Category: Congo: Luba

Jean Bosco Mwenda – Kwaleza

If there is one Sub-Saharan African acoustic guitarist from the “golden era” of African guitar playing that people in the West may have heard of, it’s probably Jean Bosco Mwenda (or Mwenda Jean Bosco, as is the standard). This, despite the fact that very little of his output has ever been reissued, and all of his discs are very rare. His reputation outside of Congo and East Africa largely stems from just one of his compositions: “Masanga,” a beautifully executed, inventive, musically varied piece that originally appeared on 78 in 1952.

Bosco was born in 1930. Hugh Tracey, the South African ethnographer who was a part-time recordist and scout for the Gallotone label at the time, heard Bosco playing on the streets of Likasi, Congo (then known as Jadotville) in 1951, and cut his first records for that label. “Masanga” was so popular locally that there were two versions of it issued on 78 within one year – one with vocals and an instrumental. Bosco’s career as a musician was launched, though he still continued his work at a bank, and later for a mining company. His first records were usually sung in his native Sanga language (a branch of Luba)1, although as his popularity grew he very often sang in Swahili. Bosco continued to record for Gallotone without Hugh Tracey, and later for the Kenyan ASL label in 1962, possibly when he had re-located to Nairobi for a six-month stint advertising an aspirin product known as Aspro, with his cousin, guitarist Edouard Masengo (one promotional Aspro 78 has been discovered, by Masengo). It’s estimated that Bosco recorded at least 100 78s in total, though there is no complete discography of his works, no catalog, nor documentation that broadly discusses his output.

Anyway – after 1952, Tracey regularly extolled Bosco and featured “Masanga” in his lectures to African music and culture societies around the globe, to great response, even directly selling copies of the Gallotone 78 to members of his audience. Tracey had formed the International Library of African Music (ILAM) and had begun his “Music of Africa” series of 10″ LPs, culled from his tapes. These LPs were for Western audiences – really, the first extensive, contemporary retrospective of African popular and traditional music – and Tracey included a version of “Masanga” on the “Guitars of Africa” volume…except, it was totally uncredited.

“Masanga” did receive an Osborn Award from the African Music Society. As early as 1961, ethnomusicologist David Rycroft penned two articles on Bosco’s guitar technique for the journal African Music, focusing in part on “Masanga.” Rycroft mentioned that “somehow” Bosco had learned guitar finger picking, a statement that may indicate how little of this music was available in the West, as not only were there numerous acoustic guitar players active on disc when Bosco was discovered, but by 1961, when Rycroft was writing, there were probably hundreds of acoustic guitarists in Congo, Eastern, and Southern Africa on 78s at that time, many of whom were terrifically talented finger-pickers. It also shows that scholars in the West didn’t necessarily understand the record industry at the time, as Sub-Saharan Africans in urban areas had long been given the chance to hear American guitar-based country music and other styles (like Caribbean music), on imported 78s. Frank Crumit, the balladeer of the ’20s and ’30s, was quite popular in Kenya, for example. This is not a knock on Rycroft or Bosco’s obvious talent – it’s just a statement that we can make in hindsight, now knowing a broader picture. The availability of this music is only slightly better than it was in 1961. In order to hear most of the music that was issued on 78 around the globe, you have to track down the original copies. This is a lifelong quest.

Bosco’s output appears to have stopped entirely after 1962, a writer later stating that his career fell into oblivion once guitars went electric on most African record labels. However, Bosco was invited to the Newport Folk Festival in 1969.  This was his only trip to the U.S. In 1982, after several years trying to locate Bosco, Austrian ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik along with guitarist John Low, helped to bring Bosco to Europe for a brief tour organized by the Iwaleza House in Bayreuth, and to record an album. Later, musician, author, and historian Elijah Wald studied with both Bosco and Masengo in the late 1980s, learning their technique and songs, and for years was the only person offering a sample of Mwenda’s rare discs on homemade CDs. I mention all of this, because even though Bosco’s records were essentially distributed only in Africa, and apart from “Masanga” his works were virtually out of reach to anyone else, there had been several concerted efforts by determined scholars and musicians to bring his music to a wider audience prior to Bosco’s death in 1990. Most recently, the vocal version 78 of “Masanga” was included on the Secret Museum of Mankind series on Yazoo, a tape-original was issued on The Very Best of Hugh Tracey on SWP Records, and I included the instrumental version on Opika Pende.

I first heard a copy of this song “Kwaleza,” about 12 years ago, on a homemade CD made by longtime blues and country 78s dealer and musician, the late Mike Stewart (aka Backwards Sam Firk). It’s no surprise that Stewart, a veteran cohort of John Fahey and Joe Bussard, would become enamored of this music. While not nearly as ingenious as “Masanga” (what could be?) – in fact, it’s far more simple – it became one of my favorite pieces, with its repetitive melody. I never thought I’d ever get my own copy. I never knew anyone else who had it. It wasn’t for lack of trying…or even relentless drive. Sometimes, it just takes time, luck, and friends.

Jean Bosco Mwenda – Kwaleza


Label: Gallotone
Issue Number: GB 1783
Matrix Numer: ABC.11610

1This disc lists the language as “Luba/Songe,” which is also known as Northern Luba or Kisonge – however, Mwenda himself states in his interview with Elijah Wald that, when not singing in Swahili, he sang in his two native languages, Sanga and Yeke. It’s quite possible that “Songe” is a misprint and should be “Sanga” on this label – or, Mwenda could actually be singing in Songe. The title, of course, could mean the same as it does in Swahili: “Let’s Go.” I’ll await word from the experts…

Kankolongo Alidor – Kalenda wa muchombela

“Thirty years ago I heard my first African song on a farm in Southern Rhodesia. I still know that song by heart, together with dozens of others I learnt from the farm labourers and musicians of the neighborhood. The vitality and genuineness of this Karanga folk music made a deep impression on me and it was not until many years later when I realised that little or nothing was being done to study and encourage the work of these simple musicians that I turned to the making of gramophone records as the best method of doing so.” – Hugh Tracey, July 1951.

