When I decided to expand Banjo Friday to a regular weekly feature, I decided I’d like to study not just great banjo songs, but also the historical, social & cultural aspects of an instrument that seems both quintessentially American & fundamentally African. Today I’d like to write a bit about an instrument that’s considered one of the banjos closest relatives & that may well be a prototype for the original instrument brought over by slaves to the Americas. This is the ekonting or akonting, an instrument found in the West African Jola culture.
There are some striking similarities between the banjo & the ekonting. Perhaps the most notable one is that both instruments have a short drone string (the 5th string on a banjo, the 3rd string on the ekonting). In addition, the playing styles are very similar if we’re talking about the old style of banjo playing called frailing or clawhammer. When frailing a banjo, the player strikes melody notes with the index of either his/her index finger or middle finger, while the thumb concentrates on the drone string. The thumb also “drops” from time to time to the other strings in frailing (a reason why it is also sometimes called “drop thumbing,” but that’s misleading since the thumb dropping onto those strings happens in other playing styles as well, both old-time & more modern).
Now if you watch master ekonting player Sana Ndiaye in the video below, you’ll notice that this is precisely how he plays. He uses the index fingernail for most of the melody, while the thumb usually plays the drone, but occasionally “drops” onto the second string. Some ekonting players (as is the case with the banjo) use the middle fingernail instead.
Of course, the banjo has undergone many transformations. Except in historical replicas, the gourd head has been completely replaced by skin or plastic & by wooden or metal tone rings &, in some cases, resonators. Still, it’s well-established that early banjos in both the United States & the Caribbean were constructed with gourd heads. The late 18th century watercolor entitled “The Old Plantation” shows just such an instrument (image above). It’s also fairly well established that the older instruments didn’t have five strings (tho it’s also accepted that one of the strings they did have was a short drone string.) It’s often postulated that the lowest sounding string (which would be a D on today’s banjos in standard tuning, but was usually a B on 18th century instruments) was added during the period that Euro-Americans started co-opting the instrument for blackface mistrel shows.
There’s an interesting discussion of the banjo’s “creolization” on the MySpace ekonting blog. Shlomo Pestcoe & Greg C. Adams state the following:
the early gourd banjo, while fundamentally West African in its design, was not an exact replica of any known African instrument. Rather, it embodied a synthesis of structural features from several West African traditions with a few innovations most likely inspired by Spanish and Portuguese plucked lutes encountered in the Caribbean, such as the vihuela de mano, guitar, tiple, and cavaquinho.
The song I chose is Sana Ndiaye is a bit long, but very beautiful & the sound is high quality. There are some other ekonting videos on YouTube, including ones by the Jatta family (with whom Béla Fleck played during the latter’s Throw Down Your Heart filming)—for instance, here, here & here. Hope you enjoy this remarkable music!
The image of the ekonting leading off the post is by Shlomo Pestcoe & is licensed under both the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License & the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.