SHLOMO PESTCOE שלמה פּסטקאָ
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.
West African Lutes In a Nutshell
Throughout Coastal West Africa (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d'Ivore [Ivory Coast], Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon) and neighboring North Central Africa (Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad), one can find plucked lutes. They come in a bewildering assortment of different shapes and sizes. Likewise, these instruments are incredibly varied in the kinds of materials they're made from, the ways they're played, and the social/cultural contexts they're used in.
(For the sake of expedience, I'll file Coastal West Africa and North Central Africa together under the common heading of West Africa.)
I should point out that of all of sub-Sahara Africa, West Africa is the only region that has indigenous plucked lute traditions.The specifics of "how-when-and-where" plucked lutes first made their appearance in West Africa is matter of some considerable speculation and heated debate.
The current thinking is that these instruments were introduced into the region from north of the Sahara, probably sometime during the heyday of the Soninke empire of Wagadu (c.300-1100 CE). Better known as The Kingdom of Ghana, Wagadu was based in the southern region of present-day Mauritania, northern Senegal, and southeastern Mali. As the epicenter of the trans-Saharan trade with North Africa and the Muslim world at large, it seems logical that Ancient Ghana was most likely "ground-zero" for the introduction of the plucked lute into various regional musical traditions.
(For my own take on the subject, please visit: The Origin of West African Lutes.)
West African plucked lutes are classed as long-neck lutes in the Hornbostel/Sachs system, the current standard system of musical instrument classification. These instruments diverge into either of two distinct limbs of the same family tree: griot lutes and folk/artisan lutes.
All West African lutes, regardless of whether they belong to the griot or folk branches, share certain family characteristics:
Another common denominator is that the making and playing of lutes throughout West Africa, regardless of type or class, is traditionally viewed as the exclusive domain of men.
Where griot lutes and folk/artisan lutes part company are on other issues of morphology, usage, and social/cultural context. These are dealt with in greater detail in the articles: Griot Lutes and West African Folk & Artisan Lutes.
In the meantime, let me just touch on the fundamental physiological differences between griot lutes and their cousins of the folk class:
-- Shlomo Pestcoe
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Last modified: 02/01/09