West African guitar music has been a thriving genre since the early part of the 20th century. Despite this fact, and the availability of this music on 78 rpm discs as early as the 1920s, music scholars tended to discount the genre, focussing instead on less-Europeanized and more "traditional" regional styles. But by the early '50s, ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey did begin to recognize the importance of the burgeoning West African guitar music scene. Among the prominent musicians Tracey recorded at the time was a trailblazing guitarist and singer by the name of Jean Bosco Mwenda. Some 30 years later, after cutting these first tracks with Tracey and riding out a rocky career, Mwenda performed for an audience of admirers in the foyer of Berlin's Museum for Volkerkunde. Nearly the entire concert is presented here, on Mwenda Jean Bosco: Songs With Guitar (Shaba/Zaire). The 22 songs are true to Mwenda's soothing style. Dexterous fingering technique, innovative melodic phrasings, sophisticated rhythmic patterns, and somewhat gruff vocals come together in Mwenda's performance. While his songs often float on undercurrents of melancholy, there exists a buoyancy in his playing that always propels the songs. All in all, Mwenda Jean Bosco: Songs With Guitar (Shaba/Zaire) captures an exceptional performance by a stellar musician whose recordings continue to attract ethnomusicologists and enrapture fans from around the globe.
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AllMusic Review by John Vallier