SHLOMO PESTCOE  שלמה פּסטקאָ

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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.  



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:

  • A fretless stick neck.

  • An animal skin "head" (soundtable).

  • The strings are fastened to the neck by means of sliding tuning rings, made of leather straps or knotted cord, instead of wooden tuning pegs.

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:

  • Because all types of West African lutes have stick necks, they are classified as being either spike lutes or semi-spike lutes. A spike lute is one on which the stick neck extends the entire length of the instrument's body to pierce through its tail, whereas the stick neck of semi-spike lute typically ends under the soundtable several inches before the tail. Folk/artisan instruments encompass both the spike and semi-spike categories, though most folk types tend to be spike lutes. On the flip side, all instruments of the griot class are semi-spike lutes.

  • Standard griot lutes have oblong wooden trough-like bodies, which tend to be either boat-shaped or figure "8" shaped. Folk/artisan lutes range in physiology from round gourd bodies (the oldest and most prevalent form of folk/artisan lute) to wooden bodies similar to their griot cousins. In recent times, some folk/artisan types are now constructed from recycled metal cans.

  • Typical griot lutes share the same type of bridge-- a fan-shaped wooden piece inserted into a  soundhole on the head to slide onto the narrow end of the neck. Conversely, the bridge on all types of folk/artisan lutes rests atop of the instrument's head. The most common folk form is the cylinder bridge, generally a piece of wooden dowel. (On some instruments the dowel is a hollowed-out tube filled with small seeds for a rattle effect.) The Jola akonting and Manjago buchundu folk lutes are unique in that they are the only extant West African lutes to have a footed upright bridge, similar to that of the North African lutes and the early New World gourd banjos.

  • Griot lutes typically have 3 - 5 strings, though some variants may have up to 8 strings. Akin to the "thumb string" (the chanterelle drone string) on the 5-string banjo, the top string is shorter than the rest and is plucked by the thumb to provide a rhythmic backbeat. Folk lutes generally range from single string instruments to those with three strings. Once again, the akonting and buchundu are distinct in that they are 3-string folk lutes with a short top third string that serves the chanterelle.

-- Shlomo Pestcoe

Next: The Origin of West African Lutes

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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