Africa to Appalachia

I compiled this instrumental either while traveling through Africa or shortly afterwards, using “Wanjiru Wanjiru” by the Kenyan guitarist Francis Macharia as the unifying theme. I was struck by how much the guitar on that track felt like the kind of fingerpicking played in the Appalachians, so I combined  it with two favorite southern mountain showpieces: “Buckdancer’s Choice” by Sam McGee and “Doc’s Guitar” from Doc Watson. (To be strictly accurate, McGee was from central Tennessee, not the mountains, but I didn’t know that when I named the piece.)

I’d heard Macharia’s song on a wonderful album, The Nairobi Sound,  released by a wonderful record label, Original Music. It was the brainchild of John Storm Roberts, a freelance musicologist and all-around-charming fellow whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I interviewed him for the Boston Globe in 1989 — I was preparing for the Africa trip, and that seemed like a good way to get a bunch of free records and meet someone who could put me in touch with useful people all over the continent.

I had also read Roberts’s Black Music of Two Worlds, a wide-ranging and insightful history of the ongoing cross-fertilization between musicians and musical styles in Africa and the Americas. It explained, for example, how Cuban recordings by groups like the Trio Matamoros had influenced Congolese music, and touched on the role of US country music throughout sub-Saharan Africa — which prepared me for conversations about cowboy singers everywhere from Zimbabwe to Kenya. In fact, it was an offhand comment by Roberts that named my band and CD (both of which I’ll get to in future posts): he was telling me about the influence of Jimmie Rodgers, saying he’d collected Rodgers imitations in 24 African languages, and mentioned an early reference in print to “the streetcorner cowboys of  Zanzibar,” which instantly struck me as a great name for a band. (When I got to Nairobi, after hitching through the forests of Zaire and up through Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, there was still a program on the radio every Sunday of “old Kikuyu music,” which consisted largely of Kikuyu yodeling cowboy songs by folks like Sammy Ngako.)

I think of this piece as kind of a tribute to John, since he was the person who made me aware that any discussion of overlaps and similarities between African and American music has to consider not only the huge influence of African traditions on the music of the Americas, but also the huge influence of Cuban, Argentine, French Caribbean, and US styles on African musicians all over the continent. Even before records became common, minstrel shows and Negro spirituals were imported and adapted into African traditions. (The banjo, for example, is originally a West African instrument, but was introduced to new regions of Africa — and reintroduced in West Africa — with minstrelsy.)

To finish this musicological tribute, I recommend listening to a couple of key examples: “El que siembra su maiz” by the Cuban Trio Matamoros, which is a classic example of Afro-Spanish-Caribbean string band music, and  the same song performed by Joseph Kabasele “El Gran Kalle” and his orchestra L’African Jazz. (As an added fillip, let’s note the generic use of “jazz” in the names of dance bands all over Africa in the mid-20th century, whether or not they played anything resembling jazz.)

Lwa Kiyeke (Edouard Masengo)

While studying with Jean-Bosco Mwenda in Lubumbashi, I was fortunate to also spend some time with one of the other important local musicians, Edouard Masengo. Bosco and Masengo were cousins and had recorded together in the late fifties and early sixties, but their later lives had followed very different paths. Though famous as a guitarist and singer, Bosco earned his living as a businessman, working for a bank and the local mining company, managing local bands, and at the time I met him was in the process of opening a hotel on the Zambian border.

Masengo, by contrast, had little if any career outside music, and his period of success was long in the past. He had gone to Kenya in the late 1950s, apparently as a member of Je-co-ke (short for Jeunes Comiques du Katanga), a touring group of musicians, singers, and dancers from Lubumbashi (then still known as Elizabethville). An advertising agency in Nairobi heard him, took him on, and he soon became a popular radio and recording artist, sponsored by Coca-Cola.

After a few months he brought Bosco — whose records were well-known throughout Swahili-speaking East Africa — to join him, and although their acoustic style was supplanted by electric bands in the mid-1960s, they remained familiar as “oldies” artists at least into the 1990s. When I hitchhiked from Lubumbashi to Nairobi I found their cassettes still on sale, and had an interesting afternoon at a local record company trying (unsuccessfully) to get Masengo some royalties. One of the cassettes included a half-hour interview with Masengo in which he told his life story interspersed with relevant songs (which I’ve now uploaded to Youtube), and I was surprised to hear him speaking fluent English, since by the time we met his only European language was French.

As I understand it, Bosco returned to Lubumbashi after a year but Masengo remained a dozen or more years in East Africa and that was the high point of his career. In 1990 he was going through hard times and talked sadly about how much better things had been in Nairobi, saying he might still be popular if he could only get back there.

Instead, he was living in a spare room in a small house belonging to his sister — who had a good job at the mining company — in a village outside town. He was remembered as a notable musician, and I had the pleasure of performing with him at a local hotel and on a national television special. But he was also considered a bit of a sad story, down on his luck and too fond of the local beer.

To me, he was always gracious and inspiring, a supple guitarist and beautiful singer with a gentleness that reminded me of Mississippi John Hurt. I only met him three or four times, but he was consistently encouraging, teaching me songs and exclaiming over my playing — the Congolese guitarists used only their thumb and index finger to pick, and he kept exclaiming over my using two more fingers, saying, “If I had only seen that when I was young…”  I recorded one long session in his room, with my friend Dominic adding percussion and me playing lead guitar on a couple of the less distinctively Congolese tunes. (I’ve uploaded one, “Mujinga ni nani.”)

