The Senegambian Akonting
The Origin of the Banjo
Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta (MBA)
One of the earliest artistic works of the Jola ethnic group.
A possible ancestor to the Southern American folk gourd banjo.
The Leading Banjo-like Lute in the Senegambian region of West Africa Today.
“The lost of the
Southern American folk gourd banjo, which was one of the first artistic work
of humankind both
I honestly agree, there is a considerable volume of work produced by both European and American scholars on the modern commercial American banjo, but there is still a great imbalance on the amount of work done on the Southern American folk gourd banjo, which evolved the modern banjo, by the same scholars.
The progress I achieved in the southern American folk banjo research, over the past 29 years, owes a great deal to the humble work of my father and mother who taught me my culture and its traditions, the Akonting players and Akonting historians of Mandinari and Cassamance that I met in the Senegambian region during the entire course the research, as well as my sponsors and supporters at Vuxensskolan (Greta Englund and Gaston Willaman) and the rest of the institutions staff. I am also indebted to my great friend and banjo scholar Ulf Jagfors who first accepted my research, help to introduce me to the banjo community, and who continues to share with me his research interest and keep me informed of all the new developments on the banjo.
According to many banjo historians, especially the
Euro- American scholars, during the turn of the nineteenth century, the early
origins of the American gourd banjo as distinct from the modern commercial
banjo are obscure. There is however, a general consensus, during the last
fifty years among the same scholars that the American banjo came to
What is it we are looking for which we don’t see yet?
Before I address these facts, I would like to quote the early descriptions and illustrations of the instrument as seen by early observers, so that the reader can use this descriptions to guide him /her to make his/her judgement when he/she finishes reading the research. In Robert Lloyd Web’s book (Ring the Banjar) numerous descriptions were given on how the Southern American gourd banjo looked like. Here are a few of them:
The first American banjos were:
----Made of small gourds fitted with necks, strung with horsehairs or the peeled stalks of climbing plants or wits.. sometimes made of hollow timber covered with parchment or other skin wetted having a bow for the neck…
…made with calabash, a slice of which being taken off, a dried bladder, or skin, is spread across the largest section, and this is fasten to a handle, which they take great pain in ornamenting with a sort of a rude, carved work and ribbons…
...cut lengthwise through the middle of a calabash…they stretch upon it the skin of a goat which they adjust around the edges with nails…then a piece of lath or flat wood makes the handle…they then stretch three cords of pitre (a kind of hemp taken from the agave plant, vulgarly called pitre) and the instrument is finished.
--The “banza” place not recorded, ca. 1810”.
Descriptions of the playing techniques of the banjos described above
Briggs in Banjo Instructor of 1855 describes playing as follows: “In playing the thumb and first finger only of the right hand are used, the fifth string is touch by the thumb only; this string is always played open, the other strings are touched by the thumb and first finger...The strings are touched by the ball of the thumb and the nail of the first finger. The first finger should strike the strings with the back of the nail and then slide to...”
Frank Converse in his Banjo Without a Master describes the style of playing as follows: ”Partly close the hand, allowing the first finger to project a little in advance of the others. Hold the fingers firm in this position. Slightly curve the thumb. Strike the strings with the first finger (nail) and pull with the thumb”.
The instrument described here has striking similarities
with the three stringed Senegambian Akonting. Before
using both the methods of construction and the styles of play of the early
banjos to analyse and prove my research, I would like to go to history to
show how the Senegambian Akonting left
In the mid 1440s
the diverse population of the Senegambian region faced the most uncivilised
and inhuman disintegration of their people and their rich diverse culture, by
the Portuguese, the first Europeans who set out to seek slaves in
From the time of
the arrival of the Portuguese until 1600, about one million Africans were
taken from the West African region, particularly from the
The Senegambian region
mostly recognised as the Senegambian region, covers the Independent states of
Before the first Europeans (Portuguese) come to this region, which was among their first stops in the whole of the West African region, Africans then, had already mastered how to play their these different and wonderful instruments and also how to build them with different materials. This was why when in the new world they did not find any problem to build these instruments again in all these different environments and to build them so fast that they were all over the Americas within a short period. Again this was possible because of the natural consequence of the shared ways of culture the Africans had before the culture was polluted by other elements. For before 1440, these diverse groups live and intermarriage within themselves.
arrival of the Africans in the
Which Instrument or Instruments did they imitate to construct the banjo, and was it an African instrument?
