Jean Bashengezi, known since childhood as “Jaja,” was born and raised on the peaceful shores of Lake Kivu in Eastern Congo, in the town of Bukavu. Music was life in his household. Jaja’s mother would gather her eleven children around the fire each night to sing before they slept. Jaja and his friends would improvise instruments out of tin cans, rubber, bicycle parts and smarts, and sing together in the street. They were just playing around, but the music grabbed hold of Jaja just the same. In the 80s and 90s, Jaja continued his education while still pursuing music with a passion. He played in church groups and nightclub bands in Bukavu and across the border in Burundi, and eventually led his own project “Fuji Yama” (Super Joy), which found radio success in the region. Jaja created a popular group at university as well, which didn’t shy from singing about the cloud of xenophobia and tribal politics gathering in neighboring Rwanda. Jaja graduated college in 1994 just as the Rwandan genocide began to spill over into eastern Congo. Over the next few years, Kivu Province deteriorated into a surreal, lawless place of war and massacre, kidnapping and rape as rebels overran Bukavu on their way to the Congolese capital of Kinshasa. Students and musicians, along with clergy, politicians and journalists, became targets for the spreading virus of hate and tribalism. People were fleeing cities en masse for the relative safety of villages. The Congolese nightmare had begun and Jaja was forced to flee for his life. Carrying only a small bag and his acoustic guitar, Jaja crossed Lake Kivu heading north to the city of Goma, then rode on a truck full of merchandise to Kampala, capital of neighboring Uganda. In Kampala he was granted refugee status and sent to the camps. But the sound of his guitar brought Jaja straight back to the city where he was soon established as one of Kampala’s top soukous musicians. He played with popular dance bands, worked with visiting stars like Habib Koite and French blues harmonica player Jean-Jaques Milteaux, and in 2002 released his first solo album, an African contemporary gospel CD entitled “Testimony.”
Jaja’s talent also brought him to the attention of one of the larger churches in Kampala where he was invited to join their growing Watoto Children’s Choir as composer, arranger and guitarist. He was a caretaker for the children of the choir as well, all of whom had lost their parents to AIDS. In partnership with Save the Children, Watoto toured Africa, Australia, Canada and the US where in 2003 they performed at the White House as part of a Global Fund event.
In 2010 while touring in North America, Jaja connected with legendary Congolese vocalist Samba Mapangala (Orchestra Virunga). Jaja became Mapangala’s guitarist and eventually his producer. As lead guitarist with Mapangala, he performed at Lincoln center along with NYC-based soukous greats Ngouma Lokito (bass) and Lokassa ya Mbongo (guitar). Over the next few years Jaja toured with the band, producing and arranging Mapangala’s recordings, and the pair are currently working on a new acoustic Album to be released in 2016
In 2013, Jaja also reconnected with Ugandan traditional musician Kinobe. They had known each other during Jaja’s time in Kampala and were astonished to learn that they were only 15 minutes apart while on tour in US! Their collaboration has quickly taken wing with performances throughout North America promoting their recent Album ‘Rafiki.’
Working with Kinobe subtly shifted Jaja’s thinking about the music he was making, and introduced him to the concept of “world music”. He began an abiding interest in learning traditional instruments and finding ways to express himself musically outside the instrumentation of a soukous band. This exploration and open-minded approach brought him to the attention of some of the top young artists on the world music scene, particularly from Mali. Jaja toured for two years as bass player for Malian superstar Vieux Farka Toure and has been the bassist and bandleader for Fatoumata Diawara’s US tours since 2014.
How strange is it that these mega stars of Malian music chose a Congolese guitarist as their US touring bass player and bandleader? If you know Jaja and understand his story it isn’t strange at all. His open spirit and wide-ranging talent are the product of his experience as a refugee, always moving away from home, always trying to find his way. It made him work hard to understand other people and their ways, and it exposed him to new sounds and instruments, new perspectives. Jaja now composes in six languages (French, English, Swahili, Lingala, Luganda and Mashi), and draws inspiration from the music of Madagascar, Mali, Uganda, South Africa and of course his beloved Congo. Jaja has even taught himself to play likembe (thumb piano), Malian ngoni (4-string harp) and various other traditional instruments to bring different colors and textures to his arrangements. His journey has been difficult, but it has forged in him the richly unique and resonant voice he now shares with the world through music. “Life is the presence of sound. Death is the absence of it. Every sound is music!”