He was also a fine composer, and sang a haunting tribute to his old friend, the blind guitarist Losta Abelo, with tears running down his cheeks. My favorite of his songs was this little gem. The guitar part (played with the low E string tuned up to F) is simple as can be, and the lyric even more so, referring to his and Bosco’s ethnic group, the Bayeke:

I used to have a bicycle, but now I go in the Kiyeke way.
I used to have a bicycle, but now I go in the Kiyeke way.

In the Kiyeke way, sir, in the Kiyeke way—
In the Kiyeke way, that is to say, on foot.

Kuolewa (Jean-Bosco Mwenda)

Each lesson with Jean-Bosco Mwenda would focus on a particular song — “Masanga,” “Bibi Teresa,” “Kijana Muke” — and after I’d learned the guitar parts to three or four of these I asked if he could write out the lyrics for me.

Polite as always, Bosco got out a pen and started writing, but he was clearly puzzled. “Do people in the United States understand Swahili?” he asked.

I said no, in general they didn’t — obviously I didn’t either, since we were talking in French.

“Then why would you sing to them in Swahili?”

The question took me aback. I’d assumed if I was learning his songs I would sing them with his words, and that would be what he expected and preferred. But he was genuinely puzzled, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. He described his own music as an adaptation of the cowboy songs and “Spanish” music (meaning Cuban) he’d heard on records as a youth, and he had taken those influences and created a style that was distinctively his own, performed in Swahili and occasionally Kiyeke, the languages of his listeners.

Bosco took pride not only in his musical skills, but in his role as a teacher: while European singers tend to sing about romance and adventure, African singers have traditionally used their songs to educate and admonish. Bosco had composed some love songs, but also many songs intended to make his listeners think about social conditions and improve their way of living.

This is a typical example, bemoaning the follies of unmarried motherhood:

You say you don’t want to get married.
Every year you have a new baby.
This baby has no father
It is very difficult to find food for it.

Another thing is the young man,
He makes you pregnant and he runs away.
Money for milk to feed the baby,
It takes a lot of effort to find.
In the baby bottle, you put beer
To feed to the baby.
That is wrong, mother.

(Note for non-Congolese Swahili-speakers: the second time through, instead of singing pombe for beer I sing simba, which is a popular local brand. Bosco would also namecheck tembo, a darker, stronger brew from the same company.)

(Note for guitarists: for this song, Bosco tuned his low bass string up to F, allowing him to get an open F when he wanted, but more importantly to get the low G by wrapping his thumb around at the 2nd fret, which is more comfortable than stretching up to the 3rd.)

Bibi Theresa (Jean-Bosco Mwenda)

This is another I learned from Jean-Bosco Mwenda during the month I spent studying with him in Lubumbashi. It is a song of love and longing, which would make it pretty standard fare in a lot of places, but is less common in the Congolese repertoire, where a lot of songs give advice on proper behavior (Bosco’s “Kuolewa” is a good example, and I’ll have that up next week) or address such unlikely subjects as lacking a bicycle (a song by Bosco’s cousin Edouard Masengo, which I’ll post in a couple of weeks).

The lyric roughly translates as:

Darling Theresa, darling Theresa,
We shared so much.
You are going home to the village.

You return my letters,
I do not see your letters.
You do not remember me anymore, truly.

Your picture, when I look at it,
I remember many things.
Your picture doesn’t speak.

As I recall, this was the first composition of Bosco’s I tried to sing, since it was relatively simple to play the guitar part and I liked the words, which I learned with the help of my friend and host, Dominic Kakolobango. I met Dominic through Mario, a local medical student, whom I met through Steve Ott, a young Methodist missionary… which is kind of a long story, but the part that matters is that Mario said he had a friend who played music and was kind of unusual, almost like a European, and this friend had said I could stay in his house while I was in Lubumbashi.

That seemed very generous, since we hadn’t met — but I had no idea how generous until I saw the house. It was a single room, 3×3 meters square, which was actually pretty luxurious when you consider that the room next door was the same size and housed a whole family. Still, it was tight when you consider that Dominic had all his possessions, and a stove, and a bed… if you look at the picture, you see my bed folded outside, which is where I had to put it first thing in the morning so there would be enough floor space for him to get up. And that was before he got married, which happened while I was staying there…

Anyway, it worked beautifully. Dominic is one of the nicest, funniest, and most extraordinary people I know — Mario’s description of him as being like a European was just a way of saying he didn’t seem like anyone else in Lubumbashi, and that held equally true when he moved to Brussels, and everywhere else I’ve been with him. He’s also a fine musician — he was the only young guitarist in Lubumbashi to be seriously interested in the older local style, having accompanied Bosco’s blind peer, Losta Abelo, for some years, and he also had a broad repertoire of French chanson — among the many things I owe him is an enduring love of Georges Brassens.

I’ll have more about that Lubumbashi period in the next couple of posts, but for now I’ll just add that I went on to co-produce a CD of Dominic playing in the classic Congolese style and accompanied him on a few tracks, and he’s got a bunch of videos online, including one we did together in Brussels almost ten years ago of the Kenyan classic, “Malaika”: