The guitar stands tall and proud, the neck is longer than usual, and the body of the instrument shaped like the African continent is a dark shade of brown.
The African Electric Guitar (AEG), is the brainchild of Nigerian musician and innovator, Dr Ezekiel Olaleye who was in Kenya this week to launch the model of the instrument, named after Nairobi.
Dr Olaleye, founder of Instruments of Africa (IOA), an innovations company incorporated in Nigeria, the United States (US) and the UK was born and raised in Nigeria but moved to the US at 18 to join his parents who had migrated after winning the Green Card Lottery.
Growing up, Olaleye played piano, drums, and the guitar, influenced by his father who was a musician in Nigerian Juju music icon Ebenezer Obey’s band for about 20 years. After moving to the US, Olaleye first joined a Juju band, before moving to Nashville, the home of country music.
“After playing music for years, I just did not feel like Africa had something that speaks for itself in the originality of our instruments even though history has traced the origin of music to Africa,” he told BD Life.
“If we have made music for ages, then we need to make instruments that speak for us and are a symbol of the African continent,” he adds.
The first prototype of the electric guitar he designed in 2005 looked good but didn’t produce the sound he expected. So in 2010, he went back to the drawing board and two years later he re-designed the instrument.
“I decided to create different designs and name them after African cities to give every African a sense of belonging in an African innovation.” So far there are nine models: Nairobi, Accra, Lagos, Soweto, Addis Ababa, Cairo, Kampala, Kinshasa, and Kigali.
He describes the Nairobi guitar as the most complex design of the nine. “We cut out the African shape then divided it in two and inserted another wood for the neck to run from the bottom to the top.
As he explains, most guitars are bolt-on, with screws holding the neck to the body, but the Nairobi version of the AEG is the more intricate glue-on design. “There is a uniqueness to the simplicity and the brown finishing,” says Dr Olaleye.
Though the bodies of all the guitars are designed in the shape of the continent, the finish of each is different. The curve of the headstock is inspired by the Shotel Ethiopian sword, a locking piece on the neck ensures that once the instrument is tuned the guitarist can lock the string while the electrical pickup produces a reverberating sound.
Dr Olaleye brushes off criticism that a guitar is not authentically an African instrument “We have never seen anything like it before, we have seen electric guitars in other parts of the world, but to say African electric guitar, that is an identity in and of itself.”
“I have always viewed the guitar as an instrument that speaks and if we can make a guitar in the shape of Africa, then it means Africa is speaking wherever you are holding it. It also gives an identity to our musical genres on the world stage.”
“I am sure of the quality of this guitar, it can stand beside a Fender or Gibson, or any of the big guitar brands. Most guitarists who have picked up this guitar, enjoy it because you can play for so long and not feel pain in your wrist,” he says.
Some of Africa’s top guitarists have already endorsed the AEG, including Grammy Award winner OT Woode from Ghana, and Juju music legends, Ebenezer Obey & King Sunny Ade.
Nigerian guitarist Femi Leye, who was also in Nairobi this week as a brand ambassador for the product, plays the guitar in the video for one of the biggest Afrobeats hits of the year “Finesse” by Pheelz featuring Glitch Africa Choir.
“Hopefully we can meet some guitarists here in Nairobi who can lay their hands on the instrument and play it,” says Dr Olaleye.
The current success of African acts around the world provides a platform to push the AEG to connect with people on the ground and send the message that Africa can be a hub of innovation.
“The electrifying sound, the positive vibe indicates that the world wants to listen to more African music and this is the soil where all that is produced,” says Dr Olaleye.
“By 2030 Africa is going to dominate the entire global music industry and AEG will be the next big thing,” he says with laughter.
“We have to keep up the momentum by developing new versions of the guitar in years to come, just like software companies keep upgrading.”