A Living Tapestry of Tradition on 'Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and Gambia'
Out on February 3, 2023, Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and Gambia showcases sublime contemporary recordings of the ekonting, a three-stringed gourd lute played by Jola people in Gambia and the Casamance region of Senegal.
The first album of West African ekonting music, Ears of the People is a testament to the endurance of music and tradition across the gulf of centuries and some of the most brutal history imaginable. It’s also a showcase for living traditions in West Africa, and for the wealth of stories and beauty that a humble, handmade instrument can hold.
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 remained as to what African instrument exactly was the source of the banjo. It took the work of pioneering 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. In the evening, after work, Jatta’s father played this three-stringed, gourd instrument popular among the Jola people.
What’s remarkable about this recording is just how alive and 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. 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.
Yet with all this history, the Jola of Senegal and Gambia don't think of the ekonting primarily as an ancestor to an American tradition, but instead as a living tradition in its own right. The ekonting is for entertainment, for courtship, for local wrestling matches, and for telling local stories. It’s a folk instrument, after all, made by hand for the people who will enjoy it most. For that reason, it’s been rare to find many recordings of ekonting music.
Recorded in village squares, adobe houses, and improvised studios, these nine ekonting players present a cross-section of Senegalese society. Players like 71-year-old Abdoulaye Diallo, equally knowledgeable about both Islam and the Jola indigenous religion, whose songs move between personal and political storytelling. “Every song has a significance,” he says. “There is the song, but then there is the story behind the song.” Jules Diatta leads a band called Sijam Bukan from his house in the village of Mlomp and performs songs that accompany Jola wrestling matches, especially the processionals that let the wrestlers strut their way through the village with a parade of supporters.
The virtuosic Adama Sambou has toured Europe and is a prolific composer, writing many songs from his home, while ekonting legend Jeandum Djibalen was one of the first ekonting players to professionalize the instrument, moving it from the rice fields to the concert halls. Elisa Diedhiou is one of the few women to play the ekonting, and the first to perform as a professional ekonting player. “People look at me like I’m crazy,” she says. “A woman with an ekonting! But when I go to Mlomp or Oussouye, lots of people come to see me play and all the old ladies say ‘Bravo! Bravo!’”
For centuries, Africans and African Americans have treasured this family of instruments, rebuilding them in a new world under the harsh yoke of slavery, or writing new songs for them today in a corner of southern Senegal. This is the real testament here, that a humble acoustic instrument made from a gourd, three strings, and animal hide, can hold the hopes of so many people across so many worlds.Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and Gambia is out on February 3, 2023 and is available for pre-order now.