Jupiter & Okwess International – MOMO, London, September 10 2012
By Jim Hickson
Just two days after disembarking from the momentous week-long, train-bound jam session that was Africa Express, one would be expected to be taking a well-earned rest. But for those with party in their veins, rest is never an option and Jupiter & Okwess International took to the stage once again.
The set started one musician at a time: Alberto Makossa makes an abrupt cymbal crash before slipping into a funk rhythm on the drum kit; Cubain Kabeya joins in with Latin-tinged percussion in the form of congas and bongos; followed by Yendé Balemba on bass, Choulé Mubiayé on rhythm guitar and Richard Kabanga on lead guitar. Each introduced themselves musically but with little fanfare before dropping into the groove, which had been aided by Nelly Eliya adding her shakers to the mix. Finally, a lanky, powerful-looking man walked slowly onto the stage and assumes the central position in front of a pair of drums. This was Jupiter Bokonji, leader of Okwess International.
Although Okwess International’s instrumentation is similar to that of their compatriots Staff Benda Bilili, their overall sound seems to owe more to the hypnotic repetition of the likembé (thumb piano). Richard’s lead guitar lines flitted between funk and something approaching dark soukous sounds through the typical distorted ‘congotronic’ tone, sometimes even sounding like a particularly crunchy synthesiser.
As a venue, Momo’s Kemia Bar may seem somewhat incongruous for a central African band whose main export is dance – it’s very small, stuffy and Moroccan-themed. Perhaps a more open and relaxed vibe could have benefitted the music, but with the night’s crowd, the atmosphere felt perfectly intense.
From their mid-tempo, groovy opener, each following track ramped up the atmosphere until, by the middle of the set, the audience was bouncing to the track ‘Deutchsland is My Land’, and going wild by the time they tried to leave the stage for the first time.
Aside from a handful of tracks on which he takes lead vocal duty from Yendé or Nelly, Jupiter resembles a figure akin to that of a gospel reverend leading his choir – central to the band but not necessarily their music; the nucleus that gives meaning to the band’s cell.
Called back for the obligatory encore, the band proceeded to play a medley of two tracks over 20 minutes, echoing the shape of their set as a whole: starting fairly laid-back and ending in a riotous fashion. Now in their 22nd year and umpteenth incarnation, it seems that Jupiter and Okwess International are finally beginning to get the recognition they, based on this performance at least, very fully deserve.