Nobody knew it then, but the roots of Jay Duncan’s guitar-making enterprise began growing when an African famine made headlines in the mid-1980s.
“I always had a thing for Africa,” Duncan explained during a break at his showroom/shop in Port Kells. “I tell people the story that I was 13 when the Ethiopian famine was happening, and then Live-Aid, and that whole thing imprinted on me a lot.
Years later Duncan worked as a guitar-maker with Jean Larrivée’s company.
“I had a bad day at work one day,” the luthier continued. “I said, ‘I bet I can could go anywhere else in the world and teach people who actually need a job how to do this.’ That was in my mid-20s, and then around 2004 I started giving serious thought to the idea. That’s how this all happened.”
Today, Duncan runs DuncanAfrica Society and Guitar Co., a charitable enterprise that teaches and employs guitar-makers at a small factory in the Ugandan town of Mpigi. The unfinished guitars are shipped to the Surrey shop for fine-tuning before they’re sold around the world.
“The guitars arrive essentially finished, but we go over them with a fine-tooth comb and make sure they’re ready for shipping, to make sure they’re perfect,” Duncan explained as fellow guitar-maker Paul Kaszonyi filed frets nearby.
^^ Paul Kaszonyi files frets at @DuncanAfrica shop, in the Port Kells area of #SurreyBC. The made-in-Africa guitars are shipped around the world.
STORY: https://t.co/06qhm2EhdF pic.twitter.com/oKNzgOULNv
— Tom Zillich (@TomZillich) September 15, 2022
The compelling story of DuncanAfrica helps sell its handmade guitars, Duncan concedes, and attracts attention at trade shows like Vancouver International Guitar Festival, where they’ll be among exhibitors Sept 24-25 at Creekside Community Recreation Centre in Vancouver. The festival showcases the fine art of contemporary guitar making, both acoustic and electric.
In the early 2000s, Duncan was living in White Rock and attending Peace Portal Alliance Church to help with the music program. “A lot of our first team came out of that church,” explained the Alberta-raised Duncan, a busy father of six who now lives in Aldergrove.
“We had some pretty humble beginnings.”
The church had a relationship with a pastor in Africa, and that was Duncan’s only ‘in’ at the time. He travelled there a couple times to research the guitar-making idea.
“Those people had a great work ethic, they had electricity and they had great woods for making guitars,” Duncan recalled. “We talked with village elders about the project, and they were all for it – and of course they were, because it would bring some jobs to the community. Then the next trip, I packed up my shop onto a bunch of pallets, put those on an airplane and we landed in Uganda.
“We picked two people who’d applied (for jobs), set up shop in a little house there, and we started making guitars.”
Three months later they’d made five acoustic guitars together, and did well enough that Duncan was able to come back to Canada. A few months later, some more guitars that were built without Duncan’s help arrived in Surrey.
“That was one of the greatest days of my life,” he said. “It worked — look at this, you know. There are about 80 steps in building one of these (guitars), and you can get it wrong at any step. It’s a big learning curve. Now, we have around 16 or 17 people working there, and some office staff, and it’s a fairly steady operation.”
A large percentage of the guitar-buying customers are church worship leaders, Duncan noted. Word-of-mouth helped grow business over the years, but there were some tough times.
“We’ve been back-ordered since 2013, and we’ve always had a bit of a waiting list,” Duncan explained. “I was ready to quit at the time, because it’s a hard road and it’s a charity – making guitars in Africa, you know, there’s not a lot of money.
“I don’t know if you believe in God at all, but I was done for a time there – we’d done it, and it was nice, but hard at the same time,” he added. “But then every day we started getting deposits of $500 until we were back-ordered by 60-plus guitars, and we had almost no orders at the time.
“We went from five orders left to around 60, and I felt like that was God saying, ‘I know it’s been hard, but I don’t want you to quit.’ And so we didn’t quit, and we had to deliver 60 guitars, and it probably took us four years to deliver those. And in the meantime we got more orders. Now we’re still back-ordered, probably 10 to 20 guitars usually.”
The latest DuncanAfrica venture is making electric guitars out of pallets of wood. The trendy “Barncasters” sound great, he says, but are made to look all worn and rustic.
“We’ve delivered 400 or 500 of the acoustic guitars over the years, and lots of those people will probably be game for an electric, as repeat costumers,” Duncan said.
“We hope so.”