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.)