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NPR: more on African banjo origins

Desert Dancer 23 Aug 11 - 10:56 PM
Jane of 'ull 24 Aug 11 - 01:53 AM
BanjoRay 24 Aug 11 - 02:03 AM
banjoman 24 Aug 11 - 04:55 AM
James Fryer 24 Aug 11 - 07:27 AM
GUEST,Eliza 24 Aug 11 - 01:47 PM
GUEST,Eliza 24 Aug 11 - 01:51 PM
meself 24 Aug 11 - 01:57 PM
Desert Dancer 24 Aug 11 - 04:30 PM
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Subject: NPR: more on African banjo origins
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 23 Aug 11 - 10:56 PM

An African studying the banjo's African roots (for a change). A video, and more of the story in the audio than the text, are at the link.

~ Becky in Tucson

The Banjo's Roots, Reconsidered

story by by Greg Allen
National Public Radio 8-23-11

"My father was born with this instrument," Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta says. "This is part of our history."

Jatta, 55, is from Gambia, a member of the Jola people. He's holding an akonting: a three-stringed instrument with a long neck and a body made from a calabash gourd with a goat skin stretched over it.

Jatta's father and cousins played the instrument, but he didn't think much about it himself until 1974, when he was visiting the U.S. from Gambia, attending a junior college in South Carolina. He recalls watching a football game on TV with some of the other students.

"When the football ended, there was this music program from Tennessee, and they called it country music," Jatta says. "I watched the program and saw the modern banjo being used. And the sound just sounded like my father's akonting."

That experience put Jatta on a journey to explore the banjo's connections with the instrument he grew up with.

The banjo came to America with the slaves, and musicologists have long looked in West Africa for its predecessors. Much of the speculation has centered on the ngoni and the xalam, two hide-covered stringed instruments from West Africa that bear some resemblance to the banjo. But they're just two of more than 60 similar plucked stringed instruments found in the region.

Over the next two decades, while he pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in the U.S., Jatta learned everything he could about the origins of the banjo. Eventually, he reached a conclusion.

"Among all the instruments ever mentioned as a prototype of the banjo from the African region," he says, "the akonting to me has more similarities, more objective similarities than any other that has ever been mentioned."

For one thing, the akonting looks like a banjo. It has a long neck that, like those of early banjos, extends through the instrument's gourd body. It has a movable wooden bridge that, as in banjos, holds the strings over the skin head.

But for Jatta and other banjo scholars, most convincing is how the akonting is played. Players use the index finger to strike down on one of the long strings, and the thumb sounds the akonting's short string as the hand moves back upward. When Jatta looked at early banjo instruction books from the mid-1800s, he found that they described an almost identical playing style.

"What struck me was when they mentioned the ball of the thumb and the nail of the index or middle finger, I knew straight away my father was using this same style," Jatta says. "This was never a surprise to me, because I have seen this since I was 5 years old."

That early style of playing predates the three-finger style used today by nearly all bluegrass banjo players. Something similar is still used by folk and country musicians who play in a style sometimes called frailing or clawhammer.

After doing 10 years of research supported by a Swedish university, in 2000, Jatta presented his findings first in Stockholm, and then a few months later at a banjo collectors' convention in Boston. Greg Adams is a banjoist and graduate student in ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland; he says Jatta's findings on the akonting have forced many scholars to rethink their assumptions about where to look for information on the banjo's ancestors.

"A lot of the emphasis up to that point was focused on griot traditions, which is extremely important as part of the conversation as we look to West Africa," Adams says. "But what the akonting did was open up a new line of discourse."

The ngoni and xalam are instruments typically played by griots ? praise singers who enjoy special status in many West African tribes. Adams says the akonting is a folk instrument, played not by griots, but by ordinary people in the Jola tribe.

In terms of which tradition has the most direct connection to the banjo, Adams says it's a mistake to think of it as an either/or proposition: "Each of these traditions deserves to be explored, experienced, examined on their own terms."

Jatta plans to continue his work, documenting the akonting musical tradition and its connections to the banjo and other areas of Jola culture, through a research and education center he's founding back home in Gambia.

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Subject: RE: NPR: more on African banjo origins
From: Jane of 'ull
Date: 24 Aug 11 - 01:53 AM

This is fascinating. I've just started looking into the history of the banjo (I'm a 5 string player). I believe Otis Taylor is doing a similar thing about raising awareness of the banjo's roots with his album 'Recapturing the Banjo'.

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Subject: RE: NPR: more on African banjo origins
From: BanjoRay
Date: 24 Aug 11 - 02:03 AM

Ulf Jagfors, an academic from Stockholm, Sweden, has also contributed much to the research after meeting Daniel Jatta in Stockholm. Ulf gave a wonderful talk and film show a few years ago at the Gainsborough Old Time Festival here in the UK. He told us that the neck of the Akonting is made from bamboo, for which the local West African word is banjul.
The Akonting is much more banjo-like than the ngoni and xalam, and the playing style has an almost Old Time banjo feel about it.


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Subject: RE: NPR: more on African banjo origins
From: banjoman
Date: 24 Aug 11 - 04:55 AM

fascinating. As a banjo player, some years ago I found an instrument in a junk shop (UK) which consists of a rough carved neck with 3 very crude friction pegs through the head. It is attatched to a small (4 inch) gourd like piece over which is stretched some sort of skin. The whole instrument is about 18 inches long. I did try to string it up with nylon strings and it sounded very banjo like. It is played with a short pointed stick attatched by a string, which I suppose is some sort of early plectrum. The bridge is a crude piece of wood and the strings tie on to the end of the neck which goes through the gourd to form the tail piece. It currently hangs on my wall and forms a good conversation piece when I talk about my banjo collecton. I have no idea of its origins and its possible that its something someone just made up. However, it is hand carved and may be quite old. Just thought it may make a useful addition to this thread.

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Subject: RE: NPR: more on African banjo origins
From: James Fryer
Date: 24 Aug 11 - 07:27 AM

banjoman: do you have a photo?

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Subject: RE: NPR: more on African banjo origins
From: GUEST,Eliza
Date: 24 Aug 11 - 01:47 PM

banjoman, this sounds like a miniature 'cora' which are made for the tourists in West African countries (eg Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Ghana). I've got two hanging on my wall. They're made from half a gourd as you describe, with a skin stretched over the front. But they aren't played with a stick or any kind of plectrum, just the fingers. Sometimes they have three pegs like little legs to stand it on.

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Subject: RE: NPR: more on African banjo origins
From: GUEST,Eliza
Date: 24 Aug 11 - 01:51 PM

By the way, I've seen tiny little banjo-type instruments in Morocco made from a tortoise shell, and sometimes a player will board a long-distance bus to entertain the passengers. The singing is interspersed with jokes (I assumed, because everyone roared with laughter!) It looks so like George Formby in action on his ukulele!

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Subject: RE: NPR: more on African banjo origins
From: meself
Date: 24 Aug 11 - 01:57 PM

The instrument in action, with links to as many more clips as you could wish for:

You're welcome!

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Subject: RE: NPR: more on African banjo origins
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 24 Aug 11 - 04:30 PM

meself has linked to a video of Ekona Jatta. The video link in the article is to this video of Daniel Jatta.

YouTube search results for "akonting"

~ Becky in Tucson

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