The Old-Time Herald Volume 13, Number 2

Feature
An Interview with Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta
By Chuck Levy
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l-r, Ekona Diatta, Laemouahuma Jatta, Remi Diatta, and Therese Senghor (Correa) in Lamin, the Gambia, 2008.
Photo by Chuck Levy

In 2007, an unexpected series of events led me to Gambia where, amongst the Jola people and under the care of musician and scholar Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta, I would learn to play the akonting, a banjo-like instrument from that region. (Although he is known to many Westerners as Daniel, I’ve learned that Jatta actually prefers his birth-name, Laemouahuma.) Laemouahuma arranged my lodging and transportation in the Gambia, and introduced me to his cousins Remi Diatta and Ekona Diatta, master Jola musicians. Laemouahuma was always kind and eager to share as we visited different sites in Banjul (the capitol), the busy urban area of Serekunda, and Laemouahuma’s hometown of Mandinari. I quickly fell under the spell of the akonting and the Jola culture. In fact, I returned the following year for another dose, again under Laemouahuma’s stewardship. During my visits, I was able to introduce Laemouahuma to the field of Arts in Medicine, an interest of mine as a physician and banjoist. We visited the Royal Victorian Teaching Hospital, and played music, which opened the doorway to conversation with the patients.

It has been a little over a decade since Laemouahuma and Swedish banjo scholar Ulf Jagfors presented their groundbreaking work on the origins of the banjo to the Annual Banjo Collectors Gathering in the United States. I believe their work was a catalyst to a renewed interest in the banjo, and a deeper understanding of its African roots. The influence of this work can be seen and heard today in the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Béla Fleck’s Throw Down Your Heart, and PBS’s Bring Me the Banjo, among many other instances.

In 2010, Laemouahuma sent me an email describing his work with people with developmental disabilities in Sweden, where he currently lives. He was visiting residential centers and using African music and song to engage with them, and inspire them to sing and dance. I am the Chair of the Advisory Board for the Center for Arts in Healthcare, Research and Education at the University of Florida, and we invited Laemouahuma to enroll in our two-week summer intensive course. He did, and in 2012, I was able to host Laemouahuma in Gainesville. Thus it was my pleasure to conduct this interview with my friend.


 

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