SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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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.  



North African Lutes: The Guimbri & Lotar

In considering the banjo's African roots, let's make a quick detour to Tamazgha-- North Africa west of Egypt, more commonly referred to nowadays by the Arabic term Maghreb-- and take a brief look at the plucked lutes of the Amazigh (Berbers), the indigenous people of North Africa.

The Amazigh

The origins of the Amazigh were lost long ago in the mists of time. Archaeological evidence and recent DNA research suggests that their ancestors came from the Near East to settle North Africa some 30,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic period. Over time the Amazigh ancestral groups absorbed migrants from the Middle East, sub-Sahara Africa, and southwestern Europe. Eventually, they coalesced into various related tribes that shared a common language and became the majority population of North Africa.

Throughout history, outsiders have called them many different names. However, the one that has stuck through the ages is Berber, thought to be a derivation of barbaros-- the ancient Greek term for anything or anyone that was not Greek-- the root of the word barbarian. The people themselves have always generally identified themselves by their tribal affiliation and/or by the term Amazigh, which in their language, Tamazight, which literally means a free person (plural, Imazighen). However, in recent times, there has been a growing movement to reject the foreign word Berber, which many considered to be derogatory, and replace it with the Tamazight term Amazigh.   

Starting in 642, Muslim armies from the Arabian Peninsula embarked on the Arab conquest of Tamazgha. By the mid-10th century, most of North Africa was under the rule of the Arab Islamic empire. As a result, a large percentage of the Amazigh, a number of whom were Christians and Jews, not only converted to Islam but also adopted the Arab language and culture of their overlords. This accounts for the prevalent myth that most North Africans are Arabs. The reality is that the invading Arabs were too few in number to have physically displaced the Amazigh majority of this region. So, despite the fact that Arabic-speaking North African Muslims today generally identify themselves as Arabs, it's more than likely that most of them are actually descended from Arabized Amazigh. 

That said, there are many communities of Imazighen throughout North Africa who have resisted Arabization to this day. Some of the largest Amazigh subgroups include: the Ishlhin (Chleuh) of Morocco's Atlas Mountains who speak Tashlhit, one of the 300 local dialects of Tamazight; the Leqvaye (Kabyles) of Algeria's Kabylie mountains whose dialect is Taqbaylit (Kabyle); and the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg), nomads of the Sahara who are found primarily in southwestern Algeria, southeastern Libya, eastern Mali, western Niger and northern Burkina Faso. The Kel Tamashek (literally "The People of Tamashek," a reference to their dialect of Tamazight, Tamashek) are thought to have originated in the southwestern Targa region of Libya, better known as the Fezzan.

From the Roman times on, nomadic Amazigh tribes-- in particular, the Kel Tamashek (their bitter Arab rivals dubbed them Tawariq, which means "those abandoned by god")-- dominated the overland desert trade routes between Tamazgha and West Africa. Their camel caravans transported everything from spices to slaves. Taking into consideration the preeminent role of the nomadic Amazigh in trans-Sahara commerce, it makes sense to me that they were the principal "agents of transmission" who introduced the idea of the plucked lute to the rest of North Africa and, subsequently, to West Africa.

Amazigh Lutes

As I had mentioned in the previous sections, it's my contention that at some point in ancient times the Amazigh "Lebu" tribes in Libya must have picked up the plucked lute from their neighbors, the Egyptians. The resemblance of teharden lute of the Kel Tamashek, who were originally from Libya, and the tidinit  of the Amazigh Moors to the wooden-bodied ancient Egyptian lutes is too striking to be written off as a mere coincidence.

I believe that the Amazigh Lebu, in turn, transmitted the concept of the plucked lute to other Amazigh tribes in the rest of Tamazgha. In addition to Pharonic Egypt, other possible influences in the development of lutes in North Africa, prior to the Arab conquest of Tamazgha, seem to have been the ancient Greco-Roman pandoura (Latin, pandura), a long-neck lute, and later Egyptian lutes from the Coptic Period (c. 2nd - 7th century CE).

This ancient lute tradition is still a major part of the musical culture of the various Amazigh peoples of Morocco. There three basic types of plucked lutes are found, which probably predate the introduction of Islam:

  • Guimbri (also gimbri) -- A large teardrop-shaped lute with 3-4 strings and a hollowed-out wooden body, carved from a single piece of wood. Originally a 3-string instrument, a fourth string was added in recent times by Mohamed Rouicha, considered to be one of the greatest singer/lutenists in the tradition of the Amazigh imdyazn (bards) of Morocco's Middle Atlas Mountains. Throughout Morocco, this instrument is known as the guimbri or gimbri, and is played by both Amazigh and Arabs. The term gimbri is also used to refer to a small lute whose body is made from the shell of a tortoise. (see below) However, in the Middle Atlas region it's primarily associated with the Amazigh imdyazn and is called lotar (also lutar), which, confusingly enough, is also the name of the following lute with a different type of body.

  • Lotar -- A 4-string lute with round, bowl-shaped, wooden body. It's unique to the rwais (singular, rais), traditional Ishlhin professional musicians in the High Atlas Mountains of southwestern Morocco. The lotar is typically played in conjunction with the Ishlhin rebab, a large single-string spike fiddle with a round bowl body similar to the lotar's.

  • Gimbri-- A small 3-string lute with a tortoise shell body. The gimbri appears to have been an instrument associated with boys and teens. It might have been an apprentice instrument for budding young guimbri players. Be that as it may, it seems to have fallen from active use in the early 20th century and only continued to be made as an unplayable "wall-hanger" souvenir for the tourist trade.

  • Swisdi -- A very small instrument used primarily in instrumental ensembles that accompany mahlun, a popular urban style of song based on qassida and zajal, forms of Darija poetry that emerged in 18th and 19th centuries. (Darija, the most prevalent Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco, is infused with Tamazight, Spanish and French words and influences.)
  • Gambre -- A 2-string version of the guimbri with a smaller body in the shape of a narrow elongated triangle. The gambre seems to have become obsolete sometime in the early 20th century. Thereafter, unplayable, cheaply-made versions of the instrument have become a popular souvenir of the tourist trade.

All these disparate Amazigh lutes share certain physiological characteristics:
  • A drum-type body with a skin head (soundtable).

  • A footed, raised bridge which rests atop the soundtable.

  • Wooden tuning pegs that are inserted into the upper end of the round stick neck rather than a separate peg box.

The footed bridge and wooden tuning pegs probably reflects the influence of the aforementioned Greco-Roman pandoura and Egyptian Coptic lutes.

 -- Shlomo Pestcoe

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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