The Ekonting: African Roots of the Banjo – A Direct Connection Between African & African-American Music

On today’s show Eli attempts to demonstrate the real links between African & African-American music.

The show features a direct comparison of African ekonting music to African-American banjo music followed by an interview with Daniel Jatta, music researcher of the Jola tribe from Senegambia. In the interview Daniel plays Jola songs on the ekonting, and gives a description of his research into the instrument and its clear connection to the African-American banjo. He also discusses the cultural center he has founded in Gambia to preserve and promote Jola culture and other traditional cultures of the region. This group in Africa has retained a musical culture closest to that which arrived with slaves brought to America from that region hundreds of years ago.

Included above is also a complete 46 min tape of field recordings of ekonting music sent in by Daniel Jatta.

(Photo by  Ulf Jägfors)
(L) Anonymous folk painting. South Carolina, c. 1790. One of the oldest depictions of an early gourd banjo in America. (R) Master ekonting player Jules Ekona Jatta with drums and percussion, Mandinary, Gambia 2003.

Daniel Jatta and the Jola akonting:

Daniel is doing real amazing work. For years American researchers have tried to trace “the roots of the blues” back to Africa, with little real success. African America music is just not that much like any African music that they could discover. Daniel’s research into the music of his tribe, the Jola, really presents the most direct link between African and African-American music that is known. The instrument that he learned from his father, the ekonting, is obviously banjo like in its construcion and its playing technique is identical to that used by elder African-American banjo players here in the USA. The ekonting music of the Jola also serves the same social role as African-American folk music such as folk-blues. It is played by regular people for mutal enjoyement, singing and dancing. This is in marked contrast to Mandinka griots who come from particular families, are part of a professional caste of musicians, and play praise songs for wealthy patrons.

Daniel has founded a center for the preservation of Jola culture in Mandinary, Gambia. The Jolas are a minority group in Senegambia and their older traditional cultural is vanishing under pressure from other more powerful and richer groups. The Jola are a non-hierarchical tribe, living in rural areas growing rice and have been greatly effected by the pull of jobs in cities and “progress” in general. That’s why Daniel, who has a western education and skills and could leave Africa entirely feels that it is so important to go back to his roots and his traditional cultural forms and give them the respect that they deserve.

The Jola Cultural Center that he has founded after years of work and preparation can go far in its mission, if its gets money to set its self up correctly. They are starting a co-operative farm to be self sufficient, but they need more funds to set everything up.

Daniel comes to the U.S. at least once a year now to continue his work here. He currently lives in Stockholm, Sweden and is available for interviews, lectures, and musical demonstrations. His email is: daniel.jatta@telia.com .

For more information go to www.myspace.com/akonting and Shlomo Pestcoe’s awesome akonting site

Track list for the direct comparison of African akonting music to African-American banjo music:

In this track I have edited together examples of African ekonting music and African-American banjo music so that you can hear each back to back in smooth succession. The ekonting examples are drawn from field recordings made among the Jola ethnic group by Daniel Jatta in Senegal in 2003 and the banjo examples are taken from several commercially released Cds of field recordings (see below) and from unreleased field recordings of banjo players Josh Thomas and Lucius Smith. These field recordings were made in the 1960’s and ’70’s. There are 15 examples used in this track which appear as follows:
1. “Soon in the Mornin’ Babe” played by Lucius Smith.
2. Solo ekonting.
3+4. Akonting in ensemble with percussion and voice.
5. “Soon in the Mornin’ Babe” played in ensemble. Here Smith plays the banjo together with fiddle and voice.
6. “Coo Coo” played by John Snipes.
7. “Old Rattler” also John Snipes.
8. “New Railroad” played by Lucius Smith.
9. Solo ekonting.
10. “Roustabout” played by Dink Roberts.
11. Solo ekonting.
12. “Coo Coo Bird” played by Rufus Casey.
13. Solo ekonting.
14. “Make It to My Shanty If I Can” played by Lucius Smith. At the end of this example Smith explains that a song can be played several ways, he then demonstrates by playing the same song but shifting into a different style and rhythm more applicable to the next example.
15. “Make It to My Shanty If I Can” played by Henry Thomas on the guitar, using a slide and displaying a ragtime-blues style that we are more familiar with hearing in blues music.

