SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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* Banjo Roots: West Africa *

* 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.  



The Ngoni/Xalam Hypothesis

From the 1960s on, the prevailing theory of the banjo's West African ancestry has been that the griot lutes we know today, such as the Mande ngoni and Wolof xalam, were the archetypes of the early gourd banjos made by the slaves in the New World.

Until quite recently, this theory tracing the banjo's ancestry specifically to lutes of the griot class-- what I like to call the Ngoni/Xalam Hypothesis-- had been universally accepted as conventional wisdom. It's been advanced by researchers, writers, and educators the world over, from seminal blues historians Paul Oliver in Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues (1970) and Samuel Charters in The Roots of the Blues: An African Search (1981) to ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran in World Music: The Rough Guide, Volume One: Africa, Europe & The Middle East (2000). A more recent example is the album released by Documentary Arts, The Hoddu & Xalam of Senegal: Griot Roots of American Banjo (2003).

The Ngoni/Xalam Hypothesis is predicated on the following propositions:

  • In West Africa, lutes are only played by traditional professional musicians and praise-singers.

  • All traditional West African music/word artisans are griots.

  • Griot lutes are similar in many ways to the various early forms of the New World banjo.

Apples & Oranges

Let's take the third point first.

The Ngoni/Xalam Hypothesis has always had a fundamental flaw in its basic premise that none of its scholarly proponents could ever get around: the griot lutes and the early gourd banjo are about as similar to each other as apples are to oranges. True, they're all fretless stick-neck lutes with drum-like bodies. But, then again, apples and oranges are both small fruit that grow on trees and are pretty close in size.

First off, let's take a quick look at the griot lutes. All the principal forms of the griot class of lutes share certain physiological characteristics:

  • A narrow oblong wooden body that's either canoe-shaped or "figure-8"-shaped;

  • A semi-spike neck (i.e. the stick does not extend the full length of the lute's body to pierce through its tail end);

  • A fan-shaped bridge that's inserted into a hole in the instrument's head to slip onto the pointy end of its semi-spike neck.

  • 3 to 7 strings-- 5 strings being the most common configuration. The top string is a short drone string similar to the 5th "thumb string" on the 5-string banjo.

(The one exception to this rule: the xalam gesere, a hitherto unknown griot lute very recently discovered by American musician/scholar Ben Nelson in Gambia. It's a full spike lute with a round gourd body and a floating bridge that rests on the instrument's head. However, it must be stressed that this is the proverbial exception that proves the rule: griot lutes, as a class of instruments, typically adhere to the characteristics described above.)

Now let's scoot back to the New World and look at the physiology of the early banjos.

Our knowledge of the morphology of these slave instruments is pretty much limited to the handful of published accounts and graphic illustrations left to us by contemporary European and European American observers. However, incredibly enough, two actual early banjos-- the Stedman creole-bania (Surinam, c. 1770s), and the Schœlcher banza (Haiti, c.1840-41)-- have survived to this very day in museum collections in Holland and France respectively.

As we can see in these two extant instruments-- and in the exhaustive evidence provided in Dena Epstein's seminal work Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (1977), culled from period documentation of the early banjo made by the slaves in the Caribbean and the Americas, circa the 1670s - 1850s-- the earliest forms of the banjo had:

  • Gourd bodies, either round or oval;

  • A full spike fretless stick neck which ran under the head for the length of the gourd body to pierce the tail end;

  • A footed bridge (string-bearer) which sat on the head.

  • 3 to 4 strings with the top string being a short chanterelle drone string, akin to the 5th "thumb string" on the later 5-string banjo.

Clearly, just about the only distinctive characteristic that the griot lutes and the early gourd banjos shared in common was the short "thumb string." Many proponents of the griot origin of the banjo have tried to draw a parallel between the 5-string configuration of many types of griot lutes and the 5-string banjo. However, the 5-string banjo didn't make the scene until the 1840s.

As for wooden bodies, Epstein found only one reference. It's in Sir Hans Sloane's 1689 account of his visit to Jamaica two years earlier, an addendum to his description of gourd-bodied instruments: "The Negroes have several sorts of Instruments in imitation of  Lutes, made from small Gourds fitted with Necks, strung with Horse hairs, or the peeled stalks of climbing Plants or Withs. These instruments are sometimes made of hollow'd Timber covered with Parchment or other Skin wetted, having a Bow for its Neck, the Strings ty'd longer or shorter, as they would alter their sounds...."

