Elijah WaldJean-Bosco Mwenda interview

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Interview conducted at Jean-Bosco Mwenda's home in Lubumbashi, Zaire, in February, 1990.

To begin, where exactly were you born?
I was born here, in Lubumbashi. That is, before it was Elizabeth ville, before independence. My partnts lived here in Lubumbashi. My father, he studied with the Catholic missionaries of the mission Don Bosco; that is why I am named Jean-Bosco. And my father he played piano, as a musician. Me, I do not play the piano; me, I play guitar. That happened like this: at the age of six, my father he asked to go work in Likas, Jadotville. Thterefore, we went to Jadotville. That is where I began to play the guitar. The guitar I began to play at the age of 20, more or less. I was still small, still young.

Were there other guitarists there?
There were other guitarists, who played in the cafes. The cafe, that was not the European cafe; the drinks were made in the authentic way, the village way.

How did they play?
Almost the same style that I play, but this was not exactly the same thing. I changed the style.

How?
It came to me like that. I also, I don't know.

They played the same music?
Yes, there were three or four guitarists who I knew. They are already dead. They were older than me at that time.

You also listed to foreign music, at that time?
Yes, I listened to it. There was the phonograph. (mimes turning the handle of a wind-up phonograph.) There was Spaish music, records like that, European records, on the phonograph.

Did you play that music as well?
No, it was a bit too difficult to play.

Did that influence the music here?
It was their style, the Spaniards played differently, it is not the same thing as here.

Were there orchestras as well in those days?
At that time, no. The orchestras here began around 1958-60.

Were there also people who played African instruments?
Yes, there were singers who sang for the chefs de-------, with village instruments. They played bery well. Sometimes there are pieces which I try to play as well.

Did you originally speak Swahili, or a village language?
I grew up here, not in the village; I alsways spoke Swahili.

Your village language, what is it?
It was Kiyeke and Lisanga, the two languages.

Did you also play in the cafes?
I started in the cafes. When I started the records, I was truly a good guitarist.

The first record was in which year?
In 1951, for Gallotone.

In the cafes, how were you paid?
Before, it was not paid. Before, it was to play like that, to please the people. If there was someone who wanted to give something, he gave, but it was not obligatory.

You did not earn your living like that?
No, I began to earn a little when I began to make records.

You began in Jadotville?
I studied in Jadotville. When I left Jadotville, I came here to Elizabethville, Lubumbashi. I began to work in the bank. I worked at the bank, and also I played guitar. After making the records, I stayed here, in Lubumbashi. After the records, because people bought many records everywhere, I was invided in '59 to Nairobi, Kenya, to make commercials for the medicament Aspro, the headache medication. I did those commercieals for six months; then I came back here. In '69 I was invited to the United States, to Newport. From Newport, I traveled by road to Washingiton. In Washington, I visited the White House, in the time of President Nixon. Miss Nixon had us come into the house. And then, I went to the tomb of Kennedy, and afterwards I visited the airplane which had crossed the Atlantic ocean, the DC3.

At that time, did you continue to work at the bank?
I worked at the bank, and played music as well. Me, I play music and I work. When I left the United States, I began to have my businesses as well. Then, in '82 I was invited to West Germany. I was in Franfurt, in Berlin, in Munich, on a musical tour. When I was in Germany, I was invited to Austria. I spent two weeks in Vienna. And then I went back to Brussels and I played at the University. Then I came back here. At that time, I worked at the Giacomine [mining company], as an entrepreneur.

Are all the songs you sing your own?
Me, I have never sung other people's songs. There are many musicians who play my songs, and me, I play my own songs.

When you began, the players in the cafes, they played their own songs or folklore?
There was a lot of folklore, which the musicians of the time played. But me, my own songs, I made them myself.

How did you begin to write songs?
For me, this was not from the school. It came to me like that. I compose the music first, then I begin to think about the words. And I write, if I sing [a song] one time, two times, it sticks in my head.

You continue to write new songs?
Yes, yes. But I do not want to make recordings. I made a recording in South Africa, at Capetown. I recorded 10 songs. I am waiting for that to come out.

About how many records have you made?
Oh, with Gallotone, I made a hundred records, so two hundred songs. 78 rps records at that time, from '51 to '57, '58. Even in the '60s, they still sold those records.

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