Donations Accepted! -

To make a tax-deductible contribution, please make your check out to Fractured Atlas with “2nd Mind Music/ (FOAC)” in the Memo Section. Fractured Atlas is a non-profit arts support organization legally recognized as a 501c3 public charity.

Please send your check to:

The Ekonting Center Fund
c/o Eli Smith
280 Rector Place, 8K
New York, NY, 10280

“Please support the vital work of The Ekonting Center by donating to The Ekonting Center Fund and becoming a Tradition Sponsor. Your generous contribution will go directly to The Akonting Center in Gambia and the ongoing effort to document and perpetuate the string instrument traditions of the various Senegambian peoples. Likewise, it will provide practical support for older Senegambian tradition-bearers as well as encouragement for younger local folk artists to carry on these traditions. Please let us know if you would like to be included in our Tradition Sponsors’ Honor Roll which is published here (see below) and in all our literature. Also be sure to indicate how you’d like to be credited and if you’re making your donation to honor the memory of loved ones or commemorate a joyous occasion such as a wedding, birth, graduation, and so on.”

- In an email dated Sunday, January 28, 2007 Daniel Jatta wrote:

“The new world banjo as a folk instrument was used by enslaved Africans in the new world to fulfilled their social duties as they used to do in Africa before they came to the new world and not an instrument they developed in the new world because of “abject poverty” in the plantations as many people in the new world were made to understand the instrument.

The new world banjo (North America) or Banza( in the Caribbean countries) or “Ekonting”(in Africa) was one of the first artistic works of mankind both in Africa and the new world . It is the first important African and African American contribution to world music.

I cannot and will not allow people to continue to see the instrument as a negative instrument when we all know today the contributions the instrument made to the whole world culturally, socially and most important of all economically.

How many Americans know that the highest export of the American economy today is “music”? And who created this music and which instrument? I leave this question for you all to research on.”

Below are some excerpts from an article by Daniel Jatta on his website, www.Akonting.org

Jatta Says:

The word to play the Ekonting in Jola is called “OU TEEK,” which means beat, or knock the instruments strings. This is the same as the playing style of the Southern American gourd banjo, called “Clawhammer.” In playing the Ekonting, only two fingers (thumb and index), usually of the right hand are used. Most Ekontings are built for the right hand position. The first digit of the thumb touches the short string (drone) and the middle string and the index finger (nail) touches the third string. Some Ekonting players like Ekorna from the Cassamance uses the thumb and the middle finger instead of the index finger. The index finger and the third finger of the left hand note the third string or the long string.

The music of the Ekonting is short sustained notes that are played over and over again. Usually they are between two to three notes. The mechanics involved in playing the Ekonting is the regular sounding of the short string (drone string) when playing any melody. It acts as a drum to add beauty to the melody. The middle string is also sometimes used as drone string. All the noting is done on the long string.

The music of the Ekonting has been and still is folk music. Ekonting players do not play music to confer status to their patrons. They play their music, usually in the evenings after work to relax and have a nice time before going to bed. Also when in their rice field bars (Jola, Hu Waa) they play the Ekonting in the evening after working in their rice fields and drink their palm wine that they are expert in tapping from the palm tree. The music of the Ekonting deals with all matters of life and does not need to be augmented by any other instrument to be danceable. It is rhythmic enough to enable one to dance.

Jatta on the Jola ethnic group:

The Jolas are found in great numbers on the Atlantic coast between the southern banks of the Gambia River, the Cassamance region of Senegal (Southern Senegal), and the northern part of Guinea-Bissau. Unlike most of the ethnic groups of the Senegambian region, the Jola ethnic group is not hierarchal. That is it has no class system in its social institutions, like griots, slaves, nobles, leather workers, etc. Though the origin of the Jolas is still unknown, it is now confirmed by both oral and written history that they are the people who have been longest resident in the Gambia and among the indigenous people of the Senegambian region.

