Last summer, when Staff Benda Bilili wheeled themselves up onto the main stage of the Eurockeenes de Belfort Festival in France and unveiled their bitter-sweet rhumba to an exultant European audience for the first time, many keen-eared listeners were intrigued by their extraordinary guitar sound. It was powerful, bright, full-bodied and yet as raw as an uncooked onion, fizzing with the kind of raunch that many rock guitarists have been searching for in vain since the end of the 1960s garage band boom.
On closer examination of the instruments themselves, curiosity turned to amazement. The guitars were unlike anything seen before in Europe. Their shape and décor varied from silver grey or electric blue sunburst with classical curlicue sound holes to blended black and copper red tiger stripes with round sound holes. The bridges, nuts, frets and other bolt on mechanisms were all rough hewn yet functional. The guitars seemed to be the product of an eccentric craftsman with the eye and imagination of an artist.
Staff Benda Bilili soon revealed their secret. All their guitars are made by Misoko Nzalagala, universally known as ‘Socklo’, a guitar-maker from Staff’s home city of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Once a guitarist himself, Socklo now makes about 2 to 3 instruments per week, with the help of a couple assistants, in a clapboard shed in the Lembas district of this enormous teeming city. Tools are rudimentary; no workbench, no electric jigsaws, drills or shape cutters, just a heap of hammers, chisels, planes, saws and anvils made from recycled ordnance, all lying at the feet of the kind-faced Socklo while he sits and patiently fashions his artisanal wonders on his lap.
A hand-cranked turning machine serves to make guitar strings from bicycle brake wire coiled with copper filament which has been recycled from old engines and dynamos. Apart from the plywood used to make the sound boxes of the guitars, all the other raw materials are recycled from bits of wood, old engine parts, refrigerator innards and plastic chairs. Socklo’s workshop is a shrine to all the positive things mothered by necessity: ingenuity, skill, artistry, imagination, pride and, of course, plenty of invention.
Across the city in Bandal, Socklo’s rival Almaz has a few more mod cons in his breeze block and wood workshop. Almaz actually stands for Atelier Lutherie Mazanza, but the avuncular white-haired patron is also known by that name. He owns a few electric tools, but an 11-month long power cut made them inoperable until recently.
The main market for guitars made by Socklo and Almaz has been Kinshasa’s own legion of hopeful guitarists. But even though a typical Socklo guitar sells for only about $25 locally, they’re beyond the reach of most of Kinshasa’s wannabe guitar heroes, thanks to the relentless economic crises and general poverty that cling to the DRC like a curse.
But help is at hand. A Belgian NGO called Music Fund has decided to support both Socklo and Almaz, initially for year. Lukas Pairon of Music Fund traveled to Kinshasa in 2007 and met both guitar-makers. “They’re struggling to survive, which is hard to see,” he tells me over the phone from Ghent in Belgium. “They’re both very proud of their work, and they’re very well known locally, and supported by musicians like Jupiter and Staff for Socklo, and others for Almaz. After my first visit I went back to see them with two expert luthiers from Belgium. They could see see a number of problems with the guitars, but most importantly, they were completely amazed by both Socklo and Almaz.”
Music Fund are importing guitars to Europe on a regular basis and selling them through their website. Most importantly, Music Fund order the guitars in batches of ten and pay 50% up front, which allows Socklo and Almaz to buy better materials and support themselves while they fulfill the orders.
Lukas confesses that distributing and selling guitars isn’t Music Fund’s core activity and he is now actively seeking a European guitar distributor to take over the operation and increase the marketing push.
Socklo himself has little doubt that his future survival depends on finding new markets. “I am very very happy, even VERY happy to work with Lukas,” he shouts through a telephone blizzard from Kinshasa. “It’s important for me to sell guitars in Europe. But to develop I really need more tools. They’re hard to find here and very expensive. With tools I could work faster and produce a higher number of guitars.”
Vincent Kenis, the Belgian producer of so many of the recent bands to emerge from the Congo, including Staff Benda Bilili, is a huge fan of Socklo. “He’s very modest and very conscientious. I think he makes the best guitars in Kinshasa. But he’s a bit discouraged with the economic situation. Nevertheless he manages to keep going.” Kenis helped Staff Benda Bilili to adapt their guitars for their European tour, adding western tuning mechanisms and piezo mics for amplification. “These guitars have a real personality, and no big defects of note. I bought a guitar from Socklo last December and I was pleased to see that following the visit of the Belgian luthiers, many basic problems have been ironed out. They last long too” Vincent reassures me. It seems that Staff Benda Bilili’s musical rallying cry also extends to the amazing artisan guitar-makers of Kinshasa: Tres Tres Fort!!!
To buy a guitar by Socklo or Almaz please visit the Music Fund website at http://www.musicfund.be/
Andy Morgan, (c) 2010
First published in Songlines – July 2010