SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.  

 

 

The Akonting & Other Folk Lutes of
West Africa's "Rice Coast"


The Jola akonting (spelled ekonting in Senegal) and its siblings-- the Manjak bunchundo, Balanta kisinta and kusunde, Papel busunde and Bujogo ngopata -- are examples of the gourd-bodied variety of folk/artisan lutes that was once more prevalent in the region of West Africa which used to be referred to as The Rice Coast during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Whereas the perpetuation of the griot lutes has been fostered by their role as exclusive caste instruments, folk lutes have been constantly under the threat of obsolescence and extinction due to the inevitable erosion of their host musical traditions. In some instances, such as the Senegambian bania-- long considered to be a possible banjo ancestor --  they simply went the way of the dinosaurs. Often as not these lutes were superseded by other local instruments; the European guitar, introduced into the various regional vernacular musical cultures in the early 20th century; and, ironically enough, the banjo, which was imported into sub-Sahara Africa, starting in the 1920s, in the form of the 4-string tenor banjo and the 8-string banjo-mandolin, along with yet another American cultural export of African American origin, jazz.


The Jola and Related Senegambian Peoples

The Jola (also Diola in French transliteration) are an ancient people who live primarily in the southern region of Senegal known as Casamance (centered around the Casamance River and located just below present-day Gambia), Gambia, and northern Guinea-Bissau. Oral tradition has it that the Jola had migrated from Egypt in the days of King Solomon and made their way to the Niger River Basin. Some time later they fled southwards to escape drought and wars.

Casamance is the heartland of the Jola people and culture, especially Lower Casamance right below the Casamance River. While only 9% of the entire population of Senegal, the Jola constitute two-thirds of the population in Casamance.

In Gambia, the Jola are the fourth largest ethnic group, representing 10% of the total population. (With 41% of all Gambians, the Mandinka are the largest group, followed by the FulBe [Fula] at 19% and the Wolof at 15%.) Yet, the Jola's presence in the country predates those of many of their neighbors, such as the Mandinka, Wolof, and FulBe.

 A farming people, the Jola specialize in the cultivation of rice, ground nuts and other crops, as well as the processing of palm oil and the making of palm wine. (They are credited with introducing rice cultivation in Gambia and Senegal.) Their traditional village-based society is non-hierarchical with no caste system. Up until the early 20th century, the Jola had resisted the onslaught of both Christian and Islamic aggressive proselytizing, maintaining their traditional religion-- a very complex, sophisticated belief system, which is a fusion of monotheism and animism centered around the concept of Ata Amit A Luuke (literally, "Almighty God the Supreme Being") and nature spirits called bakin. Today, however, many Jola are nominally Christians or Muslims, though they retain much of their people's original faith. For example, Jola Muslims, like other Islamized West African peoples, have their own folk version of Islam which is fused with pre-Islamic traditional beliefs and customs, such as the use of palm wine in rituals.

The Manjak (also Manjago, Manjaku, Manjaco and Manjaca) are found mostly in northern Guinea-Bissau, their ancestral homeland, and to a lesser extant in Senegal and Gambia. Like their Jola neighbors, they are a farming people without a caste system, who were also late in adopting Christianity and Islam.

Both the Jola and Manjak languages are part of the Niger-Congo/West-Atlantic/Bak language family. In fact, the languages are very similar. Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta-- a Jola musician/scholar from Mandinary, Gambia, who pioneered the folkloric and organological study and documentation of the Jola akonting and Manjak bunchundo in the mid ‘80s-- points out that prior to European colonialist domination and the subsequent emergence of independent nation states in their area, the borders that currently divide the Casamance region into southern Senegal and northern Guinea-Bissau did not exist. It's Daniel's belief that at some point far back in pre-colonial times, the Jola and Manjak were "together" in Casamance.


The Akonting and its "Rice Coast" Siblings

The Jola akonting (ekonting) and the Manjak bunchundo are virtually identical instruments. During the course of Daniel Jatta's research on the akonting, one of his informants, Sagari Sambo, the oldest living tradition-bearer of the akonting, stated that the Jola patterned their lute after the bunchundo of the Manjak neighbors. (Another informant, the late bunchundo master Sang Gomez of Jewswang, Gambia, pointed out that the bunchundo is relatively unknown in Gambia today and that there are very few master players left.)

In Guinea-Bissau, this type of lute is also played by the Balanta, Papel, and Bujogo (Bijago). The Balanta, Guinea-Bissau's largest ethnic group, the Papel and Bujogo are rice-growing farming peoples with village-based, non-hierarchical, communal social systems and cultures similar to the Jola and Manjak. Like the Jola and Manjak, their languages also belong to the Niger-Congo/West-Atlantic/ Bak language family.

