SHLOMO PESTCOE שלמה פּסטקאָ
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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 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.
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:
-- Shlomo Pestcoe
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Last modified: 02/01/09