Before the banjo, the instrument at the heart of so much folk, country and bluegrass music, was the ekonting: a self-built, three-string gourd instrument with a muted but characterful tone, played by the Jola people of Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. In 2000, ethnomusicologist Daniel Laemou-Ahuma Jatta demonstrated its uncanny similarity to early Caribbean and American instruments at a US banjo convention; alongside other west African lutes such as the ngoni, xalam and gimbri, it drives stories of survival and self-expression.
Ekonting music is a living tradition in west Africa, as this exhilarating 25-track Smithsonian Folkways anthology reveals. Songs by players of all ages were recorded in village squares, adobe houses and improvised studios in 2019, covering love, war, folklore, loneliness and protest. All explore the instrument’s capacity for being nimble, playful and melancholic, often at the same time.
Musa Diatta’s gentle, warm performance of Watu Eriring Bee Kaolo (The Time Has Come to Rest) kicks off proceedings, a paean to how ekonting music clears the mind. Then comes more pace: the lovely, husky high soprano and fast fingers of Abdoulaye Diallo, with a quick medley of love songs mixed in a tale of the survival of a man who hid from the militia, and a swathe of infectious wrestling songs. The group Sijam Bukan (Ears of the People) contribute several tracks, their melodies and percussion sharp and bright, their call-and-response singing irresistible.
Also excellent are Elisa Diedhiou, a rare female player with a stunning deep voice (the clashing, bassy rhythms on her solo track, Aline Sitoe, gorgeously thicken with tension) and Madu, a near-nine-minute epic by Jean Kangaben Djibalen. It’s a tale of love and betrayal catapulting between declamatory speech and singing. Sounding timeless and wildly radical as it unwinds, this track and many others show how fresh these ancient instruments still sound in attentive hands.
Also out this month
Released before Christmas, Shovel Dance Collective’s The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore (self-released) is an urgent, discombobulating winter epic, mixing traditional ballads and instruments with musique concrète-style field recordings of waves, water pumps, wildfowl and pump organs. Husband and wife duo Trina Basu and Arun Ramamurthy’s Nakshatra (Spinster) is a gorgeously ruminative listen, blending the traditions of folk and south Indian carnatic music with heavenly improvisation. Archie Churchill-Moss’s debut album Ph(r)ase (Slow Worm) showcases this young accordionist’s many talents as performer and composer, morphing the influences of reels and dances into shapeshifting, swirling compositions.