Didier Bosco is the talented son of a legendary father, Jean-Bosco Mwenda, who soared to fame in the early 1960s with the timeless African acoustic classic ‘Masanga’. ‘Junior’ is always a heavy title to carry through life but almost from birth, in the Katanga Region of southern DRC, Didier was immersed in the contrapuntal,
finger-picking style of his father. As a young man of skill and ambition, the widespread disruption in the Region from the 1990s onwards drew him away from Shaba and, given his command of Swahili, drew him towards Tanzania, a haven of peace in a troubled sub-region.
He turned up in Dar es Salaam in 1996, poor but prolific, and was promptly recorded by the fledgling RetroTan label for a limited cassette release which sold well, albeit briefly, as the company crashed in 1998, lock, stock and 15 smoking releases later.
The original Katangan finger-picking style was universally known throughout East Africa as ‘dry’ guitar and we have chosen to call this collection of 10 songs ‘Extra Dry’. These acoustic renditions of new material, echo his father’s style but vividly reflect the struggles facing a younger generation of musicians in Africa 30 years down the road.
These songs reflect the pared-down simplicity and appeal of his one-man show. Unplugged, with no bottle, second guitar or harmonising, the songs mesmerise listeners – no tricks, straight to stereo, undiluted magic.
didier bosco mwenda: back pages
As the son of a famous father ’Junior’ is always a heavy title to carry through life. It implies living up to a reputation, matching achievements and even carrying forward the family tradition. And perhaps nowhere is this burden heavier than in the world of music where success depends less on a well-known name and a simple desire to succeed and more, much more, on talent and determination.
Didier Bosco Mwenda was born ten year after the zenith of the contrapuntal finger-picking style pioneered by his father. He grew up in Lubumbashi in the (infamous) Katanga Province of Southern Zaire where he was inevitably immersed in the ‘dry guitar’ style immortalised by his father. As his father rose to the status of ‘Grand Patron’ and settled into a comfortable middle-class status, Didier hankered after his own life experience to help nourish his emerging musical talent.
His father, arguably the most famous musician in Africa during the 1950s, influenced guitar styles everywhere and was widely emulated across Central and East Africa. He had been born of Bayeke ancestry in the Shaba Province in 1930 and had started playing guitar in his youth, entertaining customers at local ‘munyoko’ bars, singing always in Swahili, the ‘lingua franca of the region, often to the accompaniment of tapped bottles. While no single musician invented the Shaba style it is equally certain that the style evolved using voice to accompany guitar, guitar to accompany bottle and tradition to inform the present. Chord progressions, drawing on a variety of influences including church and Latin music, soon evolved into a sound pleasing to both African and European ears as early sound recordists the more adventurous music companies started paying attention to the wealth of music now at their fingertips.
When Hugh Tracey, doyen of African field recordings, passed through Central Africa on one of his many musical expeditions, he was naturally drawn to Bosco, king of the local guitar scene. Within days they had made a recording of ‘Masanga’ one of Bosco’s most flamboyant compositions thereby launching his meteoric rise to fame. More recordings followed and by the early 1950s Bosco found himself in Kenya, earning a small fortune playing in the Nairobi clubs, advertising products like Aspro and Coke and influencing hundreds of Kenyan guitarists and, indirectly, giving birth to ‘benga’, the proto-national sound. Further afield, ‘Masanga’ hit a sweet spot in mid-1950s popular music and was picked up by diverse audiences, from the British folk scene to the New York bohemian elite. ‘Masanga’ became a genuine global hit, matching ‘Wimoweh’ in the 1960s, ‘Soul Makossa’ in the 1970s and ‘YekeYeke’ in the 1980s. Pioneering academics followed hard on the heels of popular success and the ‘cross-over’ technique of Bosco became the subject of Gerhard Kubik‘s study of Katangan guitarists, David Rycroft’s influential exploration of external and traditional influences and the fabulous ‘Shaba Diaries, John Low’s extraordinary account of his 1970 pilgrimage to visit Bosco, which includes an old family photo featuring Didier as a young boy.
During the 1970s and1980s Katanga, a ridiculously mineral-rich crossroads in Central Africa was not exactly a quiet or peaceful place. From the time of the disturbances in the late 1950s, through the violent secession of the mid-1960s to the uprising of the late 1980s and the renewal of secessionist sentiment following the ascendancy of President Kabila, Didier witnessed the implosion of post-colonial Congo. For a young man of skill and ambition, the troubled Shaba region offered few opportunities. Even in the DRC, the musical epicentre of the country was a thousand miles away in Kinshasa. Under these circumstances Didier, given his command of
Swahili, instead looked east toward Tanzania, an impoverished but stable haven of peace.
In 1996 Didier finally reached Tanzania and one day presented himself to RetroTan, a Tanzanian copyright protected cassette company, which was busy recording as wide a variety of music as possible, sell cassettes and pay advances and royalties in the face of the piracy pandemic. Following a brief business discussion Didier agreed to record and the very next day sat down with John Kitime, chairman of the Tanzanian Musicians Union, guitarist with Vijana Jazz and the recording engineer for RetroTan. Using a Sony Portable DAT recording machine Didier poured out a dozen or so songs of which ten found their way on to a cassette release entitled ‘Bumbulako’. Sales were initially impressive but the label was in trouble and within months had more or less collapsed as a going concern having released fifteen cassettes by the cream of Tanzanian bands over the previous 3 years.
The recordings have been described as ‘warm and intimate’ but the subject matter reveals a more troubled time for Didier as he struggled to find his feet in Dar es Salaam, at one stage sleeping in an abandoned car. The song ‘Kijana Mmoja’ for example, tells the story of a young man arriving in Dar from Lubumbashi, initially staying with a relative before being thrown out after two weeks. Several songs warn of the dangers posed by thieves for people forced to survive on the edge of society whilst other lament the difficulties involved in meeting and keeping women without a home, money or job. Clearly these were hard times for the young Didier, unable to realise his dreams, and it was no surprise when he disappeared from the scene almost as suddenly as he had arrived, leaving RetroTan with no idea where he had gone and if he would ever return. This is why we have chosen to call this release ‘Lost in Dar’
Since then, 25 years ago, and despite several fruitless attempts to locate him somewhere amongst Dar’s five million population, nothing has been heard from him or about him. In this respect at least this recording has been re-issued to see if it reaches his ears so we can perhaps re-establish contact. The songs on this release are taken from that 1996 RetroTan cassette recording and offer the pared down simplicity of this one-man show: Unplugged, with no bottle, second guitar or
harmonising vocal in earshot. This is undiluted, extraordinary guitar magic from Central Africa; no tricks, straight to stereo. A one-take, one-off musical treat.