Jean-Bosco Mwenda - guitar, vocals; Translator - unknown
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.
This performance opened a "Black Roots Workshop" hosted on the afternoon of Saturday, July 19th. Mwenda sings in his native Swahili and introduces his songs in French, but once the themes reach us through an unknown translator, we find they're generally universal. Songs about sowing in order to reap and saving your money when you're young and healthy are very poignant in the context of this workshop, while another tune encourages those who stay out late drinking to remain quiet when they get home so as not to disturb their significant others. "Masanga," Mwenda's most popular song thanks to its inclusion on a Guitars of Africa album in the 1950s, is an instrumental that showcases his fingerpicking style. As pointed out during Mwenda's other set from the '69 Newport Folk Festival, his playing can sometimes be strikingly similar to the alternating bass line style of Elizabeth Cotten, Mance Lipscomb and other songsters from the American South. Finally, Mwenda encourages the audience to join in on the choruses of "Lucia," which they begin to get the hang of just as the tape stock unfortunately ran out on this sublime performance.