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The Banjo's African Ancestors

by Claude Samard Polikar

When asked to picture an African instrument, percussive instruments come immediately to mind: the djembe, the balafon, tambourines or various drums. And then one forgets that the Banjo's ancestors lie in the heart of Western Africa and like the modern banjo with it's drum-like shape (the skins are identical to those used on a drum and are stretched by the same mechanism), the Ngoni or the Gimbri are DRUMS rather than boxes, covered with dried animal skins and fitted with a neck that's wedged through the body frame. This wedging method was still in use at the turn of the century in the US. From Nigeria to Morocco, this instrument, in the shape of a paddle or rectangle, have between 1 and 7 strings strung by leather strips or by large wooden keys at the tip of its curve-shaped neck. These strings are made of fishing lines or of plain thread.

If you are planning to visit West Africa, here are the names of the instruments according to their regions:

  • Gimbri in Morocco played in Gnawa music, often called the “bass of the desert” played in a kind of slap style with the thumb and fingers
  • Lotar in Morocco mainly, the Berbere luth
  • Xalam in Wolof in Senegal
  • Kontingo played by the Griots Mandingues in Mali, in Guinea & in Gambia
  • Gurkel in the north of Mali
  • Ngoni is the Bambara name in Mali
The Moroccan Lotar

A typical model you can find is a 4 string CDGD, from bass to high, but in which case, be careful the C is at the high octave, right after the D of the first string.
Some of the instrument's «star» performers : Rouicha Mohamed in Morocco (on the Lotar), Banzoumanas Sissoko & Basekou Kouyate in Mali who play the Ngoni, Hamid El Kasri the Moroccan Gnawa gimbri player with whom I had the chance to play and who agreed to sell me one of his instruments. Modern Gnawa and world fusion music showcases a lot of examples of how the gimbri can find a place in a non traditional setting (Hadouk Quartet, Mugar, Yemen Blues...)

In « Tenere Tree» the instrument I played and sampled is a 4 string Berbere Lotar accompanied by a 10 string Oud made in Cairo and tuned GGAADDGGCC.