Their communities way of settlement are based on the extended family settlement, that are normally large enough to be given names of their own and independence. Names like Jola Karon, Jola Mlomp, Jola Elinnkin, Jola Caginol, Jola Huluf, Jola Jamat, Jola Joheyt, Jola Bayot, Jola Brin, Jola Seleky, Jola Kabrouse, Jola Jiwat, and Jola Foni etc (See article Patience Sonko-Godwin)

Although Jolas have a lot of traditional economic activities like fishing, farming groundnuts, taping palm wine, processing palm oil, just to name a few, their most intensive economic activity is rice cultivation. They had this knowledge long before the first European (the Portuguese) came to their region. This work activity (rice cultivation) is tied up closely to their religion and their social organizations. They have a good knowledge of animal husbandry and do raise a lot of different animals like cows, pigs, goats, chickens, sheep and ducks. In the area of craftsmanship, the Jolas have a great variety of craft knowledge like weaving baskets, pottery, and house building. Jolas are also great palm oil manufacturers and great palm wine tapers in the Senegambian region. They were the last ethnic group in the Senegambian region to accept Islam. Even though some Jolas accepted Islam in the end (Soninke-Marabout war), they still honour their traditional way of using palm wine when performing their important rituals.

The Jolas have a concept of one God that they associated with the natural phenomena like sky and rain. They call this one god Amit (God) or Ata Amit (the Almighty God). (See article J. David Sapir) However, like any other religion, the Jolas have charms or sacred forests and sacred lands which they honour and worship as supernatural spirits that can protect their families, their villages, their rice fields, and even protect them from conversion to Islam and Christianity. These supernatural spirits are called Bakin (Mandinka Jalang). Unfortunately people who don’t understand how Jolas pray and relate to their God think that the Jolas have no God but spirits, because they offer sacrifices to the Bakin. But the Jola knows the difference between his/her God (Ata Emit) and the Bakin. Jolas are also able herbal medicine practitioners. Their high adaptation to the nature and environment made them to be able to create musical centred civilisation, natural medicine centred civilisation, and most important of all rice cultivation centred civilisation which they do effectively by using a locally made farming tool called the Kajandu.

Like most of the indigenous ethnic groups of the Senegambian region, the Baga, the Serere, the Balanta, the Konyagi etc, the Jola ethnic group did not develop a political scale that expanded beyond village level compared to ethnic groups that migrated to the region like the Sonikes and the Mandingos. But this does not mean they did not develop a sophisticated political system. The egalitarian nature of their societies, structured around the limited village environment gave them the possibilities to develop a political system based on collective consciousness, which they worked through their initiation rites. In a sense the Jolas political achievement in the village was socialism. It was totally tied to their religious belief (Bakin). This political achievement to any one who knows politics is not easy to reach if the society that runs it does not have well defined rules of administration and penalties.

All Jolas, before the influence of Islam and Christianity in their ways of beliefs, placed great respect in the proper observation of funeral ceremony, and still today some do, for they are of the belief that it enables the dead person’s soul to go to its final destination, (his or her ancestors). It was and still is strongly accepted by those Jolas who still practise their ancestral religion that without performing these funeral sacred rites, the soul is prevented from entering the presence of the creator (Ata Amit), and the ancestors. Jolas believed strongly in living a good humanistic life in this world. They believe that if one lives a bad life in this world when the person dies the soul of the dead person is punished to become an exile spirit and with no bed to lie on (In Jola Cassa this exile spirit is called A Holowa). This exile spirit becomes a roaming spirit with no respect from the other spirits.

Exclusively, the Akonting, which is a three-string gourd instrument, is a Jola musical instrument. It has an internal pass through body dowel stick with a round gourd body and its sound box is made of a hemispherical calabash, with a nailed goatskin. Before the invention of nails palm tree thorns or wood pegs were used as nails. The three strings, which are attached to a long neck, today are nylon fishing line. Before, they were made of palm tree roots. (Jola language: Kuhall kata kubekel). The neck is a bamboo stick (Mandinka language: Bangoe) that passes through the calabash to the other side. (See diagram) A hole is made in the sound box (calabash) to allow the sound to escape. The bridge of the Akonting is not fixed to its skin as many lutes are. It is free, and can be moved back and forth on the skin of the sound box and it is always held in position by the pressure of the strings when it is in playing position.

Jatta on the Akonting diaspora:

How the Jolas and their Akonting reached the Americas.

In the mid 1440s, the simple diverse folk population of the Senegambian region faced the most uncivilized and inhuman disintegration of its people, and their rich diverse cultures, by the Portuguese, the first Europeans who set out to seek slaves in Africa to sell to the New World capitalist. These Europeans came by medium size boats that they used to navigate both the Gambian river and the Cassamance rivers, since there were no infrastructures at this time to travel by land, invaded and took from this region the best workers, the best priests, the best natural doctors, the best folk musicians etc and took them to work in Spain and in Portugal. Later in the sixteenth century, when these European capitalists realized that they could make enormous profit by using the labour of the Africans to exploit the wealth of the Americas they started selling the African slaves to North America, Central America , South America , and the Caribbean countries to provide slave labour in the gold and silver mines and on the agricultural plantations, growing crops such as sugar, cotton, rice, and tobacco.

