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Kinshasa: Food Scarce, But Guitars Abound

By Chris McCarus

When you pick up an Almaz guitar, you can feel it wasn’t made in a factory. Wood grain rises into the enamel paint. The bracket that holds down the strings could be used on a kitchen faucet. It’s clunky. The Who’s Pete Townshend would have trouble swinging it in the air – and it wouldn’t splinter after the first smash on the ground.

Yet, the Almaz is not just an ancestor to the guitar. It’s not just two strings vibrating on a piece of goatskin that’s been stretched over a calabash. It’s a real instrument that African guitar icons, like Franco or King Sunny Ade, could bring on-stage.

If you ever wanted to see what powers the world’s guitar masters, you would have to go to Kinshasa, capitol of The Democratic Republic of Congo. That is where 50-year-old Maurice Mazanza has been making guitars since 1967. With appropriate technology and local materials, he nurtures the grass roots of Africa’s music industry. He is a household name in his country, but he is a secret to the West. Here’s why.

Congo, called Zaire until 1997, is far away – even to other Africans. Deep in Central Africa, this is the setting of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is the continent’s third-largest country, three times the size of Texas. But it is also a country in constant political and economic turmoil, and it has been overrun by dictators, armies and militias for much of the last 40 years.

The entire eastern part, bordering with Rwanda, continues to be enmeshed in the bloody Tutsi-Hutu conflict. It is a land slipping backwards in time. Less gold, diamonds, and cobalt are exported. More are smuggled. Less money goes into the central bank. More is stolen. Less food is grown. More people starve. More people are getting killed. Fewer people plan families. Instead, hordes of babies appear every day.

Still, if you wade through the chaos, down a dirt street in Kinshasa through a rubric of cement-walled tin-roofed dwellings, you see Mazanza sawing, planing, drilling and painting in a workshop, with the doors opened out onto a muddy yard. People call him and the workshop Almaz, which stands for “Atelier Lutherie Mazanza.”

Take a bus; walk the streets; sit in a vendor’s stall. You will see Almaz guitars being carried around or played. Five million people fill this city; Congolese music historian Manda Tchebwa says that five percent of the men and one percent of the women know how to play something on an axe. If this is true, then some 300,000 people have strummed or picked a guitar here. So lots of people play guitar, but few have the money to buy one.

A Korean or Chinese import would cost about $200. The cheapest American model would cost about $400. Yet an Almaz sells for just $25. Just like newspapers and magazines that are bought by one person and read by many, an Almaz may belong to one person, but dozens of people pass it around like drunks with a whiskey bottle.

In Kinshasa, music may be the only surviving business. There are thousands of working musicians, hundreds of albums on the market, and still hundreds of bars and restaurants where people will spend their last franc to see musicians perform.

Almaz remains at the root of it all. He sells about 80 percent of Congo/Kinshasa’s locally made guitars. The other 20 percent are Almaz imitations. He has supplied guitars to some of the country’s biggest names, such as Youlou Mabiala and Rigo Star. They are studio musicians, based in Paris where they crank out fast, hip-swinging, floor burning, guitar tunes. Their style dominates most Congolese music, and even occupies many of the French pop charts. As for the rest of Africa, Congolese bands began conquering it back in the 1960s.

“I made the first one with particle board from Belgian cigarette containers,” says Almaz. “With money from the sale, I bought what I needed to make a second guitar. I used to do this in my free time, especially during summer vacation, then my Dad told me to concentrate on my studies: ‘Don’t mix money and studies,’ he used to say.”

As a youth, Almaz studied diesel train electricity. Then he began working for the national shipping company. He then found a higher-paying job with the American flashlight battery company Ray-O-Vac, but in 1977 he was caught in the middle of a dispute between workers and management. All along he had continued building guitars in the workshop next to his parents’ house. Ever since then, he has worked full-time and overtime to produce affordable guitars.

All his materials and machines are adaptations or shortcuts, the result of working in an undeveloped, distorted economy. He places electrical wiring commonly used for refrigerator motors onto a machine he made; it looks like a loom. Then, when varying the thickness needed for each of the six different strings, he wraps another wire around it. In order to make string pegs, he bends metal used in housing construction. He heats plywood in water to shape the body. Then he glues, sands and nails. Finally, he will paint it yellow, orange, red, brown – whatever color the customer wishes.

During the prosperous 1970s and 80s, Mazanza had a dozen employees cranking out almost 400 basses, 24-fret leads and 22-fret rhythm guitars each month. Now, he makes just a couple hundred guitars a year. He has no more full-time employees. The government siphons off the tiny tax revenue to buy arms for its war against Rwanda and Uganda; it has also arrested foreign businessmen and local market women.

Just two years ago, three Congolese francs equaled a dollar. Now, you need 100 francs to get a dollar. This means no money for materials and few customers with money to buy. Even the sale price falls below the building cost. Mazanza ends up using 100% Congolese money, materials and labor, just as President Laurent Kabila has demanded in his long public speeches. But even for a hard-working patriot like this non-smoking, non-drinking father of three, his faith is tested.

“I sleep at seven p.m.,” says the fuzzy gray-haired Mazanza in between smiles. “I get up at midnight to read the Bible, then I work until three a.m. and go back to sleep until five or six a.m. Sometimes, I suffer from being overworked. For two years or so, I used to forget what I had just eaten.”

But Mazanza keeps at it. He relishes happy customers like Joel Bumba, who has sold thousands of his Christian music cassettes in the Congo and South Africa. “Every one in this town starts with them,” says the 33-year-old Bumba. “My first guitar was an Almaz.”

They are not only the cheapest instruments available, but there is a certain value to the frets, which are squared rather than rounded off; sliding your fingers up and down the neck can hurt. “This makes the Almaz guitar good for training,” says Bemba. “Once you get your hands on an electric guitar, where you don’t have to press hard at all, then playing becomes easy.”

After years of hard work and creativity, Kinshasa’s guitar maker soon will face either retirement or a new livelihood. Endorsements like these will be his only reward. As the years wear on and hunger sets in, he isn’t making them for money any more; he has to be making them for love.