This is the question that all honest banjo researchers today are trying to resolve and I will do my best to address it.
As I mentioned earlier, the Senegambian region has a lot of varieties of chordophones in the form of lutes, harp and fiddles and most of the lutes, especially the lutes like, the Ngoni, the Xhalam, the Kontingo, Buchundu and the Akonting are very much like the Southern American gourd banjo in construction. But when one looks at them closely one would start seeing differences in construction, in play style and most important of all in their social functions of their music and this is what one should look for if one has to compare any of these instruments, (which are found where most of the slaves taken to the Americas came from) with the Southern American gourd banjo.
It is now an established fact that the Southern
American gourd banjo was a folk instrument, played with only two fingers
(thumb and index finger (nail) Clawhammer. Its sound box was calabash, and
the neck was a long handle. The stick of the neck passes through the calabash
into the other side. The name “Bangoe” was one of the names given to the
instrument. Now having these points as our guide lines, which instrument are
we talking about in the West African region which is the region most of the
slaves taken to the
A detail analysis of how these lutes, fiddles and harps are constructed and the social functions behind their music
As I said before, there are a large number of lute instruments in the West African region like:
1. The internal spike lutes with oval wood body i.e. Xhalam, Ngoni, Kontingo, Molo, and Gurkel.
2. The internal spike lutes with round gourd body i.e. Molo, Konde, and Kabule.
3. The internal pass through body dowel stick and with a round gourd body i.e. Akonting (Jola) Buchundu (Manjago).
4. Harp lutes like Kamalen, Ngoni, Kora, etc, which in most cases have a pass through body dwell stick.
As one can see from the descriptions above, all these instruments share some basic structural components like, a neck, a resonator, a sound table, and a bridge. But this does not mean that that they are the same or they are played with the same technique, as many of us tend to believe.
Both the internal spike lutes with oval wood bodies and
the internal spike lutes with round gourd bodies are constructed like the
ancient long neck lutes from
The music of the internal spike lutes in the Senegambian region is called griot music (French) Jali music (Mandinka) Gewel music (wolof) etc. That is music that confers political and economic status to its patrons. Most of the griot music in the Senegambian region started growing widely during the thirteenth century during the expansion of the Manning Empire. The internal spike lutes did not play folk music, which was the music the Southern American gourd banjo was known for. But there are theories that stated that before Islam became embraced in the ethnic groups that played the internal spike lutes instrument, these instruments were used to play folk music. But these theories are yet to be verified.
Who plays the internal spike lutes instruments
Today the ethnic groups who play the internal spike lutes are Mandingos, Fulas, Wolofs, Tukulor, etc. These are the major ethnic groups in this region who are known to have played these instruments for generations. These ethnic groups also were among the first in the Senegambian region to embrace Islam too. This is why according to some theories the old method of playing these instruments disappeared when these people were influenced by the Islamic culture of playing music. Again these are theories yet to be verified.
Playing technique of the internal spike lutes
Clawhammer, which is the method used with the Southern American gourd banjo is not used when playing the internal spike lutes. Instead the playing technique used is that three fingers are used, the thumb, the index finger and the middle or third finger. I will quote the Wolof Xhalam to explain how most of the internal spike lutes are played. In playing the Wolof Xalam, the thumb plucks the first string, the index finger plucks the second and third string, and the middle finger plucks the forth and fifth string. This to any one who knows Clawhammer is very far from it. (Article Michael T. Coolen)
Before I describe the method of construction and the technique of play of the Akonting, I shall first address the political, social and religious history of the ethnic group (the Jolas) that plays the instrument (Akonting lute).
The Jolas are found in great numbers on the Atlantic
coast between the southern banks of the
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 organisations. 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.
A description of the internal pass through body dowel stick with a round gourd body, the Akonting lute
Exclusively, the Akonting, which is a three-string gourd instrument, is a Jola musical instrument. 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.
The word to play the Akonting in Jola is called OU TEEK, which means beat, or knock the instruments strings. This is no difference to the word used in the playing style of the Southern American gourd banjo, called Clawhammer. In playing the Akonting, only two fingers (thumb and index), usually of the right hand are used. Most Akontings are built for the right hand position. The ball of the thumb touches the short string (drone) and the middle string and the index finger (nail) touches the third string. Some Akonting 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 Akonting 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 Akonting 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 Akonting has been and still is folk music. Akonting 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 Akonting 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 Akonting 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.
