Guitar Tales: Tommy Emmanuel’s Congolese CGP, Benjamin Caleb
In his latest column highlighting the next generation of exciting young African guitar talent, Deo Salvator profiles Benjamin Caleb.
CGP stands for Certified Guitar Player, right? How about Congolese Guitar Player? This CGP’s story begins in East Africa’s largest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. But he has his sights on Music City itself.
“One of my biggest dreams is to live in Nashville one day,” says Benjamin Caleb, who was born in the Congo in 1996, “because the songs that I’ve always loved, the artists I’ve always preferred, and the music that made me grow as a musician came from there. Nashville is the answer to my questions, artistically speaking. Nashville is the capital of my universe.”
Caleb started playing guitar quite late, at 17. But he’s since become an amazing, courageous and focused young player with a deep interest in fingerpicking – he routinely practises from 10pm to 10am.
The title ‘Certified Guitar Player’ was conceived by the late Chet Atkins, and bequeathed by him to only four other guitarists: Tommy Emmanuel, John Knowles, the late Jerry Reed, and Steve Wariner, with Paul Yandell later given the title by Atkins’ daughter. It’s a well-respected title in the world of guitar – so how come Caleb had the guts to add it to his name himself?
“Because I want my name to sound like Tommy Emmanuel CGP,” says Caleb. “But Tommy’s CGP is Certified Guitar Player and mine is Congolese Guitar Player. I had some problem with that name, and I removed it a long time ago.”
In 2017, however, Caleb emailed Emmanuel to tell him how much he loved his playing. The Australian guitarist responded and said that he was happy to hear there was a future CGP in Africa, and that he had no issue with Caleb adding ‘CGP’ to his name. “Tommy told me that if it can give me the power to keep going, he doesn’t see any problem with that. then I came up with Congolese Guitar Player CGP.”
Caleb’s first love was closer to Spain than Tennessee. “One day my older brother who is a pianist introduced me to the world of music by showing me how to play guitar, and for a year I was a fan of Spanish music,” he says. “But one day I saw a Tommy Emmanuel video on YouTube – he was playing with my mentor at the time [Pedro Javier Gonzalez] and I immediately enjoyed everything about him! He was in motion. He tapped his foot and gave off different energy. Since then Tommy has become my hero, and I’ve been playing fingerstyle ever since.”
Caleb’s creative process always starts with a feeling – something lived and in that moment. “I always needed to listen a lot to the kind of songs that touch my soul, not only to be inspired but to allow this feeling to be transformed into a melody, into a story without words, just a melody. Those songs are what keep me focused, along with the stories behind them and those of guitar players.
“I am the kind of musician who loves depth, passion, expression, feeling,” adds Caleb. “And those are the things that I’m looking for in a song. And that’s what I want people to feel when I’m playing music! I want to be able to play and take people somewhere in their minds, make them forget their life problems. That is why I put my life, my joy, my tears, my troubles, my sadness in music, and if you can feel it then I did my job.”
When it comes to gear, Caleb doesn’t have much: just a Yamaha acoustic. But he dreams of owning a Maton. “I’ve always treated my guitar like a baby,” he says. “In my room there is always my guitar sleeping near my bed.
“I used to have three guitars but when we ran away from the Nyiragongo volcano eruption in 2021, I decided to live without two of them. I use Alice strings and Yamaha strings because they work so well with my guitar, and they give me good reverb and better sustain, plus I can play it easily and get exactly the sound that I’m looking for. Clean and deep – I call it the sound of chance.”
Coming from a country plagued by poor infrastructure, war, invaders, and volcanic eruptions is a threat to anyone trying to evolve. But life must go on. As a fellow guitarist and an East African citizen, I can imagine how hard it is for Caleb to get the best gear a professional fingerstyle guitarist is looking for. Grace be to his sound of chance.
Caleb is currently playing concerts here and there, as well as on Instagram. Benjamin Caleb CGP continues to write for other artists too, recently penning a track for US-Congolese singer Divine Mosaka T.
The highlights of Caleb’s career so far, however, have been when guitarists such as Joe Robinson, Trey Hensley, Shane Hennesen and Emil Ernebro have seen his videos and said that he was a good player. For Caleb, that’s a dream come true. His ambitions, other than one day reaching the hallowed grounds of Nashville, Tennessee, include paving the way for the next generation of African players, teaching them to work with love and passion, to follow the voice of the music that speaks in their hearts, and to make many sacrifices for the music.
Now that Benjamin Caleb is working more than ever on sharing more music with more Tommy Emmanuel CGP vibes, he’s setting up his home studio, growing his audience on social media and getting featured in newsletters, even the ones from Nashville. In combination with his discipline and passion, I believe Benjamin Caleb will manifest his dreams to reach Music City and actually earn that CGP title.
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