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.  

 

 

Banjo Ancestors Detectives: Daniel Jatta & Ulf Jägfors

I've been researching the African roots of the first banjos in the New World since the early '80s. All along I had been frustrated by the dearth of real scholarship and literature specifically on the subject of West African lutes. Then, in 2003, I read Ulf Jägfors' seminal article in The Old-Time Herald (Volume 9, #2, Winter 2003/2004), The Akonting and the Origin of the Banjo, on the Jola akonting folk lute of Senegambia, as well as Jola folklorist/musician Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta's pioneering efforts to preserve and perpetuate this endangered tradition. I immediately contacted Ulf and through him met Daniel. From that time on, I've embarked on a rewarding collaboration with these two extraordinary scholars and others within the banjo community around the world, searching out the banjo's obscured West African heritage. Their vital work has been a revelation and an inspiration to me. Likewise, I'm proud to call them my friends.

-- Shlomo Pestcoe


Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta

Daniel is a member of the Jola people from Mandinary, Gambia. After attending university in the United States for nine years and earning an MBA in economy, he returned to his homeland in 1984. His parents had instilled in him a love of his people's rich cultural heritage, so Daniel set for himself the task of learning the Jola akonting folk lute, an instrument and tradition that was on the verge of extinction. Daniel's father, a master akonting player himself, gave his son an instrument and taught him how to play.

Aware of the banjo and its African roots, Daniel realized that there had to be a connection between the two instruments. With this in mind, he began researching the background of the akonting and the related buchundu of the neighboring Man'yago people. The more Daniel learned, the more it became evident that the similarities between these two Gambian folk instruments and the early New World gourd banjos were too many to be coincidental.

Fast forward to 1999 and we find Daniel, now an economist living and working in Sweden, giving a lecture on the akonting in Stockholm. In the audience is Swedish banjoist/ banjologist Ulf Jägfors, who is very impressed by Daniel's research work. The two become fast friends and begin a collaboration filming and documenting the playing traditions and music of the akonting and buchundu. That collaboration continues to this day, leading to the creation of The Akonting Center: The Senegambia Center for Folk Music Research and Education (SCFMRE) in Mandinary, Gambia.

In 2000, Ulf introduced Daniel and his work to the 3rd Annual Banjo Collectors Gathering in Boston, which made for quite a sensation. Up until that point, the conventional wisdom was that the lutes of the West African griots, such as the ngoni and xalam, were the direct ancestors of the banjo. Daniel's proposition that non-griot folk and artisan lutes-- like the Jola akonting (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau), Man'yago buchundu (Gambia, Guinea-Bissau), the Gwari kaburu (Nigeria), and the Frafra koliko (Ghana), to name but a few-- were the more likely candidates was nothing short of revolutionary. Of course, like any new theory that challenges a well-established older one, his findings inevitably generated controversy among banjologists. Despite this, Daniel and the akonting have been welcomed and embraced by the banjo community as a whole. 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 non-griot folk lutes as well griot instruments.


Ulf Jägfors

Ulf has been hooked on banjos since 1960 when he first got into playing traditional jazz on the tenor banjo. Caught up in "The Great Folk Scare" that swept Europe a few years later, he swapped his tenor for a 5-string "regular" banjo and taught himself how to play it using Pete Seeger's classic tutor, How to Play the 5-String Banjo.

Meanwhile, Ulf's day-gig was working behind the camera in Swedish television. In 1985, he became the Technical Director of UPC, one of the largest Cable TV companies in Sweden, a position he held until his retirement in 2001 at the age of 60.

As his job entailed a great deal of travel around the world, Ulf sought out banjos and banjo-like instruments wherever he went. In 1990, he acquired a 130 year old banjo and began studying 19th century styles of playing the instrument, in particular the down-picking "stroke" technique the blackface minstrels learned from African American slave musicians.

Curious about the instrument's African heritage, the early '90s saw Ulf embarking on his own personal journey of discovery, delving into the origins of the banjo and its relatives in the lute family. A man on a mission, Ulf's passion keeps him hot on the trail, following up on every and any lead, wherever they may be found, from villages in West Africa to dusty museum vaults in Egypt. His Stockholm home has become a private banjo museum, showcasing his collection of over 70 banjos and banjo-like instruments, which features various members of the West African lute family.


-- Shlomo Pestcoe

 

Illustration Credits:

  • Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta playing the akonting. (The painting in the background is a reproduction of The Banjo Player [1856] by William Sidney Mount [1807-1868] of Setauket, New York.)  (Photo by Ulf Jägfors)

  • The Jägforses. Egypt, 2004. (Courtesy of Ulf Jägfors)

 

Next: The Early Banjo in the New World

 

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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