The guitar maker of Kinshasa: Father of a unique sound

|    Marc Jourdier    |

KINSHASA (AFP) – In 2010, a group of Kinshasa street musicians, several of them left paraplegic by childhood polio, caused a sensation in Europe.

Calling themselves Staff Benda Bilili, the penurious band wowed audiences with Congolese rumba, combining pounding rhythms with scintillating melodies and solos.

As unique as the group’s tale of their rise from the streets was their gritty guitar sound – all the work of a modest, self-taught Congolese luthier, Jean-Luther Misoko Nzalayala, who goes by the trade name of Socklo.

Benda Bilili wielded instruments in eccentric shapes and exuberant colours, their frets, bridges and nuts made from scrap metal that had been cut and bent by Socklo’s rudimentary tools, producing an exceptional timbre.

“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,” Andy Morgan, a specialist in African music, recorded on his blog. As a youngster, Socklo wanted to be a football player, but he fell sick with rheumatism, “and that’s what pushed me into music”.

Misoko Nzalaya Jean Luther, alias Ir Socklo, a stringed-instrument maker for 40 years, poses with a guitar at his workshop in Kinshasa. – AFP

The notion of making a guitar came to Socklo when he was still in secondary school, and wondered if he could reproduce the instrument that he was learning to play.

“My first guitar was a joke,” he says with a laugh.

“If you put on the strings and tried to tune them, the fretboard bent – there was no way you could play it.”

The young Socklo studied a while at the Higher Institute of Applied Techniques (ISTA) in Kinshasa where he “did electronica”.

He went on to sign his guitars “Ir Socklo” – the “Ir” stands for “Ingenieur” (French for engineer) and then launched his career as a luthier in 1978.

Over the decades, thousands of instruments have emerged from his workshop in the rundown Lemba district of Kinshasa – a hut built of wood planks, breeze blocks and sheet iron. The floor is littered with wooden debris.