However, the Sloane's cryptic reference to "instruments... made of hollow'd Timber... having a Bow for its Neck" may not be a description of plucked lutes at all. In the 1707 publication of Sloane's travelogue from which the account quoted above is taken, there is an illustration of three string instruments: the two in the foreground are gourd-bodied plucked lutes, behind them is a West African harp-lute (also bridge-harp) with a narrow wooden box body, skin head, and a bow stick neck, similar to the duu of the Guere of Cote d'Ivoire (The Ivory Coast).

Clearly, the Ngoni/Xalam Hypothesis fails to address the glaring difference in body types and other very evident disparities in morphology between the early banjos and the griot lutes. Yet, these disparities go straight to the crux of the dilemma: If the ngoni/xalam class instruments were, in fact, the archetypes of the New World banjars, why did the slave musicians and artisans who originated the banjo make a clear choice to create instruments with none of the principal physiological characteristics that define the griot lutes, save for the short top "thumb string"?

Taking all this into consideration, one can't help but wonder how The Ngoni/Xalam Hypothesis ever came to top the charts as the reigning perspective in the search for the banjo's West African roots.

Well, the hard truth is that most of the scholars and writers doing field research in West Africa in the '60s on through the '90s didn't know all that much about the history and lore of the banjo. Likewise, many of them went in with certain erroneous preconceptions as to the nature of lute traditions in West African.

Griot & Non-Griot Music/Word Artisans

Now to the second point. To be sure, the vocations of music-making and praise-singing are ancient and widespread throughout West Africa. But it is a serious mistake to label wholesale all West African traditional music/word artisans as "griots." The griot phenomenon is not now nor has it ever been as widespread as once thought. It is actually confined to certain traditional Islamized ethnic societies (e.g. Bamana [Bambara], Mandinka, Malinke, Wolof, Western FulBe, Songhay, Sereer, etc.) which have similar rigid tripartite hierarchical caste systems. These systems divide their societies into three main hereditary classes: nobles/non-caste freemen, artisans, and slaves. The griots fit in the middle as an artisan caste.

The root of this confusion stems from the word itself. Since its first appearance in French literature back in 1637, the term griot has been used as a generic reference by scholars and writers to categorize a male traditional professional musician/praise-singer/wordsmith, locally referred to by a variety of terms, such as jali, jeli, gewel, etc., depending on the given language of his ethnic group. However, the problem arises when it’s used indiscriminately to describe any traditional music/ word artisan, without regard to the specific tradition or culture of the performer in question.

A case in point would be the maka'da and maroka music/word artisans of the Hausa, an Islamized people who live mostly in Nigeria, Niger and Ghana. The maka'da are settled within general communities with hereditary ties to specific patrons-- either certain families or professions-- while the maroka tend to be freelance itinerants. They have been constantly misidentified as “griots” by non-Hausa observers.

To be sure, there are some similarities between the griots and the Hausa music/word 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, despite the fact that the Hausa are an Islamized people with a hierarchical social order, they do not share the same rigid tripartite caste system of those peoples with a griot tradition. Accordingly, the maka'da and maroka do not constitute a hard-and-fast exclusive caste as the griots do: one does not have to be born into a maka'di or maroki family to become a musician or praise-singer; these vocations are open to anyone who wishes to take up the calling. Likewise, while music/word 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.

Of course, the misidentification of the Hausa maka’da and maroki as “griots” has led to the various different kinds of plucked lutes which they play—the garaya, gurmi, komo, wase, etc.-- which include both wood-bodied and gourd-bodied instruments, being erroneously classified as “griot lutes.” In the context of the search for the West African ancestors of the banjo, this mistake has led researchers down a false path.

Another point to consider is that in West African societies with the tripartite caste system, a very clear distinction is made between those instruments which are exclusive to the griot caste and those which are not. Griot lutes are only played by griots—and, then, only by specialist members within the griot caste; if your father and/or uncle played the lute, then you’ll play the lute. In this context, the morphology of musical instruments is not simply a matter of mechanics and taste; rather, it's also a reflection of hereditary social status and caste identity.

