Adrenaline pumps through every note and beat of Kin Sonic, the sophomore album from Kinshasa-based musician Jupiter Bokondji and his band, Okwess International. What he calls “Bofenia Rock” – bofenia being a dance Bokondji’s grandmother used in traditional Mongo healing ceremonies before the mainstream popularity of modern medicine in today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo – puts funk, garage rock, and traditional Congolese styles in a blender and hits them with lightning. The whole of the album flies sky high.
Jupiter and Okwess, as the collective group is known, plays with textures throughout the album. Rough-edged foundations of fuzzy guitar and growling vocals allow for moments of sharp clarity and technique to truly dazzle. Bokondji can spit lyrics with the best of them; his verses on exuberant “Ofakombolo” are unstoppable feats of razor-tongued alacrity. At the same time, he can stir the heart with songs like “Pondjo Pondjo”, where horns and hand drums back his leathery higher register, or “Le Temps Passe”, a wistful piece that relegates the duty of rhythms almost entirely to guitar for a much lighter touch and features a Gainsbourg-esque spoken word interlude.
The more Okwess rocks out, though, the more intriguing the cut. “Hello” opens Kin Sonic with clean and complex drum patterns that lead into a loping dance between guitar and bass as Bokondji greets a multilingual world of listeners – bom dia, bonjour, good morning, hello! – in what makes for a hefty introduction to the band. “Musonsu” picks up the pace; here, the guitar hits sunnier, higher notes, the likes of which are reminiscent of 1980s and ’90s South African pop.
At times, Kin Sonic starts to fall into charted territory, but Okwess manages to pull interesting moments out of each song. “Benanga” begins with generic and unchanging riffs, but the tempo and meter change throughout, a rollercoaster of a song from start to finish. The group’s warm vocal harmonies tie together what can sometimes feel like too many parts, and while the track may give you whiplash, at least it never grows too complacent. “Emikele” leans on a motif of electronic notes that are almost too simple and catchy for its own good, but the band embraces the fun of the track and adds in a joyful slew of percussion to make up for the artificial blips.
Like “Benanga”, “Nkoy” is a song that changes halfway through, in this case from a melancholy, enchanting opening to a faster and more rhythmic section that brings back Bokondji’s jovial growls. When the band ties both parts together, the result is rapturously satisfying. It leads in well to “Nzele”, a piece with a sense of urgency, but not one that completely overrides the song’s danceability and sense of play. “Ekombe” has the same attention-grabbing speed, while closing track “Bengai Yo” hits the backbeats hard for an explosive ending to the piece.
Big-name collaborators lend their skills to Kin Sonic, but the band is already so full and the ensemble so much more a focus than its individual players that they blend into the whole without calling attention to themselves – a good thing. Damon Albarn pitches in with keys and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis with violin. Massive Attack member and former graffiti artist (and, at one point, thought to potentially be Banksy) Robert del Naja provides album art. None of this is groundbreaking, but it is encouraging to know that the music of Jupiter and Okwess has attracted such influential collaborators.
Kin Sonic deserves all the famous friends and exposure it can get. This is an album replete with one-of-a-kind sounds and a style that is both ferocious and friendly. Bokondji and Okwess International bring out the wildest sides of each other, and it all rings true on one of the most fascinating and unique albums out under the broad Afropop umbrella so far this year.