It's difficult to imagine American roots music without the banjo. The instrument's distinctive twang practically personifies country and bluegrass. While the banjo, and many of the sounds that make country music what it is, originate in West Africa, scholars have debated its exact origins.
Gambian ethnomusicologist Daniel Laemou-Ahuma Jatta points to the Senegalese and Gambian ekonting (also spelled “akonting”) as a particularly likely source. On Feb. 4, Smithsonian Folkways released Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and Gambia, with liner notes by Laemou-Ahuma.

The ekonting, a three-stringed gourd instrument, is played with a unique strum that practitioners of clawhammer banjo will recognize: one finger strikes the long string while the thumb follows with the shorter string.

Ears of the People features nine ekonting recordings collected by ethnomusicologist Scott Linford. The album captures the joy and beauty of these songs, a tradition that has persevered in spite of colonial repression.

On the song "Mamba Sambou," ekonting player and former wrestler Jules Diatta boasts of his wrestling prowess. This is a traditional form of ekonting music that accompanies wrestling matches. When a wrestler enters the ring, flanked by a literal parade of supporters, he and his competitors ramp up the excitement by stomping and dancing. After the match ends, ekonting players from different neighborhoods have a face-off of their own. These competitors need to be confident: the loser risks having their ekonting smashed.

Diatta, now a rice farmer and palm wine producer, leads the ensemble Sijam Bukan, meaning “Ears of the People.” The group is a flexible collection of friends and neighbors: Ekona sings lead vocals and plays ekonting, David Manga plays tumba drums, Prosper Diatta taps spoons on an iron pot, Marie-Claude Sarr and Diankelle Senghor clap palm leaf stems called uleau, and Gilbert Sambou leads a chorus of singers and dancers sucked in by his contagious enthusiasm.

This song, “Mamba Sambou” is typical of wrestling songs: short and lively, with pithy lyrics using vocables (such as oh, ay, and ee) that make it easy for the whole crowd to join in. Other songs use stock phrases like ekondoorool mang (“his neck is made of iron”) or busolool bugoliit tetam (“his back never touches the ground”). In this case, Sijam Bukan alternates between the name of their wrestling champ, Mamba Sambou, and the leader of their ensemble.

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