The Buchundu is a Manjago three-string instrument. It
is constructed exactly just like the Akonting. In fact, according to Sagari
Sambo, an Akonting player living at Mandinari
Playing technique of the Buchundu
According to Sang Gomez of Jewswang, the Buchundu can be played by using only the thumb finger or by using the thumb, the index and the middle finger. When using the thumb only style, the thumb touches all the strings but in a downward stroke motion all the time. Them the index finger of the left hand notes the two long strings. The short string is always played open.
When using the three-finger style, which he said is not the original style, the thumb touches the short string while the index finger and the middle finger touches the middle and third string respectively.
The music of the Buchundu is folk music just like the Akonting music. Its music has short verses and is mostly music to inspire bravery to hunters especially those who hunt dangerous animals like leopards, wolves, lions etc in those days when the world did not place a band on killing some of these animals.
Is the research for the history of the origin of the southern American gourd folk banjo interminable or not? Is the progenitor of the southern American gourd banjo lost to posterity or is it the Senegambian Akonting lute?
Before I conclude I would like to seize the opportunity
to explain who I am and what made me involved in the search for the origin of
The Southern American Gourd Banjo, the instrument that all the new world
music scholars, historians, and researchers, know today as the one that
created jazz, blues and even rock music. Yes I am an African, born in the
Gambia West Africa. At the age of nineteen I obtained a scholarship from an
African American family living in
I concluded my University programme at Atlanta University, in 1981, and up to that time I did not read or see any instrument both in the New world or Old that has been identified with the banjo that all these students were talking about. But some research showed very powerful theoretical models. It was these theoretical models (like Pete Seegers 1954 model) and the terminologies like, Bang, Bangelo, Sambo, Gambra River, Bangoe, that made me know that the Instrument that the New World called Banjo has some connections with the Senegambian languages and culture, because I could interpret the words. What I did not know then was what instrument was it in the Senegambian region and which ethnic group played it or still plays it.
Although my introduction to the history of the New world banjo was in 1974, it was not until fourteen years ago since I started intensively to research the origin of the instrument and all the other information connected to the instrument. The task was not easy since I had no sponsors at the beginning.
All my desk, field, video, and music research
information depicted the
The search for the
The lack of documentation and diffusion of information of blacks playing the instrument in the 17th and 18th centuries, plus the lack of pictures of the gourd banjo in the plantations made the search for the origin of the Southern American gourd banjo so difficult of some of us, but gave fundamental opportunity to some subjective researchers to formulate theories that exclude blacks from the instrument.
Despite the numerous stereotypes of both the pro slaves writers of the
Before the Akonting lute was introduced to the banjo
research community in year 2000, the leading string instrument within the
banjo community was the Malian Ngoni or the Senegalese Xhalam. Basically
these two instruments are the same both in construction, in play style and in
the social functions of their music. The difference between them is their
names. I respect both the Ngoni and the Xhalam and their cultural
contributions to the Senegambian griot culture. But I found it hard to accept
them as the progenitor of the gourd banjo. The constant facts we have in our
hands are far from these two instruments, and all the honest researchers on
the banjo know this. Today, after the introduction of the Akonting, a new
perspective has developed on the way we looked at the constant facts that the
Among all the banjo like instrument I studied in the Senegambian region, which is Africa’s most characterised stringed instruments region, I found the Akonting lute and the Buchundu lute as the closest in similarities to the New World banjo, and when I finally concluded my research in year 2000, I found the Akonting lute the leading Instrument because of the following:
The Akonting is the most banjo-like known instrument from the Senegambian region.
The Akonting is the only string instrument found in the Senegambian region that is played with the Clawhammer technique.
The name “Bangoe” (Mandinka language spoken only in the
Senegambian region) of
Most Akonting musicians used to play and still splay
along the banks of the
Instruments with Akonting like constructions were found
A theoretical model of a Senegambian lute, very similar in construction with the Akonting lute, was depicted by Pete Seeger in 1954.
Sambo and Jibba (names associated with the banjo culture in the New world) are common last names (family names) among the Jola ethnic who are the only ethnic group in the Senegambian region that play the Akonting Instrument.
In the search for the origin of the banjo,