• OVERVIEW •
Used by flamboyant 1950s Congolese guitarist Zacharie Elenga, also known as ‘Jhimmy the Hawaiian’ – after country star Jimmy Rogers (already a global icon), and Elenga’s own self-mythologised brand of thumb-and-forefinger picking (which, though formidable, had very little to do with Hawaii).
Jhimmy shot to fame in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), still under brutal Belgian colonial rule, soon rising to become the city’s brightest musical prospect. 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 happened to be branching out from their shirt-making business to start a record label.
Like his namesake Hendrix, Jhimmy introduced fresh rhythmic-melodic techniques to his era’s scene, staying right at the innovative forefront with an exciting, idiosyncratic style. Similarly, he brought “star-quality attractiveness, compelling compositions, and [a] penchant for…solo displays on his acoustic guitar, the likes of which had never been heard before“. Check out his razor-sharp chops and relentless groove:
Jhimmy “shamelessly cruised the main streets of Léo” on his beloved Norton motorcycle (…Jimi had a 1964 Harley), and played one-man-band sets by “making the sounds of rhythm instruments with his mouth”. Like a Golden-Age rapper, he bragged playfully and eloquently about his own 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 chopped mountain, even tidying them up into an island too).
The stardom of both guitarists would last just four brief years, but their careers ended in very different fashion. As recounted in Gary Stewart’s Rumba on the River, Elenga was a “shooting star…exploded from nowhere…but in less than four years the flames subsided, when Jhimmy inexplicably banished himself back to the bureaucracy of Brazzaville” by 1952. He seems to have worked as a law clark until the 1990s, retiring to Bangui and passing away a few years later. That’s all I can unearth…
However, Jhimmy’s sounds and ideas live on today, still used in soukous, rumba lingala, and other Congolese-derived styles. His distinctive ‘Mi-composé’ (‘E note mix’) tuning sets the 3str D an octave high, strung with a top E gauge (hence the ‘mi’: from ‘C-D-E = do-re-mi‘). Offers a clear high-low separation: deep 6-5str vs. high 3-2-4-1str, divided by a huge 10fr jump. (n.b. Jhimmy used a home-made capo: one source suggests 4fr, and it’s visible at 6fr in the only clear photo I can find.)
Harmony: Em7(11) | 1-4-b7-b3-5-1
• TUNE UP •
• SOUNDS •
Congolese writer Sylvian Bemba describes Jhimmy’s style as that of a “pyromaniac…he totally sacrificed the text to the tyranny of the rhythm” (who knows if he ever set his guitar alight?). He recorded with vocalist Paul Mwanga on the Benathar bros’ Opika label (~1949-1952), and soon 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 group 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 2021, these tales are still reaching us…and making me wish I’d been there.)
Sadly, there are only a few good-quality recordings that I can track down online – you can check out his playing on cuts like Andila, Ya Moninga, Tokei Matadi, and Na Kombo Ya Jhimmy Putulo. He “introduced the foxtrot to the Congolese public” on Ondruwe, and also sung with passion – often about women, with whom – by his own account – he found widespread acceptance (‘…the wind cries…Marie Lompengo’?)
Jhimmy seems to have made a couple of brief, possibly unrecorded early-50s comebacks, playing with bandleader Le Grand Kallé and vocalist Marie-Isidore Diaboua’s ‘Atomic Jazz‘ dance collective (again, sounds pretty Hendrixy to me). Tantalisingly, his group were also captured live in a short film called Jhimmy Chante (‘Jhimmy Sings’) – stills of it appear in research texts, but I haven’t tracked down a moving copy yet!
- Ya Moninga – Jhimmy the Hawaiian & Mwanga Paul (~1950):
• 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 North Africa
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Jhimmy the Hawaiian: recordings and re-digitization discussion on the World Service blog, superb biographical discussion in Gary Stewart’s book Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos, from which I have drawn almost all quotes above. And the Kongo History Portal notes that “in the early 1990s…the recently retired Jhimmy left Brazzaville to live in Bangui, where he died shortly afterwards”.
- Mi-composé tuning: Aliksaka’s long-established instructional channel has electric lessons and jams with great Soukous lead players including Huit Kilos (Nseka Bimwela) – and check out Lokassa ya Mbongo’s instructional DVD
- More early Congolese guitar tales: as described in George Lipsitz’ Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music, there was a lot going on at the time (“…also on the scene was the Belgian guitarist Bill Alexandré, who had played…with Django Reinhardt in the 1930s. He turned to bebop after World War II, moving to the Congo in the early 1950s..”).
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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and other global improvised traditions. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them. Site above, follow below, & hit me up for…
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