of Congo are immense'

The Congolese star on his country's music and the UK Africa Express tour, featuring 80 musicians on one train as it makes a string of stops across the UK

Jupiter Bokondji is the star of Jupiter's Dance, a seminal documentary about the music scene in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jupiter and his band Okwess International release their debut album Hotel Univers in the UK this autumn.

You worked with Damon Albarn on the DRC Music project for Oxfam a year ago. Was it a good experience?

I didn't know Damon Albarn before but apparently he's a big figure in English music. So for me it was a big stroke of luck to work with him. And I'm looking forward to sharing more ideas with him, and to really understanding what's happening on the other side, in the west.

You spent your adolescence in Berlin where your father was a Congolese diplomat, and then you travelled around Congo a great deal. Why was that?

It was a journey into the traditional music of the country. I became famous as a singer who performed at wakes and mourning rituals. My father said that this bought shame on the family so he threw me out and I started sleeping rough. Through those mourning rituals I discovered the traditional music of all the hundreds of ethnic groups in the country. The more I discovered, the more I rebelled. I created my first band, Bongo Folk, – the people of the drum – in 1983. That was my first laboratory.

How did people react to the band?

It took time. My mission was to delve into our traditional music and give it an international dimension. But people would say I was just playing white man's music. It took 20 years, of experience and experimentation, but in the end people understood. In 2003 there was a civil war and my friends in the band, which was called Okwess International by then, decided to exile themselves in Europe. But I said: "I'm staying here because I have to finish my mission. I have to revolutionise Congolese music."

Did people think you were a bit crazy to stay behind?

I wanted to convince people in Kinshasa that we have an extremely rich culture. We have nothing to do with gold, diamonds and all that stuff the multinationals are suffocating us with. I'm talking about riches that no one can take from us, in other words, our cultural riches, which are so immense and with which we can develop our country properly.

Often when visitors come to Kinshasa the first word that enters their head is "misery". What's your feeling about that?

I'd say that misery is in the head. During the dictatorship we lived under for years a beggar mentality was imposed on us, which put the brakes on the evolution of the youth. We're a generation that has been sacrificed. We have to evolve and impose a different mentality. Everything comes down to mentality. We mustn't always just wait for someone to give us something. But I really think things are beginning to move in the right direction.


Interview by Andy Morgan

The GuardianTramp

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