As all these ethnic groups have no social hierarchy or caste system, music-making in their cultures is perceived as a purely vernacular social activity rather than a vocation. In these agrarian cultures, there are no traditions of praise-singing or professional specialized music-making in any form. This being the case, the Jola akonting, the Manjak bunchundo, the Papel busunde, the Bujogo ngopata, and the Balanta kisinta and kusunde are considered to be folk lutes.

From an organological perspective, all these instruments are classified as full-spike lutes. A full-spike lute is defined by the instrument's stick neck extending the entire length of its body and protruding out the body's tail end. In all other aspects, they also share the same morphology:

  • A large round gourd body with a goat skin head tacked on with metal tacks. (According to Daniel's research, the skin head was originally tacked on with palm tree thorns or wooden pegs.)

  • A very long, round, fretless stick neck, made of papyrus stalk. 

  • An upright biped bridge which rests on top of the instrument's skin head.

  • Three strings which are attached to the neck with cord tuning rings. The top third string is a short chanterelle (drone string), akin to the "thumb string" on the early gourd banjo and its offspring, the 5-string banjo.

Another form of the akonting is the entofen, which is distinguished by an oval or teardrop-shaped gourd body.

In terms of the repertoire for the buchundu and akonting, Daniel Jatta explains:

The music of the bunchundo is folk music just like the akonting music. Its songs has short verses and is mostly music to inspire bravery in hunters-- especially those who hunted dangerous animals like leopards, wolves, lions, etc., back in the day, when the world did not place a ban on killing these animals.

According to oral tradition, the birthplace of the akonting is the village of Kanjanka in Lower Casamance, nearby the banks of the Casamance River. The name of the instrument's home village is recalled in the most common tuning pattern for the akonting's three open strings (from the 3rd short "thumb" string to the 1st long melody string): kan (the 5th note of the scale, tuned an octave higher), jan (root note), ka (flatted 7th note). Like in the traditional old-time/folk styles of playing the 5-string banjo, the akonting is tuned in different tunings. Using the Kanjanka tuning pattern of 5/1/-7, a common tuning in Casamance is dGF. In Gambia, for another variant the 1st long melody is raised a semitone (half-step) higher to make a natural 7th note, as in cFE.

Daniel Jatta describes the music of his people's folk lute as follows:

The music of the akonting is short sustained notes that are played over and over again. Usually they are between two to three notes. The mechanics involved in playing the akonting is the regular sounding of the short string (drone string) when playing any melody. It acts as a drum to add beauty to the melody. The middle string is also sometimes used as drone string. All the noting is done on the long string.

The music of the akonting has been and still is folk music. Akonting players do not play music to confer status to their patrons. They play their music, usually in the evenings after work to relax and have a nice time before going to bed. Also when in their rice field bars (hu waa in Jola) they play the akonting in the evening after working in their rice fields and drink their palm wine that they are expert in tapping from the palm tree. The music of the akonting deals with all matters of life and does not need to be augmented by any other instrument to be danceable. It is rhythmic enough to enable one to dance.

Daniel learned the instrument and tradition from his father, who had grown up in a small Jola village in Casamance near Kanjanka. When he first picked up the akonting, Daniel’s grandparents admonished him never to play his instrument in the evening outside the village. The fear was that “devils,” attracted by the music, would kidnap him and he would never would be seen again. While this may seem like a quaint superstition, it’s actually a practical piece of advice that has been handed down from generation to generation. Back in the days of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Jola villages along the banks of the Casamance River were in easy striking distance of raiding parties looking for slaves to sell to the Europeans based in forts along the nearby Atlantic coast, in particular, on Carabane Island at the mouth of the Casamance River. The same was true for Jola villages up and down the Gambia River. Jolas, noted for their skills as rice farmers, were, no doubt, "prize catches." To this day, the Jola collective consciousness is still fresh with horrific memories of neighbors and loved ones disappearing in the night, without a trace, save for the discovery of mysterious footprints in the river bank the following morning.


Playing Styles

Playing styles are where the various "Rice Coast" lute traditions part company.

By way of example, the Manjak bunchundo is played using a 2-finger up-picking playing technique similar to that of the standard griot approach. The index finger of the playing hand plucks up upwards on the first string (the stopped melody string). It's immediately followed by the thumb catching on the top third string-- the short "thumb string" drone. Once the "thumb string is sounded, the fingernail of the index finger brushes down all three strings in a downwards stroke. 

Conversely, the main style of playing the akonting is a down-picking technique called o'teck (literally, "to stroke"). It's identical to the stroke style, considered to be the oldest extant style of playing the 5-string banjo.

