Kijana Muke (Jean-Bosco Mwenda)

I’ve loved a lot of musicians, but only twice made serious pilgrimages to study with anyone. The first was Dave Van Ronk, for whom I spent a year in the wilds of Greenwich Village; the second was Jean-Bosco Mwenda, for whom I traveled to Lubumbashi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

As I wrote in my post on Bosco’s masterpiece, “Masanga,” I discovered his music on the Guitars of Africa LP in the Cambridge Public Library, but the two tracks on that record had been recorded in the 1950s and there had been no news of him since he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969.*

Then in the 1980s an English guitarist named John Low published a book called Shaba Diaries about traveling to Zaire and studying with Bosco and two of his contemporaries, Losta Abelo and Edouard Masengo. I’d been thinking about a trip to Africa since my teens, and a South African woman I’d met in Italy provided further temptation… so I spent six months busking on cafe terraces in Antwerp,  caught an Aeroflot plane from London to Zimbabwe, and after a couple of months hitchhiking through Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia hitched up through Zambia to Lubumbashi. I had written to Bosco when I arrived in Zimbabwe and received no reply, but he was an important man and easy to find: I just asked a cab driver to take me to his house. He welcomed me cordiallyme and bosco with picture, I played him my inaccurate version of “Masanga,” and he said he would be happy to teach me to play it right and show me some other songs. So for the next month I went over to his house twice a week, had lunch with him, and got a guitar lesson. (The letter I’d sent two months earlier finally arrived a week or so after our meeting.)

“Kijana Muke” (also issued as “Muke Mzuri” and “Nimemukuta”) is one of the half-dozen songs he taught me, along with “Bibi Theresa” and “Kuolewa.” The lyric is in the local dialect of Swahili, one of at least four languages Bosco spoke fluently, along with French, Lingala, and his “village language,” Kiyeke:

I met a girl, very beautiful, oh, mama
I said to her, “Hi, darling,” she replied, “Hello.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
She said, “Tomorrow.”
I went home to sleep, I dreamed of her.
Early next morning I went to her place to see that lady.
Just the same way she told me, “tomorrow.”
I went home to sleep, I dreamed of her.

*All three of Bosco’s sets from Newport are now on-line.