From 1445 to 1600 about one million Africans were taken from the West African region , particularly from the Senegambian region. The ethnic groups that suffered most during this slave aggression were those living along the coastal areas of the river Gambia and the river Cassamance, and these are the Manjagos, the Balantas, the Pepels and the Jolas. There is still a very old saying among the elderly Jolas that the music of the Akonting in its initial stage was so sweet to the devils that the most outstanding Jola Akonting players who played late at night in the rice fields when work was suspended for the day and it was time to play the Akonting and dance and drink their palm wine until they got tired and then came home, that most of these Akonting players did not come home. On the following day when the people went out to search for them they saw prints of shoes on the ground which they associated with feet of devils because in those days Jolas didn’t use shoes or know how shoes looked like. This is how the Jola Akonting came to the Americas.

Some More Links:

Click Here for Daniel Jatta’s original home page

Click Here for a video Ulf Jagfors made of Daniel Jatta explaining how to play akonting.

Remi Jatta Plays the Akonting – Filmed in the Casamance region of The Gambia in 2003. Great stuff!

Also definitely check out Paul Sedgwick’s myspace site: www.myspace.com/paulsedgwick

Click Here for a video Paul took in Africa of an akonting player (Jesus Jarju) who has just been presented with a banjo and is playing it for the first time. This is really cool!

- Paul says:

“I’ve posted a slide show of the akonting construction process (Jola builders). It’s actually better to click on “my pics” and view the photos as a regular gallery– you can peruse, take your time, and the pictures are a bit bigger. There is also a YouTube clip of Jesus Jarju playing a banjo tuned a la akonting (from my July, 2004 visit). (Click the YouTube screen, wait for it to tell you you can’t do that, then click it again). These are support materials for the upcoming Banjo Newletter article that Greg Adams and I have been working on. We also are utilizing one of Ulf’s clips of Remi giving a lesson (thanks Ulf?). We supply some detail in terms of relating the o’teck playing style to minstrel stroke style; detailed construction notes (akonting construction matches perfectly the Dena Epstein citation on pg. 36 [Tussac] of SINFUL TUNES); and a virtual lesson featuring Remi and including tablature and instructions for re-tuning your banjo!”

Account by English banjoist Nick Bamber, via email, of a recent trip to The Gambia and his experience with the Akonting (which he spells Ekonting, perhaps a more accurate English spelling of the word):

Sandwiched in the middle of my 7 days in Youtou were three days in another village called Mlomp, home of Jules Ekona Jatta, cousin of Daniel Jatta. Daniel had advised me via Ulf simply to turn up at the village and ask for Ekona so I hadn’t arranged the visit beforehand.

Mlomp is only about 12 miles northwest from Youtou but in this part of the world that’s a long way, especially as the terrain in between is a complex of river tributaries and lagoons (or flood plain, don’t know how you’d describe it but land covered in several feet of water with mangrove growing here and there). So I took the Youtou village boat downriver to the road bridge (Pont de Niambalang) and then a bus along the potholed road that Ulf has previously described. The highlight of the bus trip was when the guy who was collecting the bus fares apparently jumped out of the driver’s window as we were driving along. In fact he had hauled himself onto the roofrack.

Mlomp is rather different in character to Youtou. The dwellings tended more to be grouped in family compounds with extended families living together in the same compound. It was generally more spacious than Youtou though correspondingly there was less of an intimate sense of living inside the forest.

Ekona, like most of the Jola I met, was an excellent host and was delighted to meet another mad white man looking for the roots of the banjo. I was installed in a mud hut with thatched roof on one side of the main courtyard. After I signed off for the night and was drifting off to sleep Ekona began playing and singing in the yard outside my door. It is hard to describe this music if you haven’t heard it. When the ekonting is played with the bugarabu (drums) and is accompanying a group of singers and dancers it is dynamic and lively with rhythms which lie over a basic pulse. With just a solo ekontingist singing and playing the music felt more personal and reflective. The rhythms were often more complex and transcribing them in Western notation would be a difficult if not totally pointless exercise.

