Album Review: ‘Ears of the People – Ekonting Songs from Senegal and The Gambia’
The banjo has long been a central player in American music, understood as an instrument that was brought to—and evolved in—the Americas by enslaved Africans. One of the instruments that is a likely ancestor to the American banjo is the ekonting—a three-stringed gourd lute that is native to the Jola and Casamance people of Senegal and the Gambia.
Now, a new album from Smithsonian Folkways, Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and The Gambia, not only celebrates the musicality of the ekonting but also spotlights a number of musicians who have kept the instrument’s traditional style alive.
Among them are 71-year-old Abdoulaye Diallo and masterful player Jeandum Djibalen—the latter was one of the first artists to bring the ekonting onto a professional stage. There is also Elisa Diedhiou, among the few women known for playing the instrument.
They deliver a raw, infectious energy on Ears of the People, not unlike what we may be used to hearing from grassroots folk musicians in the West. Tying them all together is the smooth, clawhammer-like roll of the ekonting strings—equal parts percussive and melodic. It is a sound that is simple, unvarnished, and beautiful.
Diedhiou’s “Adiatta Ubonketom,” which translates as “Adiatta Pray for Me,” is one of the collection’s easy highlights. An original song that she wrote about the hard times in her life—the death of her husband, among other things—is a rhythmic story kept low to the ground. There is something secretive about it but her ekonting evokes movement. Holding it all is her throaty vocals, worrying in melody like a prayer: “They are coming to get me, Adiatta, pray for me.”
It’s not all so dire and dark, though. Djibalen’s “Elenbeja” is a dance song encouraging women to shake their butts. (“Let that butt go,” he sings.)
There are songs here that have been made to perform at wrestling matches, as part of the entertainment. Sijam Bukan’s “Asun Bunuk” is a raucous tribute of appreciation for the person who brings the booze. (It’s title translates to “Good Palm Wine Collector.”)
Album closer “Ayinga Bañiil Dane Dibuke Ban,” meanwhile, is a masterful rumination from Diallo, who asserts that the ekonting cannot be killed because it is already here. So what will people do with it, how will they continue to hold it as time unfolds?
Or, as the liner notes pose: “What does the future hold for the ekonting? Will it be thrown out, abandoned, slowly forgotten as in the song’s lyrics? Will it live on through its traditional connections to courtship, wrestling, and social dancing, social roles that remain as vital as ever? Will it see a renaissance…?”
There is no way to predict the future of a musical instrument, but a recording for people beyond Senegambia is certainly an honest effort to keep the strings ringing.
Indeed, Ears of the People is the first album of ekonting songs that has been released by a Western label, making it a Stateside introduction that is well-worth the ears of banjo fans and players alike. It’s not just an archival exploration of a traditional instrument though, as ekonting continues to be played by these and plenty of other incredibly talented pickers.
Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and The Gambia is available HERE.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
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