It was the stroke style of banjo down-picking that the blackface minstrels -- white circus and stage performers who blackened their faces in crude stereotypical portrayals of "Ethiopians"-- initially learned from African American musicians in the early 19th century. (Blackface minstrelsy was the pop medium that popularized the banjo both here and in Europe in the 1830s and '40s. Prior to that it was a folk instrument exclusive to African American and African Caribbean musicians.)  Stroke style was the prevalent form of playing the banjo until the advent of the up-picking "guitar style" of "finger-picking" in the late 1860s. Stroke-style down-picking has survived to this very day in the folk traditions of both the black and white communities of the rural South, where it's commonly referred to by such sobriquets as frailing, clawhammer, thumping and so on.

In both the akonting o'teck and the banjo stroke styles of down-picking, the fingernail of a single finger (either the index or middle finger) is used to strike the individual melody strings in a downward motion, like a plectrum. This action is immediately followed by the thumb catching on the top short chanterelle ("the thumb string") to create a rhythmic "back-beat" accompaniment.

The aforementioned technique used by both Manjak bunchundo players and griot lute players is 2-finger up-picking. The player's index finger plucks up on a melody string, followed by the thumb plucking the short drone string, and culminating with the index finger brushing down all the strings. While this technique is strikingly similar to some styles of old-time 2-finger up-picking found in various regions of rural southern United States, it is distinctly different from down-picking and not related to the early stroke style of playing the 5-string banjo or its descendants, the various old-time Southern down-picking styles.

 

The Jola Akonting Today

When Gambian Jola scholar/musician Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta first pioneered the research and documentation of his people's folk lute, the akonting, in the mid-1980s, the tradition of making and playing the instrument was relatively unknown outside the rural Jola villages throughout Senegambia. Even within these Jola communities, there were very few young people interested in carrying on the akonting tradition. Recognizing this fact, Daniel's father-- a traditional akonting player originally from the instrument's birthplace, the Casamance region of Senegal-- implored him to take up the akonting and help perpetuate this vital element of their people's cultural heritage.

In 2000, Swedish banjo historian Ulf Jägfors introduced Daniel Jatta and his groundbreaking research on the Jola akonting at the 3rd Annual Banjo Collectors Gathering in Concord, MA. The Banjo Collectors Gathering is an annual conference of the foremost collectors of antique banjos, as well as scholars, makers and other devotees of the instrument's history and organology from around the world. For the banjo community, Daniel's presentation of the akonting and his demonstration of the Jola o'teck down-picking technique at the Gathering was nothing short of earthshaking.

Up until that point, the conventional wisdom had been that the lutes played exclusively by West African griots-- such as the Mande ngoni, the Wolof xalam, the FulBe hoddu, and so on-- were the direct ancestors of the banjo. However, all the accounts of the earliest banjos specified that these instruments had bulbous gourd bodies: in sharp contrast, the typical griot lutes have narrow wooden bodies. In fact, the earliest documented banjos shared none of the physical characteristics of most griot lutes, save for a short drone string. Yet, there was no knowledge of a West African plucked lute that has a gourd body and a finger-playing technique that necessitates a short thumb string. Many of the known gourd-bodied folk/artisan lutes, like the Hausa komo and the Bissa konde, are played with plectrums, so a thumb-sounded chanterelle is superfluous. 

By all accounts, everyone at the 3rd Annual Banjo Collectors Gathering huddled around Daniel as he demonstrated the o'teck playing technique on his akonting, observing his every move with rapt attention. Here was a hitherto-unknown West African folk lute with a gourd body and a short thumb string, akin to the earliest gourd banjos of the enslaved Africans in the New World. Still, the real epiphany for all present was the fact that the akonting is finger-played with a down-picking technique that is identical to the various down-picking playing styles of the 5-string banjo.

Today, there is a budding revival of interest in the akonting within its home region of Senegambia. Young akonting players like Bouba Diedhiou (pictured above)-- a teenage radio performer from a rural Casamance village who's carrying on the traditional style-- and Sana Ndiaye-- best known for his work with the Dakar-based African Hip Hop group Gokh Bi System aka GBS-- are introducing the instrument to broader audiences.

Thanks to pioneering work of Daniel Jatta and Ulf Jägfors -- as well as British banjo historian Nick Bamber, American old-time country musician/scholar Ben Nelson, banjoist/ gourd musical instrument expert/builder Paul Sedgwick, and others-- there is growing global awareness of akonting and its siblings in the large diverse family of West African folk/artisan lutes, which have been hitherto overlooked. These instruments are just now beginning to get the international recognition and attention they deserve as living ancestors of the banjo. Many museums have updated their collections to include the akonting, while banjo historians and ethnomusicologists have begun to broaden the range of their focus to include other non-griot folk/artisan lutes .

