Jay Duncan with his first DuncanAfrica students in Mpigi, Uganda.
Canadian master luthier Jay Duncan is emphatic about the ability of guitars to change the world—but not just in the hands of heroes who create timeless music. In fact, his own guitars are hard at work, impacting lives at this very moment in ways that are arguably more important and far-reaching than, say, hearing the music of a master player from any genre. His will to empower those in poverty and desire to share his acoustic guitars with the world led him to open DuncanAfrica, a registered charity and trade school in Uganda where, for nearly a decade now, he’s been teaching locals everything there is to know about guitar making.
In a 1,000-square-foot cement shack in the tiny village of Mpigi, Duncan’s students learn about every step of the process—from bending sides to bracing soundboards and handcarving beautiful mahogany necks. And they’re not just learning a trade, either. Duncan’s acolytes are also paid to be there five days a week, nine hours a day, creating the gorgeous, classically inspired guitars sold on the company’s website—and all the profits go back to the community. Just as at many larger operations in the States and abroad, most students work on an assembly line, perfecting a specific job, such as rim or body assembly. But some of the better woodworkers graduate from working the line to becoming the sole luthier for one of the handcrafted instruments in DuncanAfrica’s higher-end Artisan series.
In addition to helping the people of Mpigi make a living while learning the art of guitar building, Duncan is also providing a sort of Business 101 class. He teaches his students/employees about writing emails, using Microsoft applications, and hiring student managers. Once enough villagers have been trained, they’ll be able to run the business themselves. “The idea is that they’ll be able to start their own manufacturing company, independent of us,” says Duncan. “They’ll actually own it and export the guitars, and we’ll distribute and sell them for them.”
Roots in the ’80s
So how exactly did Duncan’s involvement with a remote African village come about? It all goes back to his youth. In 1983, at the age of 13, Duncan watched millions dying on television as the worst famine in a century hit the country of Ethiopia, eventually claiming more than 400,000 lives and inspiring relief efforts like the 1985 Live Aid concerts. “It struck me as something that was just incredibly wrong. How could civilized human beings sit by and watch?” Duncan recalls wondering. “Now, it’s a very complicated problem, but to a 13-year-old boy it just didn’t make sense. And so Africa has always played on my heart.”
Duncan felt he could be of most help by educating villagers and empowering them to become self-sufficient. “Teaching a skill that they can use to support their families for the rest of their lives is much better than some kind of welfare handout,” he says. So in 2005, he made a decision to take his eponymous Jay Duncan guitars to Uganda.
It took two years of planning to get the school off the ground. During this time, Duncan spent five months building seven prototype guitars, selling them off for $2,500 each to raise the needed funds. “That was less than half of what they’re worth,” he says, noting that, at the time, his Jay Duncan guitars were selling for $5,000 each despite having a value closer to $7,500. “But that was our seed money for the trade school, and we’ve really leveraged it.” After three research trips to the village, Duncan and two colleagues rented the tiny cement house that would become their workspace and set up shop. It was a simple dwelling, but it had electricity and plenty of natural light. “For houses there,” Duncan says, “it was pretty nice.”
DuncanAfrica guitars are made largely with primitive hand tools. Recently, the school received a table saw, but prior to that the most advanced pieces of equipment in the shop were an edge sander and a bandsaw.
Jay Duncan says that DuncanAfrica instruments’ tonal qualities come from a unique “double-X” bracing system that allows the tone from the back and sides of the guitars to really resonate.
They met with the local elders in the village and organized an information night for prospective students, who filled out applications to enroll in Duncan’s guitar-making trade school. After choosing and training about a dozen villagers for this pilot project, Duncan returned to his home in Canada in 2007, leaving the students to make their first trial run of guitars without his supervision. Four months later, four finished guitars arrived on his doorstep. “Seeing those guitars meant, basically, that it was a success,” he recalls. “They made them without any help. Behind getting married and having my kids, that was one of the best days of my life.”
Best Laid Plans ...
It hasn’t exactly been easy going for Duncan and his upstart. Although this year they were finally able to move into a larger, 2,400-square-foot building, it’s taken longer than anticipated to find the right individuals and get them trained to Duncan’s exceptionally high standards (“I’ll saw a guitar in half mid-production if it isn’t coming out right,” he says). Commodities like computers are alien to most Ugandans, and there are obvious barriers in verbal communication, as well. “Technically, English is the first language of Uganda,” Duncan says, “but not everyone speaks it, so it’s very difficult to teach.”
As could be expected, progress is slow but steady. “We’re about a quarter of the way there,” he says, noting that they need to convert 30 students into experts in order for the business to run smoothly without him. Although they’ve trained close to 15 thus far, results vary and retention has been relatively low. “We’ve had four or five students come through who were just stellar,” he says. “And we’ve had two or three who were just terrible. The rest are somewhere in between.” Currently, the school has eight student employees making guitars under the guidance of “master student” Simon Adyaka, who apprenticed under Duncan’s first protégé, Mwesige David. David was Duncan’s go-to man from the beginning and manager of the school in its early years up until last February, when he succumbed to cancer. Losing David—Africa’s best guitar maker thus far, according to Duncan—was tragic. “He was the kind of guy who could do everything, and those people are really rare,” Duncan says. “He was amazing, not just as a woodworker but in the community.”