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  • Revisiting the Katanga Guitar Style(s) and Some Other Early African Guitar Idioms
  • David Racanelli (bio)

Before the rise of rap and hip-hop in Africa during the 1990s, the guitar reigned supreme for over a half a century as an integral instrument in syncretized forms of African jazz and popular music. It served as an indispensable resource in an array of musical styles, speaking a mutually intelligible language that transcended differences of race and ethnicity. During the 1920s and 1930s, numerous commercial recordings of West African acoustic guitar music were made, signifying the growing popularity and appeal of guitar playing in sub-Saharan Africa. However, while Kru sailors and other itinerant musicians developed and disseminated palm wine highlife idioms, including dagomba, ya amponsah, and mainline, their playing style has only tenuous ethnographic, ethno-linguistic, or musical connections to Copperbelt guitar music, which developed in Central Africa during the immediate post–World War II era. During the 1950s, distinct acoustic guitar playing styles emerged in urban mining camps and towns located along the Copperbelt, a region in Katanga in southeastern Zaïre (southern Belgian Congo) and northern Rhodesia (Zambia). Gerhard Kubik (1965), [End Page 31] among the first to document, analyze, and interpret early African guitar idioms, introduced the term "Katanga guitar style" to refer to this type of guitar music. Though originating in a narrow geographic region, the Katanga guitar style was widely adapted, which in turn led to degrees of stylized variation in guitar playing, especially in Kenya and Tanzania.

Katanga guitar music, as Kubik (2001) suggests, is a musical conglomerate or a collective stylistic whole whose parts (nonetheless) remain distinct entities. Encompassing a multiplicity of styles, influences, techniques, and approaches, it provided the basis for subsequent musical developments in which the guitar served as a common denominator. Zaïrean guitarist Mwenda-Jean Bosco (1930–90) is widely known as the main exponent of the Katanga guitar style. Yet, many migrant musicians—especially northern Rhodesia musicians—who now have been largely forgotten, developed contrasting guitar-based repertoires. Field recordings made by Hugh Tracey in 1950, 1951, 1952, 1957, and 1958, along with other commercial recordings, document the stylistic variants of the Copperbelt guitar idiom, its early proponents, and local and regional variants played by these migrant workers, who led largely inauspicious lives marred by a sense of cultural dislocation, loneliness, and eventual grave disappointment, as the promises of modernity dwindled during the 1980s.

Hugh Tracey's Copperbelt recordings contained on the compilations African Acoustic: From the Copperbelt . . . Zambian Miners' Songs (1957) and Origins of Guitar Music (2002) are an invaluable resource for ethnomusicologists and African music enthusiasts. Tracey was fascinated by local culture throughout Central and Southern Africa, and he worked tirelessly from the 1920s through the 1960s to document the great cultural and musical changes that occurred in this region. After he established the International Library of African Music in South Africa (one of his crowning achievements), his work was continued by his son Andrew Tracey, who is an accomplished ethnomusicologist as well. While a few Copperbelt guitarists reached the height of their popularity during the 1950s, they were more or less forgotten once the electric guitar supplanted the acoustic guitar throughout sub-Saharan Africa during the 1960s. The Zambian miners' songs, in particular, have not been analyzed or discussed and, as a result, they have not been taken into consideration. As such, an incomplete definition/understanding of the Katanga guitar style has been disseminated for more than fifty years. The Zambian songs demonstrate the degree to which the localist Northern Rhodesian guitar style can be differentiated from the music of Mwenda-Jean Bosco, which includes the song "Masanga," an emblem of the Congolese cosmopolitan variant and a focal point of my analysis.

Aiming to show the extent to which variants of Copperbelt guitar music can be distinguished from one another, I have analyzed many of these [End Page 32] Copperbelt guitar recordings from a number of different vantage points. As for my methodology, I take a historical approach, working exclusively with the transcription and analysis of Hugh Tracey's field recordings, compiled and released as Origins of Guitar Music (2002) and other commercial recordings. I focus...


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