Listening to Ekona I had the sense that I was hearing music that quite possibly had not changed much in hundreds of years. There was little obvious trace of the North African influence which was present in the music of the Serer and certainly the Wolof. All the Jola music I heard was pentatonic and I was reminded of the music of the Baka (“pygmies”) of Cameroon. My Wolof host in Dakar also confirmed that when you go down south to the Jola area of Casamance this is the start of the forest belt (“real Africa” he called it) which extends southwards (and eastwards!) all the way along the West African coast down as far as the Congo.

If the ekonting tradition in Youtou is waning then in Mlomp it is alive and well thanks to Ekona and his nephew Remi. Also all the girls in Ekona’s extended family as well as his neighbour’s girls could dance and didn’t need any prompting if they heard the ekonting being played. They just started dancing! It seemed that they learned to dance just about as soon as they learned to stand up and walk.

Going back to the first time I heard an ekonting in Dakar and listening now in England to the recordings I have of Ekona and of Ibert in Youtou, I have to say once again that ekonting music sounds so much like banjo playing that any banjoist interested in the roots of the instrument ought spend a little time considering what the links between the two instruments might be.

I read with great interest the recent correspondence between Ulf and Allen on the subject of whether the banjo got its pegs and flat neck in Africa or America. Just to address one or two points from that, Ulf wondered what the volume of slave trade was from East Africa. According to Hugh Thomas (“The Slave Trade” Picador 1997) slaves came from the following places in the following numbers:

Senegambia and Sierra Leone: 2,000,000
Windward Coast (Liberia?): 250,000
Ivory Coast: 250,000
Gold Coast/Ashanti (Ghana): 1,500,000
Slave Coast (Ghana, Togo, Benin): 2,000,000
Benin to Calabar (where’s Calabar?): 2,000,000
Cameroons/Gabon: 250,000
Loango: 750,000
Congo/Angola: 3,000,000
Mozambique/Madagascar: 1,000,000

Allen stated that classifying African art (and presumably music)
according to tribe was a colonial fantasy. Present-day museums in African countries certainly continue this “fantasy” and when Africans talk about their own and other ethnic groups they don’t have any problems saying “this is a Baoule mask” or “this is a Jola ekonting”.

The journey from Youtou to Mlomp was plenty of evidence that even today in the year 2005 relatively short geographical distances are fairly difficult to cover and can embrace areas of differing cultures. The Jola of each village speak significantly differing dialects and often cannot understand those from other villages. In a situation of longstanding dynamic cultural interplay this would not be the case.

There is no doubt that over recent decades Jola villages have seen increasing change although I don’t think that these should all be celebrated. I am not convinced that the rapid “development” we have in the Western world is good for anyone, let alone for a society which has much to lose such as the Jola have.

In an case the ekonting is clearly more than a few decades old and there is no reason to believe that a very similar instrument could not have been around two or three hundred years ago. Still, the Jola are only one of several ethnic groups from Senegambia to have been shipped out as slaves and it would seem incredible if all the occurrences of banjo-like instruments in the New World could be attributed to the Jola. What would be more plausible is that ekonting-like instruments were being played by other ethnic groups too but these groups have since been influencd by the North African Muslim tradition and their instruments have changed accordingly. The Manding “kontingo” found in Gambia might be evidence of this. The name is almost the same as “ekonting” but the instrument (according to Ulf – I haven’t seen one myself) is a spike lute similar to the xalam and ngoni. Perhaps the kontingo was originally an ekonting which then became ngoni-like through interaction with Muslim culture yet retained its old name.

Then the question of whether flat necks and pegs were developed in Africa or America. Interaction between slave traders and ethnic groups was no doubt rather different to the corresponding interaction beween slaves and settlers in the New World. It’s true that some Portugese settled with local women and that their mulato offspring continued as slave traders. However it seems unlikely to me that Portugese slave traders would have brought significant numbers of bandora type instruments or that the communities being eaten away by the slave trade would have been inclined to incorporate features of instruments brought by the very people who were making slaves out of them.

But the mystery remains as to how flat necked instruments with pegs could have been found as early as the late 1600s in the New World – not to mention the prevalence of the name “banjo” or something close to it.

I’ve run out of steam again. Hope this has been of interest.

Nick

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