Victorina Mpenzi (Edouard Masengo)

This is another song I learned in Lubumbashi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), when I was there in 1990 to study guitar with Jean-Bosco Mwenda. I’ve already posted a bunch of songs I learned from Bosco (“Masanga,” “Kijana Muke,” “Bibi Theresa,” and “Kuolewa“), and this is another — but I learned this one from his cousin, Edouard Masengo.

I wrote about Masengo in a previous post, with his song “Lwa Kiyeke.” He was a lovely singer and a sweet man, though down on his luck by the 1990s, and he should be better known. Bosco has become the only name most people know from the Congolese acoustic scene of the late 1950s and 1960s, even if they are pretty deep into African guitar, but he was one of three terrific and widely recorded artists, along with Masengo — who likewise had a second career in Kenya — and Losta Abelo, who died the year before I got there.

The guitar part for this song is similar to “Bibi Theresa,” so I added a lick from that arrangement. The lyric confused me for a while. It translates as:

Victorina, Victorina, my love,
My father told me, “You will marry Victorina.”

Albertina, Albertina, my love,
My father told me, “You won’t marry Albertina.”

Victorina, Victorina, I am lying in bed,
My soul and my thoughts are of Victorina.

Albertina, Albertina, my love,
My father told me, “You won’t marry Albertina.”

Having been raised in the Euro-American romantic tradition, I was baffled by this, because in all our standard romances, if a young man has to choose between two women and his father tells him he must marry one of them and not the other, the natural course of the story is for him to realize he truly loves the one his father has forbidden — so why was this guy lying in bed dreaming of the woman his father said he should marry?

I eventually called my friend Dominic Kakolobango, whom I’ve written about in previous posts (we shared his tiny room in Lubumbashi, and I recommend his videos and recordings, as well as this duet version we did of “Malaika“) and asked him to explain what was going on in this song. It took a while for him to figure out what was confusing me, but then he explained that in his culture it was normal to respect and trust one’s father’s advice, and to marry the woman he recommended.

My favorite performance of this was during my journey from Lubumbashi to Burundi — I don’t remember my route, but it started with catching a ride in a jeep taking the wife of a local Peace Corps manager for two days, then hitchhiking to someplace on Lake Tanganyika, where I caught a ferry for Bujumbura… but between the jeep and the hitchhiking, I stopped off to visit a Peace Corps volunteer who was living in a small village on the banks of the Congo River. That involved walking along some railroad tracks for about ten miles, then down a dirt road for a few miles, then continuing along a path through the forest for another few miles — I have no recollection of how I found my way — and the village had no electricity or plumbing, or much of anything. The food was basically bukari (like Kenyan fufu) made from cassava flour, flavored with cassava leaves, and sometimes some tiny fish the locals boiled into a sort of mush. Fortunately, they also distilled a pretty decent hard alcohol. Anyway, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment, so everyone was very glad when I showed up with a guitar, and the whole population shortly gathered for a concert. As often happened, they were not much interested in my US repertoire, so I ran through all my Congolese songs, and this was the big hit, because the village leader’s wife was named Albertina.

So there it is. I’ve posted Masengo’s version, which he just called “Victorina,” on Soundcloud. I’ve also posted a nice interview with Masengo from a Kenyan cassette, and a couple of his songs, including his tribute to Losta Abelo. Bosco’s version of this song was called “Victoria Mpenzi” (he sang the name Victorina, so I’m guessing the record company got it wrong, or maybe the person who labeled my tape) and I’ve never heard a clean copy of the 78, so if anyone finds one, please let me know.