Holy trinity
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Holy trinity

The three-stringed ekonting – ancestor of the banjo

Holy trinity
Sijam Bukan.

The banjo is a key instrument in Western folk music -- from US bluegrass to Irish trad -- and over the past 20 years, research into the roots of this three-stringed instrument have revealed its west African lute origins, with two instruments, the ngoni and the ekonting, now understood to be the closest ancestors to the banjo.

Long-time readers may remember reviews of banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck's epic African journey to research and perform with lute players in his documentary and multiple CD release in 2009 Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder), and the work of ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba on albums like the Grammy award-winning I Speak Fula. I also had the great fortune of listening to Ali Farka Toure explain the rhythms of his music through a ngoni (he was concerned that I was a bit "slow" in understanding what he was talking about, so he just took up the instrument and simply showed me).

The ekonting is what is called a gourd lute -- a gourd soundbox, which is covered in animal skin (often goat skin) and a long wooden neck (that runs into the soundbox) with three strings (originally made from twisted palm fibre but now made from nylon fishing line). The ekonting lute has lots of lute-like cousins in the region, from ngoni to xalam to the gimbri.

But there have been few compilations of ekonting music, until the release this month of Ears Of The People: Ekonting Songs From Senegal And The Gambia on Smithsonian Folkways. The foreword to the album was written by ethnomusicologist Daniel Laemou-Ahuma Jatta who shocked music fans at a US banjo convention in 2000 with his performance on the ekonting, especially his use of the "claw hammer" finger and thumb playing technique, which is also used extensively by banjo players.

Jatta began to research the enkonting's history, which is rooted in the Senegambia region known as the Casamance (where Bela Fleck performed with Gambian ekonting players in his West African trip), which borders Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. It is known to be the instrument of the Jola ethnic rice-growing group but it is also played by some of the other 12 or so groups (with some 20 languages) in the region, including the Fulani.

Collaborating with Jatta, Scott Linford spent a decade researching enkonting styles and songs, and in 2019 recorded nine different players, which has resulted in the 25 fascinating tracks on the album.

Ears of the People

The songs on the album cover a lot of ground -- love and betrayal, the pains of migration, conflict and war (conflicts between different groups since the 1980s have displaced 25,000 people, according to the liner notes), folklore, sadness, loneliness, wrestling (the top sport in the region), football and even the future of the ekonting. The players perform solo, in small groups or in ensembles with multiple ekonting players. The liner notes say that "ekonting players generally stick to a common melodic line, cycling over and over, rarely diverging into separate parts", which is not that different to northeast Thai phin players or Okinawan sanshin players (both are three-stringed lutes).

There are also some really fine singers on the album. I loved the voices of Sijam Bukan and Abdoulaye Diallo; the group Sijam Bukan, which translated gave the album its title -- Ears Of The People -- is an inspiring band name.

My favourite tracks so far include the opener Watu Eriring Bee Kaolo, and Aline Sitoe by the album's only ekonting player Elisa Diedhiou, who is also one of the best players. West Africa is noted for its epic tales, and the nearly 10-minute monster track Madu by Jean Kangaben Djibalen is the narrative epic on this album.

The field recordings made by Linford in make-shift studios include the sounds of farm animals and people gathering, reminding the listener that the ekonting is a crucial part of a living folk culture in the Casamance. Locals play it for amusement, for rituals, for weddings and many kinds of social events, much like you would find the phin in Isan.

It would be interesting to see what ekonting and phin players might come up with should they meet in the recording studio or on stage. For that to happen though, phin players would have to look further than the Santana-inspired riffs they currently use on some tunes.

This is a fascinating album and not just for fans of African traditional music but also for anyone who enjoys the twangy sound of three-string lutes. Highly recommended. More information from Smithsonian Folkways at folkways.si.edu.

John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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