Jean-Bosco Mwenda - guitar, vocals
Ralph Rinzler - translator
Congolese fingerstyle guitarist Jean-Bosco Mwenda hailed from the Katanga province of Zaire. A fertile land for musicians, Mwenda's music is not as familiar to western audiences as the African acoustic players who came to prominence after his day, yet he is no less masterful. Following success in Zaire and in Kenya, in 1969 Mwenda was invited to take his first trip west by none other than Pete Seeger, to play at the Newport Folk Festival. Folk's big man had reportedly looked far and wide for him and one listen to Mwenda's style leaves little doubt as to why he was so intent on finding him.
Making a name for himself as a young man in the early '50s, Mwenda was discovered singing on the street; his appeal widened when he moved east to Nairobi Kenya and became part of the "second generation" of '50s guitarists on the scene there. He plucked his instrument with his thumb and forefinger using an intricate fingerpicking pattern, striking in its similarity to what Europeans are accustomed to describing as English folk melody. At other times, his style shares traits similar to the blues, though in Mwenda's home of Lubumbashi, the style is native, known throughout Africa and among musicologists as Congolese.
Mwenda's set opener, "Masanga," remains a well-known folk song in Kenya; it is also a favorite among pickers around the world. The song was first brought stateside via a folklorist's recording, "Guitars of Africa," in the early '50s. And while Mwenda sings in Swahili, his themes are generally universal, specifically the joys of love, particularly among the coupled, though according to French translations of the Mwenda's introductions (provided by folklorist Ralph Rinzler), the lovelorn needn't despair: Mwenda believes there is love enough for everyone. By way of introducing "If You Want to Be Rich," Rinzler notes Mwenda's guitarstyle as sharing a pattern similar to Elizabeth Cotton's "cotton-picking." That is indeed true, though the mysteries surrounding Mississippi Delta guitar styles, those of Africa and the similarities between them, are ultimately better left to be debated among today's scholars and researchers.
Though not much was heard from Mwenda in the years following his '50s and '60s run, he staged a recording comeback in the late '80s, though he died shortly after in 1990. Closing his Newport set with a song about the comforts of home, the audience seems genuinely appreciative that Mwenda has traveled so far from his to bring them a taste of authentic Congolese guitar. Clapping along to what sounds to be a customary showcloser—a kind of African acoustic guitar rave-up—there does indeed seem very little difference between the folk styles of the Congo and those of the foot-tapping and finger-snapping crowd in Newport, Rhode Island.