• OVERVIEW •
Used by flamboyant 1950s Congolese guitarist Zacharie Elenga, a.k.a. ‘Jhimmy the Hawaiian‘ – self-styled after country star Jimmie Rodgers (already a global icon), and his own virtuosic brand of thumb-and-index picking (which, while formidable, had little to do with the ‘slack-key‘ traditions of Hawaii). His tuning raises D3str by a full octave, restrung with a top-E gauge (hence the name: ‘Mi-composé’ = ‘E-note mix’, from ‘C-D-E‘ = ‘do-re-mi‘ in solfège). Brings a jangling ‘high-low’ separation: deep 6-5str vs. high 3-2-4-1str, split by a huge 10-semitone jump.
Like his namesake Mr. Hendrix, Jhimmy pioneered complex rhythmic-melodic techniques, staying right at the forefront of his scene with an exciting, idiosyncratic style. Similarly, he offered “star-quality attractiveness, and…a penchant for [acoustic] solo displays…the likes of which had never been heard before“. While his career ended in 1952 (full tale below), Elenga’s ideas still live on today, in soukous, rumba lingala, and other Congolese styles (n.b. He used home-made capos: one source suggests 4fr, and it’s visible at 6fr in the only photo I can find.)
Harmony: Em7(11) | 1-4-b7-b3-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Jhimmy shot to fame as in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) – still under brutal Belgian colonial rule – quickly rising to become one of the city’s brightest musical prospects. After reputedly being expelled from priesthood training for his “fiery temperament”, his big break came via working as an office clerk for the Benathar brothers, Greek immigrants who were branching out from their shirt-making business to start a record label.
As recounted in Gary Stewart’s Rumba on the River, he “shamelessly cruised the main streets of Léo” on his beloved Norton motorcycle (…Jimi preferred a Harley), and played one-man-band sets by “making the sounds of rhythm instruments with his mouth“. Much like a Golden-Age MC, he bragged playfully about his own qualities and prowesses – e.g. on Banga Jhimmy (‘Fear Jhimmy’) and Na Kombo ya Jhimmy Putulo, meaning ‘Sweep Jhimmy’s Dust’ (whereas Hendrix was happy to pick up his own pieces of mountain, even tidying them up into an island).
He collaborated with vocalist Paul Mwanga on the Opika label (~1949-1952), and quickly became a star in places as far-flung as Gabon (further from Kinshasa than than Paris is from London…with a lot more dense rainforest inbetween). It seems his band even toured there, with wild rumours of massed crowds, dark magic, and groove-induced rioting in the town squares (whatever the truth, you’ve gotta commend the hype: as of 2022, these tales are still reaching us…and making me wish I could have been there). Check out his razor-sharp chops and relentless groove on Andila:
- Andila – Groupe Jhimmy na Mwanga (~1951):
“Jhimmy used his voice as a multi-purpose instrument: sometimes doing the bass, sometimes the maracas, and sometimes the accompaniment. His foxtrots were, if not hysterical, at least delirious: couples in the audience would reinvent the dance according to their fancy, featuring some of the most audacious swaying…” (Clément Ossinondé)
Critic Sylvian Bemba described Jhimmy’s style as “a pyromaniac, [who] totally sacrificed the text to the tyranny of the rhythm” (who knows if he ever set his guitar alight?). He “introduced the foxtrot to the Congolese public” (Ondruwe), and also sung with gusto: often about women, with whom – by his own account – he found widespread acceptance (his wind cries…Marie Lompengo). Again like Jimi, his stardom would last just four years – but ended in sharply contrasting fashion.
In Stewart’s words, Elenga was a “shooting star, [who] exploded from nowhere…but, in less than four years, the flames subsided – when Jhimmy inexplicably banished himself back to the bureaucracy of Brazzaville” sometime in 1952 (possibly due to a . Aside from a couple of brief, seemingly unrecorded guest appearances (with bandleader Le Grand Kallé, and Marie-Isidore Diaboua’s Atomic Jazz dance collective), he appears to have worked uneventfully as a law clark until retiring to Bangui in the 1990s, passing away peacefully there a few years later. That’s all I can unearth…so far!
Tantalisingly, I can only track down a few clear recordings of his playing too (although more are likely to exist in various archives) – check out cuts like Andila, Ya Moninga, Tokei Matadi, and Na Kombo Ya Jhimmy Putulo – as well as a handful more hosted on a WorldService redigitisation blog. Even more frustratingly, his group were also captured in a short film (Jhimmy Chante: ‘Jhimmy Sings’) – stills of it appear in reference texts, but I can’t source a moving copy! Let me know of any leads…
- Ya Moninga – Groupe Jhimmy na Mwanga (~1950):
“A sultry rumba washed in relentless waves across new nations springing up below the Sahara…Born in Kinshasa and Brazzaville at the end of WW2, ‘Congo music’ matured as Africans fought to consolidate their hard-won independence…an era when the currents of tradition and modernization collided along the banks of the Congo Rivers. It is the story of twin capitals engulfed in political struggle – and the vibrant new music that flowered amidst the ferment…” (from Gary Stewart’s Rumba on the River)
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Nashville: two-thirds high-strung, half the world away
- Jack’s Chikari: another high-shuffle from global music
- Ali Farka Touré: a sixth-string-raiser from further north
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Jhimmy the Hawaiian: more on this hidden hero of guitar history in Gary Stewart’s superb book Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos (the source of all quotes above unless otherwise stated), with further biographical info on the Kongo History Portal (“in the early 1990s…the recently-retired Jhimmy left Brazzaville to live in Bangui, where he died shortly afterwards”), as well as recordings and re-digitization discussions on the World Service blog – and for some modern Mi-composé guitar, see Lokassa ya Mbongo’s instructional DVD, featuring stylistic breakdowns of soukous and local innovators (such as Mbutu ‘Huit Kilos’ Nseka)
- The ‘Belgian’ Congo: there was no shortage of musical transglobalism in 1950s Congo (from George Lipsitz’ Footsteps in the Dark: “also on the scene was the Belgian guitarist Bill Alexandré, who had played…with Django Reinhardt in the 1930s. He turned to bebop after WW2, moving to the Congo in the early 1950s..”) – however, this interchange was predicated on some of the worst colonial brutality ever witnessed: from 1884-1907, the country was effectively a personal fiefdom for the Belgian King Leopold II, run near-entirely for the purpose of extracting profit via producing rubber for international sale: learn more about one of humanity’s darkest periods in a two–part Behind the Bastards rundown, and an overview of Adam Hochschild’s influential book King Leopold’s Ghost (“When the day of reckoning comes…European colonialism should rank equally with the evils of fascism and communism…Entire Congolese villages were forced to harvest rubber or face death by their Belgian overseers. The women were taken hostage, and many of them starved to death…There was no escape – and rebellions did not work, as King Leopold had a superior army, and used it to shoot down the Congolese in great numbers. The statistics tell the story: between 1880 and 1920, the Congolese population was halved: around 10 million Congolese lost their lives…Few Europeans working for the regime left records of their shock…’Monsters exist’, wrote Primo Levi of his experience at Auschwitz. ‘But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the functionaries, ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”)
Header image: Zacharie Elenga on a Paul Mwanga album
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
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