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.
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…