The renowned recordist and ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey (1903-1977) spent decades capturing traditional music across Sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve written about Tracey in previous posts, and have avoided attempting to sum up his extensive and dedicated career in a few pat sentences – it’s really impossible to do. However, it’s certainly worth touching on a few points. First, Tracey separated himself from other ethnomusicologists of the day because he recorded both for commercial recording companies, and for his own organizations. Although actively recording across Africa beforehand, in 1946, Eric Gallo, the head of Gallotone Records of South Africa, gave Tracey the budget to travel far and wide across Central and Southern Africa, recording all manner of music. Tracey truly captured musicians and styles that most likely would never have been captured on shellac (or tape, which Tracey moved to, probably because of its portability). Over time, Tracey released hundreds of 78rpm recordings on Gallotone and on a subsidiary of Gallotone named Trek. These disc recordings were available commercially and marketed to educational institutions, “industrial and municipal organisations,” and adventurous listeners. The records would come with a set of library index cards with cross-reference information. Tracey called this service his African Music Transcription Library, which fell under his larger organization, African Music Research. (As I’ve mentioned previously, if you stumble across a Gallotone record and it says “African Music Research” on it, as this one does, you can be sure that this was recorded by Tracey himself, on one of his excursions.) However, Tracey made separate acetate recordings from these sessions, too. In 1954, Tracey began the International Library of African Music, and began releasing LPs of his recordings (he even had a cross-marketing deal with Folkways). Some of these ILAM recordings had already been released commercially, but they drew primarily from Tracey’s own acetates and tape recordings from those same sessions. Some 210 LPs of his recordings were released.

A second aspect of Tracey’s work that separates him from the crowd is that he recorded popular music as well as traditional. As far as I can tell, Tracey was quite skeptical about African music that had absorbed elements of western culture, particularly those elements that came from religion. In 1951, Tracey wrote, “Foreign intrusion into African arts would not matter if it did not break the continuity and so prefer imitation to originality.” At the International Folk Music Conference of 1958, held in Liège, Belgium, Tracey railed against missionaries, jazz, and other commercial music as examples of how traditional African music had been undermined throughout history. A Reverend from Uganda, in the conference audience, took issue with Tracey’s negative perceptions, and claimed that the relationship between Africans, religion, and invading forces, was more complex. Tracey replied that indeed, nothing in Africa was simple, and that in fact there were many missionaries on the board of the African Music Society, of which Tracey was the Honorary Secretary. Regardless, Tracey’s recordings of popular African bands of the day were exceptional. It would appear that despite his misgivings, his ear was still golden.

Today’s piece falls into the traditional category, and comes from February 10, 1952, when Tracey was recording in what was then the southern part of the Belgian Congo, recording examples of music by the Luba people, such as this artist, Kankolongo Alidor. The Luba are found primarily in the Southern Congo, and today there are over 7 million speakers of Luba languages. Many of the Luba men, at the time of this recording, were miners in Belgian and English copper mines. Historically, many Luba miners had been slaves, forced to work in the mines by the Belgians after a series of Luba uprisings in response to Belgian colonialism. I could find little information about Mr. Alidor, though Tracey recorded about a dozen tracks by him on that day. A few made it to his ILAM records, though only four songs made it to the Gallotone label.

My reasons for choosing this track have less to do with history, and more to do with the lovely instrumentation. This track features an instrument that is considered unique to Africa (though other similar examples have turned up in the world): the mbira, known colloquially in the west as the thumb-piano, and an instrument close to Hugh Tracey’s heart. If anyone knew how to record the mbira, it was Tracey, who always recorded hand-held, without a microphone stand. The quality of this recording is stunning. In terms of strict, technical classification, the mbira is in the idiophone family. Idiophones are instruments that create sounds from vibrations without the use of strings or membranes. Plucked idiophones are the branch of idiophones that have a tongue or tongues that vibrate when plucked. Lamellophones are the type of plucked idiophones which have a series of tongues or plates which are fixed in place at one end, and free on the other. Hence: the mbira. The mbira is found in a multitude of variations, in a multitude of local names, across the continent. Tracey calls Alidor’s mbira the chisanzhi mbira. In Tracey’s 1961 article for African Music, “A Case for the Mbira,” he lists no fewer than 8 variations of chisanzhi mbira. Two have 12 notes, three have 10 notes, one has 8, one has 11, and one has 18! Some are tuned in a hexatonic scale, some pentatonic, some heptatonic. Some have a box soundboard, some have a fan. My point is….I don’t know exactly which type of chisanzhi mbira Alidor is using, but Tracey would be able to identify it! As far as I’m concerned, it’s yet another example of Tracey’s impeccable taste.

Kankolongo Alidor – Kalenda wa muchombela

Technical Notes

Label: Gallotone
Issue Number: GB.1593
Matrix Number: XYZ.7174T

For more recordings by Hugh Tracey (including more by Alidor), please see the Sharp Wood label, who reissued many classic Hugh Tracey recordings in a CD series. It appears that some of these are now out of print but still findable, so try and snag them if you can. The notes are terrific. John Storm Roberts, in many of his early LP and CD releases on Original Music, also licensed and released Hugh Tracey tracks.