Akonting Roundtable Video
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In mid-March of 2009, the Suwannee Banjo camp ( suwanneebanjocamp.com ) held in High Springs, Florida continued its support of the growing interest in the akonting (ekonting) by bringing together a group of some of the most active American players and researchers of the instrument for a weekend of workshops coordinated by co-director Chuck Levy, a player and researcher himself. The workshops were led by Sana Ndiaye, a master player of the akonting and probably the only traditionally-trained player presently in the US. He was assisted by Greg C. Adams and Paul Sedgwick, two Americans deeply involved with many aspects of the study, playing and making of the akonting and the early banjo. Also present were John Catches, a gourd banjo-maker who made Chuck's "banjonting", and Tony Pizzo, who has developed an available-material akonting and fretless banjo making program at the Ships of the Sea Museum in Savannah.
This meeting provided a rare opportunity to document and preserve a perspective on the current state of the akonting in America. Since the akonting serves primarily a solo instrument in its original setting, adjustments to the traditional design are necessary if it is to adapt to the demands of new settings. As a result, many of the participants have addressed the difficulties of obtaining a traditional instrument and keeping it in tune during ensemble playing by designing their own variations on the traditional model. In addition to the traditional instrument, four recent variants on the original were represented in this roundtable, and this video includes many of them playing together in what was itself once considered a New World.
This impromptu, unrehearsed and lighthearted conversation is nevertheless a rich source of information (much of it gained in the Senegambia) on the cultural, performance and construction traditions of the akonting and its recent variants in this country, as well as the challenges it faced during its first and second arrivals in America. Look to this website for news of musical activities here at the Ships of the Sea Museum. There are plans to make a dvd available which will include this video along with our akonting and fretless banjo construction and instruction videos (including some bonus footage) as well as a cd with plans and resources.
A final note:
There are references to Daniel (Jatta), Remi (Jatta), and Ulf (Jagfors) in the conversation. You can find out more about these important figures in the revival of interest in the akonting by running a Google search on them or by going to myspace.com/akonting
Sana Ndiaye was born in the village of Djembering in the southern region of Senegal. He began to play the akonting as a small boy, taught by his grandfather in the traditional manner of the Jola people. Over the years Sana continued to balance his schooling with playing the akonting for community functions and celebrations, and developed many innovations which have expanded the repertoire of the instrument.
In his mid-20's, Sana moved to Dakar to join his parents who were living there. While in Dakar, he met the early members of the band "Gokh-Bi System" ("neighborhood system") or GBS, who were looking to expand their hip-hop group with traditional instrumentation. Sana and GBS have toured extensively in the US, playing festivals, halls, clubs and schools. Sana also performs and teaches as a solo artist, playing both traditional and original music. As probably the only traditionally-trained akonting player presently residing in the US, he is an enormously valuable musical resource. For more information on Sana and GBS:
Chuck Levy has earned the title of Florida's Old-Time Banjo Champion, as well as being a prize-winning Florida fiddler. He is equally at home on 5 and 6 string banjos (five strings plus a short string), whether fretted or fretless, playing clawhammer and minstrel styles. Chuck is also a respected banjo scholar who has visited Senegal and Gambia to investigate the African roots of the banjo. Winner of the Thelma Boltin Award for his contributions to old-time music in Florida, Chuck directs the Suwannee Banjo Camp with Ken Perlman (suwanneebanjocamp.com ) every third weekend in March and the Suwannee Old-Time Weekend the first weekend in December. Sana Ndiaye is often on staff at the Suwannee Banjo Camp. Chuck endorses the Gold Tone OT-6 six string banjo which he helped design ( goldtone.com )
arts.ufl.edu/cahre/aimgambia.asp (select Gambia residency and click on "views of the trip")
Paul Sedgwick is a theatre teacher, actor, and musician. He plays all styles of 5-string banjo. He holds a B.A. in Dramatic Art, an M.F.A in Playwriting, an A.A. in Bluegrass Music, and a Masters in Education. He has traveled to Gambia and Senegal, West Africa twice with Ulf Jagfors and Daniel Jatta to study the akonting and banjo origins. He was the co-author with Greg Adams of articles concerning the akonting in Banjo Newsletter and Old-Time Herald. He performs a solo theatre piece -- The Banjo Lesson -- in which the history of the banjo is told through the eyes of various banjo notables.
Greg C. Adams is a musician, archivist, and independent researcher studying the multicultural history of the banjo. He holds a BA in Music History from Youngstown State University (2001) and a Masters of Library Science from the University of Maryland, College Park (2004). In fall 2009, Greg will return to the University of Maryland to begin formal ethnomusicology studies. His banjo roots research includes fieldwork in West Africa (2006, 2008), developing a formal work plan as Project Director for the Banjo Sightings Database Project through an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant (2009), and the general study of early American black face minstrelsy and early banjo performance practice. His performances and presentations consist of modern and historical interpretations of 19th century popular music, interactive explanations covering early banjo history, and information about West African musical traditions including his collaborative fieldwork with Jola ekonting players from the Senegambian region of West Africa and developing his skills on the ngoni through an FY09 Maryland State Arts Council Apprenticeship award with noted Malian master ngoni player and griot Cheick Hamala Diabate.
John Catches is a builder of gourd banjos who lives near Gainesville, Florida.
Tony Pizzo who is the Director of the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum in Savannah, Georgia, has been developing a program of available–material instrument making rooted in Savannah's maritime and regional heritages. Inspired over 40 years ago by the work of Howie Mitchell, he originally made dulcimers and psalteries, but as his interest in world music cultures grew he began to adapt the designs of instruments usually made by their own players to ones that could be made with limited materials available to anyone with access to a hardware store and a typical lumberyard. Of great value to this development was the work of Bill and Mary Buchen and Cleve Pozar. He was a participant in the Vermont Arts Council's Artist in Residence program for over a decade, where, in the words of the program director, he was famous for "dragging his cans from one end of the state to the other." His articles have appeared in the Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly, The Gourd, and Experimental Musical Instruments. He is presently at work on an article describing Ships of the Sea's akonting/banjo workshops for The Old-Time Herald.
|Segment One: The History and Music of the Akonting (total time 16:57)|
|0:24||How I Found Out about the Akonting|
|9:24||Endangered Traditions and Preservation|
|13:00||The Akonting Looks at the Banjo|
|13:45||The Suwannee Akonting Quartet|
|Segment Two: Some Recent Adaptations of the Akonting and Musical Examples (total time 28:16)|
|0:24||Makers/Players Discuss their Akontings (Part 1)|
|11:58||Makers/Players Discuss their Akontings (Part 2)|
|21:43||Musical Examples: The banjonting, the ngoni, the cookie tin akonting, and an American adaptation of the traditional akonting.|