Music in the DR Congo’s capital Kinshasa is a favourite past-time for many and for a city that is home to a number of Rhumba musicians, there is high demand for quality musical instruments.
One man in particular has made a reputation for himself as the Guitar Maker of Kinshasa.
The modest, self-taught Congolese luthier, Jean-Luther Misoko Nzalayala, who goes by the trade name of Socklo has thousands of instruments that have emerged from his workshop in the rundown Lemba district of Kinshasa.
As a youngster, Socklo dreamed of being a football player, but he fell sick with rheumatism which pushed him into music.
The idea of making a guitar came to his mind when he was still in secondary school. He wondered if he could reproduce the instrument that he was learning to play.
“My first guitar was a joke,” he recalls 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”.
The 57-year-old 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.
He has managed to get a jigsaw and a few other electronic tools over the years, but using them is hard because of Kinshasa’s frequent power cuts.
“On days when I have power, I do all the work that needs electricity, and when there’s no current, I just get on with the rest.”
In his small workshop, a hut built of wood planks, breeze blocks and sheet iron; Socklo employs the simplest of hand tools: a saw, a plane, a few wooden chisels and a hammer and anvil to make frets from pieces of metal. He also has apprentices who train under him in this workshop.
Musicians who have tried out Socklo’s guitars agree they have a special sound, one that’s typically Congolese. For the sound box, the maker uses locally produced plywood, while the fretboard can be made of wenge, a tough tropical wood that can be hard to work.
For a basic acoustic guitar, Socklo makes treble strings from brake cables that he patiently cuts to size. Bass strings come from a machine he invented that spins copper wire.
Socklo buys the pickups for electric guitars or electro-acoustic instruments, “preferably European ones,” as it would be too onerous to make them in his workshop.
“It’s a job that needs to be taken very seriously. I work slowly, precisely. Especially with acoustic-electric guitars and electric guitars,” he emphasizes.
Socklo’s hand-made guitars go for between $35 and $50 for an acoustic or bass guitar. And up to $200 for an electric guitar.