From July 14-16, 2006, we were members of a group of European, American, and Senegambian musicians who met in Mandinary, Gambia to participate in the First International Conference on the African Origins of the Banjo. Although each of the Western musicians had his or her own personal reasons for making the long trip to West Africa, we all met for one central purpose—to study a distinct African lute called the akonting. Our attendance also marked the opening of a newly-established music and education center, the Akonting Center for Senegambian Folk Music. The conference gave the group of travelers a chance to learn firsthand about the akonting and discuss its relationship to the banjo, and to engage with Gambian citizens in a symbolic and meaningful cultural exchange.
When stepping off of the airplane and walking on the tired earth of this tiny country, it is striking how much civilization has worn away the jungle. Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta, our Gambian colleague and friend acknowledged that, even in his time, much of the ancient jungle had been removed to make way for progress. Daniel was born and raised in Mandinary, Gambia, educated in the United States and is currently a resident of Sweden. He was now welcoming his international friends to his homeland.
In Gambia, progress arrives in punctuated intervals and is never guaranteed to stand the test of time. The skeletons of tracts of unfinished homes stood baking and crumbling in the hot sun all along the main road leading away from the airport. A country on the edge of poverty and rooted firmly in many African and non-African cultures, Gambia is Africa’s smallest country geographically, a sliver of a country tightly hugging the River Gambia from the Atlantic Ocean in the west for about two hundred miles inland. But, it is by and large a happy and a tolerant place. Locally produced food is abundant, and, according to African tradition, shared freely. The dominant Muslim culture is moderate and willing to coexist happily with divergent religions and their practices.
The people are eager to receive guests. Everywhere “Europeans” (a category which includes all “white” people) travel they are greeted with a friendly smile or a fervent appeal to spend money on goods or services. Recently groomed for an African Union summit, that had concluded only days prior to our arrival, the country sparkled. Gambia is one of the most popular destinations for Westerners seeking to learn about West African music.
As you travel out of the larger villages close to the capital, Banjul, and into the outlying areas, much of the economic dependence upon tourism diminishes and you can relax fully to experience real African village life. So it was in Mandinary, the site of the First International Conference on the African Origins of the Banjo where we met with our European and American counterparts to engage and learn from the Senegambian people.
Yet, of all the Senegambian musicians in attendance, it was the members of Si Jamboukan, from the original Jola homeland of Casamance, who essentially acted as the “host group” for the conference. Their role at the Akonting Center was not only to showcase their musical traditions in performances during the conference, but also to teach the European and American attendees about the akonting and how to play it. Si Jamboukan’s performers included Ekona Jatta playing akonting, Frederic Jatta on drums, Remi Jatta on percussion, Nazer Sambou as dance leader and “caller,” and almost 20 girls dancing and playing the traditional Jola palm stick clappers.