By way of example, there are the plucked lutes of the Western FulBe (also Fula, Fulani, Peul and Pulaar) in Mali and Senegal. In traditional FulBe society, only the gawlo (griots)-- specifically, the maabu’be (sing. maabo), who are weavers as well as singers and wammbaa’be (sing. bammbaa’do) --  play the hoddu, a griot lute with an oblong wooden trough-like body. Conversely, non-griot vernacular musicians, such as herders and shepherds, only play the molo, a folk lute with a round gourd body. In this context, the two disparate body types-- the wooden body, on the one hand, and the gourd body, on the other-- are mutually exclusive. Here you can tell  the given player's traditional place in his society by the type of lute he plays: if it has a wooden body, he's a griot; if it has a gourd body, he's not.

The Griots & The Transatlantic Slave Trade

In any discussion of the griot lutes' possible influence on the development of the early gourd banjos, we have to confront the hard fact that there’s nothing in the historical record to indicate that griots were amongst those taken to the New World to be slaves. If anything, the scant evidence available—especially the griots' own oral histories—seems to point in the opposite direction.

In his book, The Roots of the Blues: An African Search (1981), Samuel Charters includes the text for Jali Alhaji Fabala Kunteh's historical narrative song, Toolongjong, which he describes as "the most important single piece I'd record." Alhaji Fabla begins the narrative by singing: "Toolongjong is the song that was sung for Sunyetta the king of Fuda/ The same Toolongjong was also sung for the great soldiers of Sunyetta/ etc." and continues by listing the various kings and noblemen it was sung for, thereby establishing the song's credibility for his audience. He continues: "Now I will tell you how slaves came to be sold to the Europeans..." and proceeds to describe in great detail how the various kings made war on their neighbors for the sole purpose of capturing slaves to be sold to the "Hollanders" and the Portuguese for transportation to America. At various points in the narrative, Alhaji Fabla a very detailed account of how many slaves were captured and sold by each king.

The griot song Toolongjong is a dramatic testament of the griots' historic alignment with the powers-that-be who were major players in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It also puts to rest the common misconception that the griots themselves were enslaved. 

To be sure, griots in pre-colonial times were viewed and treated as pariahs by the rest of their society. In many instances they were forced to live on the outskirts of villages and had no social interaction with non-griots other than to perform the duties of their calling. This ostracism even continued in death: a griot could not be buried in the ground for fear of polluting it. Instead his remains were placed in the hollow of a baobab tree.

However, despite being stigmatized as "untouchables," griots were ranked as free artisans rather than  slaves. Another source of confusion regarding the griots actual social status is the historic relationship of the griots to their patrons. Many are traditionally "bound" to certain noble families by heredity, which some outside observers have misinterpreted as being a form of slavery. On contrary, the traditional relationship between the griots and their patrons is quite symbiotic: the griots are the keepers and presenters of their patron family's genealogy-- as well as their people's history and culture-- while their patrons provide the griots with practical sustenance. It's important to note that griots are not "paid" for their services. Rather, they're given "gifts" in a form of barter exchange, which may include agreed upon sums of money. Back in the day, those "gifts" often included slaves.      

Griots, in their capacities as the trusted functionaries of the local ruling class, were known to accompany slaving raids and the forced marches of captives to the European slave forts on the coast. Scottish surgeon Mungo Park (1771-1805), in the journal of his West African expedition (1795-97), described the role of griots-- who he calls Jillikea, his take on the Mande term for a male griot, jeli ke-- accompanying one such slave "coffle" (caravan) that Park traveled with on a leg of his journey:

"Among the free men [in the slave coffle] were six Jillikea (singing men) whose musical talents were frequently exerted, either to divert our fatigue, or obtain us a welcome from strangers.... We marched towards the town in a sort of a procession, nearly as follows. In front, five or six singing men, all of them belonging to the coffle; these were followed by the other free people; then came the slaves.... In this manner we proceeded, until we came within a hundred yards of the gate; when the singing men began a loud song well calculated to flatter the vanity of the inhabitants, by extolling their known hospitality to strangers...."

n the pre-Colonial period, griot always accompanied troops into battle, sometimes serving in a role akin to non-commissioned officers in modern armies; there were even occasions when griots actually commanded the forces of their royal patrons as generals. The presence of the griots in the front lines, so to speak, inspired the warriors to feats of heroic valor because they knew that the accompanying bards would sing their praises for the folks back home. By the same token, if a warrior did not acquit himself well on the battlefield, his cowardice would be the subject of a scathing griot song.

