SHLOMO PESTCOE שלמה פּסטקאָ
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Two Gourd Lutes from the Bijago Islands of Guinea Bissau
Copyright © Nick Bamber 2006
Nick Bamber is an English classic banjoist/historian who, in recent years, has been doing a great of field research in West Africa exploring and documenting gourd lute traditions in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea Bissau. In July 2006, Nick visited the Bijago Islands off the coast of Guinea Bissau. There he found two gourd lutes, the Bujogo (Bijago) ngopata and the Balanta kusunde, that were previously unknown in the ongoing search for the living West African ancestors of the banjo.
What follows is Nick's description and analysis of these two instruments. For Nick's full account of his adventures in Guinea Bissau, please visit: www.myspace.com/akonting
My thanks to Nick for giving me permission to publish his account of this remarkable discovery.
-- Shlomo Pestcoe
The Bujogo Ngopata
The ngopata is a three string gourd lute similar in construction to the Jola ekonting (akonting) and Manjak bunchundo. I found a single exemplar of this instrument on the island of Soga. The top string was the shortest. The middle string was the longest but was capoed by the bottom string and so its open sounding length was the same as that bottom string. The initial tuning I found was diminished 5th down from the top string to the middle string and then minor 3rd back up from the middle to bottom strings. In pitch terms the tuning was G C# E.
When the Bujogo musician, Joaquim Cabritan began tuning his ngopata he managed to break the short string. This was soon repaired and the newly tuned short string was raised a semitone compared with what it had been: i.e. perfect 5th above the middle sting, giving an actual pitch of G# C# E. Now ready to play, Joachim attached metal bells to his right hand index and middle fingers. These tinkled away throughout his performance.
From what I could make out the playing technique was stroke style with the middle finger striking down on the middle and bottom strings. The thumb seemed restricted to the short drone string. The left hand stopped the longer two strings at a single position making a major 2nd with the open strings. So the five notes played on the instrument were: top string G#, middle string open C#, middle string stopped D#, bottom string open E, bottom string stopped F#. This produced a continuous part scale in C# minor, i.e. C# D# E F# G#. What he actually began to play was a four note obbligato figure. This accompanied his singing which consisted of long descending diatonic phrases in what more or less passed for E major. I sensed immediately the influence of Portuguese music. The right hand finger seemed sometimes to strike both middle and bottom strings together, both on the open strings (C# E) and the stopped strings (D# F#). The obbligato figure varied occasionally but never included more than five notes and could not be compared with the melodic ekonting picking practised by the Jola.
As Joaquim played one or two of the men sang along and some of women began dancing. Not being an expert in West African dance I can only comment that it mostly looked quite familiar, though not of course identical to the Jola dancing Iíd already seen. Some of the dance moves even seemed to remind me of Flamenco. Some of the women wore the traditional short grass skirts over their other clothing.
The Balanta kusunde
The following day on the island of Bubaque I met a Balanta named San Sau Mbale. He owned a gourd lute which he called kusunde. Unfortunately owing to a working accident several years ago San Sau was no longer able to use his right hand fingers to play his kusunde. I asked him nevertheless if he would show me the instrument and demonstrate the basics of the playing technique. The instrument on first appearance was a three string gourd lute almost identical in its basic features to the ngopata.
The stringing however was most remarkable in that it was exactly a mirror image of the ngopata stringing: the short string was at the bottom rather than at the top, the top string was of middle length and the middle string was the longest although, as with the ngopata, it was capoed by the middle length string and its open sounding length was therefore the same as that string. The tuning I found was perfect 4th from the top string down to the middle string and then something between a major 6th and a minor 7th back up from the middle string to the short string at the bottom. The actual pitches of the open strings were top string F#, middle string C#, short bottom string A#/B.
When San Sau attempted to play for me he used his right hand thumb plucking in an upwards direction on all three strings. The first and second fingers also picked up but were confined to the short drone string at the bottom. The top and middle strings were both stopped at a single position making approximately a major 2nd above the open string pitches. Thus, the tones used on the instrument were in all: top string open F#, top string stopped G#, middle string open C#, middle string stopped D#, bottom drone string A#/B.
There are several remarks to be made about both the tuning of this kusunde and the method of right hand picking. As all the lutes I had hitherto heard of and seen had short drone strings at the top I of course wondered whether this particular kusunde had been strung incorrectly. Perhaps the player had restrung his instrument the opposite way round in order to manage some notes with his crippled right hand. Would this also explain the fact that he up-picked with both his fingers and his thumb? It is always dangerous to generalise on the basis of a single exemplar and this appears to be a case in point. We need to find some more Balanta kusundes to confirm or refute these present findings.
The notes which San Sau played formed simple four or five note obbligato figures which accompanied his singing. This was more akin to the ngopata playing of the Bujogo musician than to the melodic picking of the Jola ekonting. As to San Sauís singing, this contained scale notes not present in either of the pentatonic scales which the notes he plucked could be said to occupy. All in all, the encounter with San Sau raised many more questions than it answered. What was clear was that whatever the structural similarities between the Bujogo ngopata and the Balanta kusunde, the music played on the two instruments differs significantly. Nevertheless, the ngopata and the kusunde both share and lack features which place them closer to each other than either is to the Jola ekonting.
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Copyright © 2005 Shlomo Pestcoe. All rights reserved.
Last modified: 02/01/09