Friday, January 6, 2012

Sometimes a Banjo is Just a Banjo?

Banjo Friday is upon us once again, friends.  & after a month-long fun excursion into the rapid-fire pleasures of bluegrass banjo, we’re back to doing what we do best: the odd & obscure!  However, I do want to announce that I’m henceforth designating the final Friday of each month as Bluegrass Friday, so you fans of Scruggs rolls, take heart.  & I’m anticipating a very special inaugural Bluegrass Friday coming up at the end of January—stay tuned for further announcements!

Early in the Banjo Friday series I devoted a post to the Ekonting, a west African instrument that is typically considered a close relative of the banjo, especially in the banjo's earlier American manifestations (4-stringed but with a drone, fretless, with a gourd head.) 

But there are other instruments in west Africa that have been connected with the banjo, & the principal one of these is the ngoni; the term ngoni actually refers to a few related instruments, one of which is used by the griots, who—to over-simplify things—are musical storytellers.  The ngoni is fashioned either using a calabash or wood for the body; when a calabash is used, a goat skin is often used as a resonating surface in much the same way as the head works on a banjo. 

The ngoni is not only used in traditional music, however; it’s also employed in the very vibrant west African pop music scene, & is played by a number of notable instrumentalists, including Issa Bagayogo, Bassekou Kouyaté, Baba Sissoko & Cheick Hamala Diabate, all from Mali. 

But musical instrument genealogy is an inexact science—even the taxonomy of a given musical instrument gets incredibly complicated!  Just think of all the different types of banjos we’ve considered on Banjo Friday: 5-string banjos, plectrum banjos, tenor banjos, bass banjos, banjitars, banjolins & banjo-ukes!  Are they all equally “banjos?” 

& if we look at instrument family trees, things can get confusing even with instruments that have been a part of the European musical tradition for some time—for instance, while a direct line can be traced from today’s guitars all the way back to 15th & 16th century instruments like the vihuela & the baroque guitar, considerable changes have occurred even in terms of number of strings & general lay-out of the instrument.  & while a number of people—including such influential players as Béla Fleck & Bob Carlin—have made a point of including the ngoni within the banjo world family, other researchers, like Shlomo Pestcoe have tended to downplay the connection between the banjo & the ngoni, seeing the ekonting as a much closer relative. 

I have no basis for forming an opinion on this—I will say anecdotally that the playing technique of the ekonting, which is very similar to frailing, seems perhaps in some ways more “banjoistic” than the ngoni playing technique—yet that technique is not all that far removed from two-finger picking.  I do know that Cheick Hamala Diabate told Bob Carlin all of his ngoni music “fits” on a banjo, & that seems a rather important statement in itself.

We have two videos for your listening & viewing pleasure: the first shows Malian musician Mama Sissoko improvising on the ngoni—it’s a beautiful piece of improvised music too!—while the second shows Cheick Hamala Diabate & Bob Carolin dueting on two banjos—Carlin is playing a Pete Ross Gourd Banjo in the frailing style, while Diabate is playing an open-back 5-string very much in the ngoni style.



  1. Cool! That brought back some pleasant memories. I used to listen to a lot of Musa Foday Sosu's music (he's a griot and kora player from the same Malian Empire area as these players), especially his work with Herbie Hancock and Phillip Glass. And I also used to listen to Afro-Pop Worldwide with George Coliné every Sunday afternoon on WGBH back in the '80s and '90s. I've always like that incessant rhythm they set up with the griot music.

  2. Hi Roy: All good stuff by the sounds! Thanks so much.


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