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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.  

 

 

The Harp-Lutes of West Africa


Traditional musicians performing on the Jola furakaf harp-lute.
The three singers sitting around the instrument are beating sticks on the furakaf's gourd body to keep time.
The Akonting Center, Mandinary, Gambia, July 2006.
(Photo by Greg C. Adams)


Harp-lute (also referred to as bridge-harp) is a type of harp unique to West Africa. There are many different varieties of harp-lute found throughout the region. The best known example is probably the 21-string kora of the Mande griots.

Perhaps the earliest documentation of the harp-lute comes English explorer Richard Jobson's West African travelogue, The Golden Trade; or A Discovery of the River Gambra [Gambia], and the Golden Trade of the Aethiopians... Set Downe as They Were Collected in Travelling, Part of the Yeares, 1620 and 1623 (London, 1623) in which he describes some of the African musical instruments he encountered:

"They have little varietie of instruments, that which is most common in use, is made of a great gourd, and a necke thereunto fastned resembling, in some sort, our Bandora; but they have no manner of fret, and the strings they are either such as the place yeeldes, or their invention can attaine to make, being very unapt to yeeld a sweete and musical sound, not withstanding with pinnes they winde and bring to agree in tunable notes, having not above sixe strings upon their greatest instrument..."

I should point out here that many writers and scholars have seized upon Jobson's vague description of the given African instrument as the earliest European documentation of a banjo-like African plucked lute. This stems from his reference to it as "resembling, in some sort, our Bandora," a Western European wire-strung plucked lute popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.

This is actually quite wrong. The instrument Jobson was describing was, in fact, a harp-lute. Some harp-lutes, like the 6-string Malinke donsonkoni ("hunter's harp." Mali), are held and played almost horizontally like a plucked lute, with the right hand grasping the instrument's neck to pluck with the thumb the three strings on the right row. (Many harp-lutes have their strings divided into two ranks or sides; the best known form of the harp-lute, the 21-string Mandinka/Mande griot kora, is set up this way.) Jobson-- who never saw this type of instrument before and had no points of reference by which to interpret the performance he was witnessing-- probably thought the harp-lute was a kind of plucked lute akin to the ones he knew back in Europe like the bandora.

Harp-lutes are considered to be members of the lute family of string instruments because they all have a neck that emanates from the instrument's distinct resonator (body). Other defining features of any lute family instrument are that its strings are directly attached to the instrument's neck and that they run parallel with its sound table (face of the body) of the instrument's body.

What distinguishes members of the West African harp-lute family from other African harps are a large full-spike stick neck, which runs the entire length of the given instrument's body to pierce through its tail, and an upright bridge which rests on top of the instrument's skin head (soundtable).

Other unique characteristics of the harp-lute are the configuration of the instrument's strings, its tuning mechanism, and the way it's played. The strings on many kinds of harp-lute are divided into two ranks which pass on either side of the instrument's bridge. This is quite different from the way that the harp-lute's plucked lute cousins are strung: on West African plucked lutes, the strings pass across the top of the given instrument's bridge. However, like all other types of West African lutes-- plucked and bowed (i.e. fiddles)-- the strings on harp-lutes affixed the given instrument's stick neck by means of sliding tuning rings made of leather straps or knotted cord, rather than wooden friction pegs. Harp-lutes are generally held upright with the instrument's strings facing the player. The left and right ranks of strings are plucked by the thumb or the thumb and fingers of the player's corresponding hands.

Most types of harp-lutes have large round gourd bodies. Notable exceptions are the various different harp-lutes of the Ashanti (Ghana)-- the 10-string seperewa and the 8-string sanku-- as well as the duu of the Guere (Cote d'Ivorie) and the 6-string aloko of the Baule (Cote d'Ivorie). These instruments all have rectangular wooden box bodies. Another exception is the Dogon gingiru of Mali as it has a canoe-shaped wooden body similar to the griot plucked lutes such as the Mande ngoni and the Wolof xalam.

Generally speaking, members of the West African harp-lute family are folk instruments primarily associated with  hunters' societies in rural villages. Notable exceptions are the harp-lutes played exclusively by griots: the 21-string kora of the Mandinka jalolu (singular, jali. Male griots.) and the related Maninka seron, which has 15-19 strings. Likewise, the Dogon gingiru doesn't have a connection to hunters; it's mainly a shaman's instrument.

The bolon bato, a folk harp of the Manduga (Guinea) with four strings (most common) or three strings, and its twin, the bolon of the Mandinka and Maninka griots, are somewhat controversial. Some authorities on West African instruments classify the folk bolon bato and the griot bolon as arched harps rather than harp-lutes. Their reasoning is that, unlike all other harp-lutes, the strings on the bolon bato and bolon do not pass through the instrument's upright bridge to be tied to the tail end of its body. Rather, the strings end in the bridge itself. This being the case, they do not consider this string holding piece to be a true bridge. For my part, if it looks like a bridge and functions like a bridge, than it's bridge... regardless of where the ends of the strings are attached. After all, there are many lute-type instruments the world over in which the ends of the strings are affixed to the given instrument's bridge-- for example, the guitar, oud, pipa, etc.-- yet, no one suggests that the string holders on these instruments are not true bridges for that reason.

 

Examples of harp-lutes include:

  • Aloko (Baule: Cote d'Ivorie)

  • Bolon (Mandinka: Gambia; Maninka: Guinea, Mali)

  • Bolon Bato (Manduga: Guinea)

  • Donsonkoni (also Dunsukoni. Manding: Mali, Guinea)

  • Duu (Guere: Cote d'Ivorie)

  • Furakaf (also Esimbing. Jola: Senegal, Gambia)

  • Gingiru (Dogon: Mali)

  • Kasso (Gambia)

  • Ko (Dan: Cote d'Ivorie)

  • Kon (Mano: Guinea) 

  • Konchuchun (Gwin: Burkina Faso)

  • Kondene (Yalunka: Guinea, Sierra Leone)

  • Kongcuongu (Cirangba: Burkina Faso)

  • Kora (Mandinka, Mande: Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Burkina Faso)

  • Kori (Senufo: Cote d'Ivorie)

  • Sanku (Ashanti/Ewe: Ghana)

  • Seperewa (Ashanti: Ghana)

  • Seron (also Soron. Maninka: Guinea)

  • Simbing (Mandinka: Gambia, Senegal)

 

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

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Last modified: 02/01/09