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.