During a war, if a griot was captured in battle, chances are he would be absorbed into the victor’s own griot caste, rather than sold to the Europeans. It was understood that the white men had no interest in the griots' stock and trade-- oral history, genealogy, wordsmithing, music-making, and so on. By contrast, rice farmers and other "common" villagers use to hard physical labor were infinitely more marketable to prospective European clients.

Taking all these various points into consideration, the question boils down to this: Could it be that the enslaved African creators of the banjo drew their primary inspiration for the instrument from other West African sources?

Folk Lutes: West Africa's Best Kept Musical Secret

n 2000, at the Third Annual Banjo Collectors Gathering-- an annual international conference of the foremost collectors and scholars of 19th and early 20th century banjos, which also serves as the principal forum for presentations of new research on the banjo's history and organology-- Swedish banjo historian Ulf Jägfors introduced Gambian scholar/musician Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta, a member of the Jola, a rural people found primarily in the Casamance region of Senegal as well as in Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. Daniel did a presentation on his people's folk lute, the akonting, a 3-string gourd-bodied instrument.

The assembled banjoists and banjologists were amazed.

Not only does the akonting have a round gourd similar to that of the early New World banjos, but it also has a biped bridge that sits atop of the body's skin head and its top 3rd string is a short "thumb string"-- all distinctive features shared in common with those instruments made by the survivors of the horrific Middle Passage and their descendants!

And then Daniel began to play his instrument. Everyone huddled around him in stunned silence-- he was down-picking it using a technique that was practically identical to that of the 19th century "stroke style" of playing the 5-string banjo as well as the folk clawhammer/frailing banjo down-picking styles!

Daniel went on to explain the akonting is a vernacular instrument that's traditionally played by Jola farmers for their own amusement as well as to accompany social and communal activities. The Jola have a village-based non-hierarchical communal society without the rigid tri-partite caste systems of the Wolof, Mandinka, and FulBe (Fula) neighbors. In short, they have no griots. And they are not alone. Another neighboring people, the Manjak, also have a similar social system and play the bunchundo, a lute that's pretty much the same as the Jola akonting except for the playing technique. Likewise, in Guinea-Bissau, the Papel busunde and the Balanta kisinta are nearly identical 3-string gourd-bodied folk lutes whose traditions arose in social contexts similar to that of the Jola akonting and the Manjago buchundu.

The implications of Daniel's presentation was nothing short of revolutionary. Here, at last, was concrete proof that were lute traditions other than those of the higher profile griots that can connect the New World banjo to its obscured West African roots. We see this not only in the Jola akonting and its aforementioned Senegambian siblings, but also in the Frafra koliko (Ghana), The Kotokoli (also Tem or Temba) lawa (Togo, Benin and Ghana), the Gwari kaburu (Nigeria), and the Hausa gurmi, komo, komsa and wase (Nigeria, Niger, Ghana), to name but a few of the many different ethnic instruments that make up the large, diverse family of West African folk and artisan lutes.

(By "artisan," I mean those instruments that are primarily associated with-- but not exclusive to-- non-griot traditional music/word artisans such as the Hausa maka'da and maroka praise-singers/musicians of Nigeria, Niger, and Ghana. I would include the aforementioned xalam gesere in this category, even though it is a griot instrument, for the simple reason that it has more in common with non-griot lutes than it does with its griot siblings.)

One more point to consider: the Jola, Manjak, Papel, and Balanta were all subject to slaving raids during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Rice cultivation is the main vocation amongst all these peoples. This skill made them "prize catches" for slaver raiding parties who looking for good "merchandise" to sell at the European slave forts on the Atlantic coast.

When he first picked up the akonting, Daniel's grandparents admonished him never to play his instrument in the evening alone outside the village. The fear was that devils, attracted by the music, would kidnap him and he would never would be seen again. While this may seem like a quaint superstition, its actually a practical piece of advice that has been handed down from generation to generation. Back in the day, Jola villages along the banks of the Casamance River were in easy striking distance of raiding parties looking for slaves to sell to the Europeans. On Karabane Island at the mouth of the Casamance River there was a major European trading post-- it had a Slave House (still standing) to which raiding parties brought their human catches to sell. The same was true for Jola villages up and down the Gambia River; in this case, the slave fort was on James Island at the river's mouth. To this day, the Jola collective consciousness is still fresh with horrific memories of neighbors and loved ones disappearing in the night, without a trace, save for the discovery of mysterious footprints in the river bank the following morning.


-- Shlomo Pestcoe


Next: West African Folk & Artisan Lutes

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* 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