SHLOMO PESTCOE שלמה פּסטקאָ
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West African Folk & Artisan Lutes
Throughout West Africa, folk lutes are generally played by men in rural villages for personal and social entertainment. Some are primarily associated with hunter societies, herders or farmers. Related artisan lutes are played by non-griot traditional musical artisans-- that is, professional/semi-professional musicians and praise-singers who are not members of a griot family, and/or belong to a people which does not have a griot caste and tradition.
Up to the present, the conventional wisdom has been that the forbearers of the banjo were the ngoni/xalam-class lutes of the griots. However, new findings indicate that the rich diversity of folk and artisan lutes-- which have never received the same attention as their griot cousins-- may prove to be more fertile ground in the search for the banjo's West African roots.
There several major factors which distinguish folk lutes and artisan lutes from those of the griot class:
The aforementioned distinctions are also evident in the gambra lute played by Mauritania's haratin, black/mulatto Mauritanians descended from freed slaves. Whereas the tidinit lute of the Moorish iggawin (the bardic entertainers' caste) is a wood body instrument akin to the West African griot lutes, the haratin gambra (also genbra) is a single-string folk lute with a round gourd body.
Examples of West African folk/artisan lutes include:
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The plucked lutes of black North Africa, such as the Gnawa guinbri of Morocco and Algeria and the Sudan Tunis gombri of Tunisia are close relatives of the West African folk/artisan lutes.
There are different approaches to playing folk/artisan lutes. Some, like the Hausa komo and garaya, are played with a stiff leather plectrum. Others, such as the Manjak bunchundo, Balanta kusunde and Gwari kaburu are played with the fingers.
Of special note is the traditional Jola approach to playing their gourd folk lute, the akonting. It's a "down picking" finger style called o'teck that's akin to the stroke style, the oldest style of playing of the banjo which the early blackface minstrels learned from African American slave musicians in the 1830s and '40s. The stroke style survived in Southern folk tradition where it's best known as clawhammer or frailing.
Non-Griot Professional Musicians & Praise-Singers
All throughout sub-Sahara Africa, most cultures have professional and/or semi-professional artisans who specialize in musical performance and praise-singing, typically men from specific families following in their fathers' and grandfathers' footsteps. While the professions of music-making and praise-singing may be relegated to low positions in the traditional pecking-order of most societies, still, they are generally recognized as legitimate vocations which are vital to the perpetuation of a given people's cultural heritage.
In the case of the Hausa of Nigeria, Niger and Ghana, there are artisan lutes that are played mostly-- though not exclusively-- by musical artisans and praise-singing bards called maka'da (singular, maka'di; derived from the term ki'di, Hausa for drumming, yet is used to signify musicians of all types) and maroka (singular, maroki; the root of this term is roko, Hausa for eulogy or praise-song). The maka'da are settled within communities with hereditary ties to specific patrons, either certain families or professions, while the maroka tend to be freelance itinerants.
Like most traditional professional/semi-professional musicians and praise-singers throughout West Africa and the African continent as a whole, the maka'da and maroka are commonly misidentified as "griots." Veit Erlmann in his excellent essay on Hausa music in Niger forGrove Music Online clarifies this point: "An important feature of Hausa musical life is the existence of musical professionals, often incorrectly referred to as griots, who are allocated a particular position within society. Strictly speaking, even the use of the term ‘professional’ for these individuals can be misleading, since the degree of economic specialization does not always coincide with their assigned cultural role. Thus, many professional performers may actually derive most of their income from farming, while a farmer who depends on extra money earned through praise-singing will not usually be considered a professional praise-singer."
To be sure, there are some similarities between the griots and the Hausa musical artisans in terms of the role of their music in their respective societies and the fact that the callings of both these groups are hereditary. However, the maka'da and maroka do not constitute a rigid exclusive caste as the griots do. Likewise, while musical artisans are considered to be in the lowest rung of the traditional Hausa social order, maka'da and maroka are not "untouchables" and social pariahs in the same way that griots are in their own peoples' traditional societies.
It's worth noting that the griot phenomenon is not now nor has it ever been as widespread as once thought. As stated earlier, it is actually confined to specific Muslim peoples in only a few West African countries-- primarily Mali, Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, the heartlands of the griot tradition-- and, to a lesser extant, among the extended branches of those peoples in neighboring countries like Burkina Faso, Niger, and Guinea Bissau, where the traditional caste distinctions have waned.
Like the Hausa maka'da and maroka, most traditional West African specialists in music-making and praise singing are considered to be professional artisans, the practitioners of legitimate trades. Likewise, while these callings are, for the most part, hereditary within specific families, they are not the exclusive domain of a griot-type caste.
Yes, there are instruments that are specifically associated with non-griot traditional professional musicians and praise-singers. But their use is not the restricted province of one small social group, as in the case of the griot instruments. By way of example, the Hausa garaya lute is played by itinerant traders as well as traditional musical artisans. If anything, the instruments of the non-griot professionals are the products and embodiments of their people's vernacular musical culture and heritage.
This is especially true when it comes to the plucked lutes associated with the non-griot professional musicians and praise singers. Here we can clearly see that their overall physiology is very similar to the more generic folk lutes: mostly gourd bodies with the bridges on the top of the instrument's skin head. Likewise, the non-griot professionals tend to use the same playing techniques as their amateur counterparts. Taking all these factors into consideration, it follows then that the artisan lutes of the non-griot professionals should be classed with folk lutes.
-- Shlomo Pestcoe
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Last modified: 02/01/09