Jupiter, you were born in Congo, then still called Zaire, but at a young age joined your father who was working as a diplomat in East-Berlin.
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji: "Before I went to Germany, I still spent a few years in Belgium attending a boarding school in Nivelles, but when my father discovered there was an excellent French school in West-Berlin, he arranged for my transfer."
You describe part of that period in the song 'The World Is My Land (Deutschland)'. How should we imagine the life of an African in the GDR, which was a very isolationist nation?
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji: "As you just said, it was a very isolationist country and even though we weren't the only Africans living there, we were still among the first. I couldn't count the times I heard children in the street turning to their mother saying: "Mama guck mal der Neger!" ("Mom, look a negro!", red.). I've always found it truly bizarre that they called me "negro", considering me as strange, when I travelled back and forth between East- and West-Berlin on a daily basis while they were stuck inside their "socialist paradise"."
It was also in that period that you formed your very first band, Der Neger. Was the music you played back then comparable with what you do with Jupiter & Okwess International?
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji: "No, not at all. I was still very young at the time - I think I must have been eleven or twelve - and it wasn't anything too serious, just me playing the drums and some tam-tam having fun with a bunch of my friends."
When you returned to Congo, for a while you made a living playing at funerals and mourning ceremonies; something your father didn't really appreciate you doing.
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji: "A diplomat's son fresh back from Europe starting a career as a singer at mourning ceremonies of course caused a bit of a stir. Having grown up in Europe, I was very curious about my own culture and country and performing at these funeral ceremonies allowed me to discover the traditional music of Congo. My father preferred me to continue my studies though, and when I wouldn't budge, he threw me out. I found myself living on the streets for a while and that's how my whole adventure got started."
Could you describe Lemba, the municipality of Kinshasa you're from and still live, for us?
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji:called "évolués" (French term, literally "evolved" or "developed" used in the colonial era to refer to native Africans and Asians who had "evolved", through education or assimilation, and accepted European values and patterns of behavior, red.) hang out. It's also a bit of a revolutionary area of the city."
For Jupiter & Okwess International you created a style of your own you call bofenia rock. What does the term "bofenia" refer to?
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji: "Before modern western medicine became commonplace in Congo, my grandmother was a traditional Mongo healer (The Mongo are one of the Bantu groups of Central Africa, forming the second largest ethnic group in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are a diverse collection of peoples living in the equatorial forest, south of the main Congo River bend and north of the Kasai and Sankuru Rivers. This area is in the south of the province of Équateur and the north of Bandundu Province, red.) and in her ceremonies she also used music and dance. One of the dances she used was called the bofenia. When I created my own style of music I decided to call it bofenia rock as it's a mix of traditional Congolese rhythms and influences from western genres like funk and rock."
Why did you call your band Okwess International?
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji: "In my language, Mbunda, "okwess" means food, so Okwess International stands for international food; music for everyone to enjoy!"
Am I right in saying that your career gained momentum when you met Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye, two French filmmakers?
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji: "Absolutely, but meeting them was no surprise to me; I had a feeling someone would come and find me sooner or later. They followed me around for a while, filming my every move and this eventually resulted in the documentary 'Jupiter's Dance'. The rest is history!"
You called your debut album 'Hotel Univers'. Does that place really exist?
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji: "There really is a hotel called Hôtel Univers, yes, it's located in the Lemba area and is run by one of my cousins. The reason I called the album 'Hotel Univers' is not because I necessarily wanted to make reference to the hotel in Lemba though, but because it reflects the same cultural diversity I try to evoke with my music."
One of the most energetic songs on the album is 'Bapasi'. What exactly is it about?
Jean-Pierre 'Jupiter' Bokondji: "The term "bapasi" means suffering, something for the longest time there was no lack of in Congo. In the song I state things are changing though; Congo is gaining momentum and our suffering is changing into positive energy. Africa is the future!"