Yet, there's still a great deal of work to be done to ensure the continuity of these traditions. Because all West African folk/artisan lutes belong to traditional musical cultures based in poor rural villages, they face the ever present threat of extinction in the rapidly changing social-economic milieu of this region. In the case of the Jola akonting, despite growing world-wide awareness of the instrument, there's very little documentation of its music and lore. As of this writing there are no proper recordings of Sagari Sambo-- the oldest master of the akonting who's currently in his 80s --  and other akonting tradition-bearers such as Ekona Jatta, Remi Jatta, and Esa Jesus Jarju.

To facilitate the study, documentation, and perpetuation of the Jola akonting, the Manjak bunchundo,  and other string instrument traditions of the various Senegambian peoples-- including those of the griots-- Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta and Ulf Jägfors established The Akonting Center for Senegambian Folk Music in the Jola village of Mandinary, Gambia.

For more information on this project and how you can aid in this endeavor, please visit: www.myspace.com/akonting


Other Jola Folk Instruments

In addition to the akonting, the Jola have several other different kinds of instruments.

In terms of string instruments there is:

  • The kulongkoing mouth bow, which is played by tapping the bow string with a stick.

  • The furakaf harp-lute, also known by the Mandinka terms simbingo or esimbin. Harp-lutes (also called bridge-harps)-- instruments found only in West Africa-- are harps that are similar in physiology to West African plucked lutes, especially in that the strings run parallel to the instrument's body, are affixed to a stick neck with sliding tuning rings, and raised off the body's skin-covered "head" (soundtable) with an upright string holder. They primarily associated with the music of village hunters' societies, though the best known harp-lute, the kora, is exclusive to griot musicians. The furakaf has five strings and a large gourd body. In the Jola style of playing, the harpist is accompanied by a second musician-- and, on occasion, a third-- who beats out the rhythm on the furakaf's body with two sticks while the instrument is being played. This similar to the use of fiddle-sticks (also beating-straws) in traditional American fiddle music to beat out the rhythm on the strings of the fiddle while the fiddler plays.

  • The balambale raft zither.

Akonting playing is traditionally accompanied by concave-shaped rectangle wooden clappers called ku nuk kata oh lahai, played in similar fashion to rhythm sticks like the Cuban/ African Caribbean claves. Another type of clapper is the ca'las-ca'las, which is made up of two wooden balls, filled with seeds, tied on either end of short piece of rope. The rope connecting the two balls is pinched in the center by the thumb and forefinger of one hand and the instrument is played by twisting the rope so that the balls swing around to strike each other.

The Jola are especially renowned for their distinctive solo drumming style called bougarabou (also boukaribou and boucarabou). In bougarabou, a single drummer, wearing siwangas (metal jingle bracelets), plays three or four sowruba drums assembled together in a wooden frame. Jola sowruba drums (also referred to as bougarabou) have long, narrow goblet-shape bodies and come in three different sizes: kotero (bass); kotero n’ding (tenor); and sabaro (lead). Originally, the Jola approach was one drum per drummer, the same as most ethnic drumming traditions throughout West Africa. However, sometime in the early 20th century, influenced by Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music which was becoming quite popular in the region, individual Jola drummers started playing two drums together. By the 1970s, three to four drums in a single wooden rack were the norm.

-- Shlomo Pestcoe

Special thanks to Daniel Jatta, Ulf Jägfors and Nick Bamber.

 

Illustration Credits:

  • Jola musician Bouba Diedhiou playing the entofen form of the akonting folk lute. Casamance, Senegal, 2004. (Photo by Nick Bamber)

  • Master akonting player Jules Ekona Jatta with a bougarabou drummer and a percussionist. Mandinary, Gambia, 2003. (Photo by Ulf Jägfors)

  • Bunchundo played by Patron Correa, a Manjak tradition-bearer. Amon, Guinea-Bissau, 2003. (Photo by Ulf Jägfors)

  • Master Jola dancer Nazer Sambo accompanied by akonting master Jules Ekona Jatta of Mlomp, Casamance (Senegal) as well as by a bougarabou drummer, a percussionist, and other dancers playing ku nuk kata oh lahai clappers. Mandinary, Gambia, 2003. (Photo by Ulf Jägfors)

  • Master akonting player and maker Esa Jesus Jarju playing an entofen-style akonting which he made. Gambia, 2003. (Photo by Ulf Jägfors)

  • Jola furakaf harp-lute accompanying a dancer. The furakaf is being played to percussive accompaniment provided by two other musicians beating out the rhythm on the furakaf's gourd body. Gambia, 2003. (Photo by Ulf Jägfors)

 

Next: Two Gourd Lutes from the Bijago Islands of Guinea Bissau

 

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* Home * Bio * Shlomo Sez * Shlomo on MySpace * Sufferin' Succotash * Gillygaloo *    

* Yummie * Musical Styles * Instruments * Features * News * Contact * Links *

* Banjo Roots: Banjo Beginnings *

* Banjo Roots: West Africa *

* The Ekonting: A Link to the Banjo's West African Heritage *

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Last modified: 02/01/09