Masanga (Jean-Bosco Mwenda)

When I was in high school, I spent hundreds of hours at the public library, which was between the two high schools (Rindge Tech and Cambridge High & Latin), listening to records. Thanks to the music librarian, Ken Williams, that library had a terrific collection of jazz, blues, international and other LPs, and that was where I first heard Jean-Bosco Mwenda’s playing, on an LP called Guitars of Africa. Like everyone else who heard that record, I was blown away by his instrumental version of Masanga, and fortunately both Pete Seeger and Happy Traum had published tablature for it, so I managed to cobble together a half-assed version.

That LP was part of a collection of recordings made in the 1950s and ’60s by Hugh Tracey, who worked out a deal with the Gallotone label to record musicians all over Africa, with the more commercial results appearing on Gallotone and the rest filed in what became the International Library of African Music at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Masanga was one of the most successful of the Gallotone releases, influencing guitar styles throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. As I recall, Tracey’s notes said that Bosco was in his late teens when he made the recording, circa 1951, and had only been playing for a couple of years–which seemed incredible, but he was a pretty incredible person. (Though, to be fair, he told me a different story when I interviewed him about his early life.) As I will explain in later posts, I traveled to Lubumbashi, Zaire (now Republic of the Congo), in 1990 and spent a couple of months studying with Bosco and his cousin, Edouard Masengo.

I explain a bit about the song in my video, but should add a translation of the second verse, which says, “A woman without a man is like a bicycle without a headlamp.” I found that puzzling, and asked Bosco what it meant. He smiled and explained, “She will go fine in the daytime, but may go wrong at night.”

There’s more about Bosco and his music, including a short interview I did with him, on the African Acoustic Guitar page of my website. And here is his handwritten lyric for Masanga (with my chord boxes and minor annotations):

(The unusual tuning DADF#AC# and the three chord boxes have nothing to do with “Masanga.” I wish I still remembered which song they belong to–I’m pretty certain it would have been something of Bosco’s, since I wrote it on this page–but I have no recollection of adding this…)

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