Smithsonian Folkways Issues Their First Collection Of Ekonting Songs From Senegal And The Gambia

The first album of West African ekonting music, Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and The Gambia is being released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on February 4th, 2023. A first single, “Mamba Sambou” from the village ensemble Sijam Bukan, is out now.

Though it’s generally acknowledged today that the American banjo came originally from Africa and should be considered an African instrument, for many years the question has remained as to what African instrument exactly was the source of the banjo. Scholars, including Pete Seeger, pointed to instruments like the Wolof xalam or the Mandinka ngoni as possible antecedents, but it took the work of Gambian ethnomusicologist Daniel Laemou-Ahuma Jatta, who also wrote the album’s foreword, to show the Senegalese and Gambian ekonting (also spelled “akonting”) as a particularly likely source.

The recording being released shows how vital the ekonting’s music is today in Senegal and Gambia. The songs on this album, taken from recordings in Senegal made by ethnomusicologist Scott Linford of nine ekonting players, are full of life. Many of the songs are inspired by the rivalries and clashes between West African wrestlers, but other songs “speak of life and love, or of the tribulations of violence and conflict”.

Despite being separated over centuries from its New World counterpart of the banjo, the West African ekonting’s unique strumming position, where one finger strikes down on a longer string while the thumb follows after on a shorter string, is still one of the most popular banjo strumming techniques today, known as “clawhammer banjo.”

Folkways says:

Just as the banjo today tells a uniquely American story in our own voices, the West African ekonting tells the story of the Jola of Senegal and Gambia today, as they live their lives.

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