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The Akonting-Poem Performance about History of the Banjo
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The Akonting-Poem Performance about History of the Banjo
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Click here to see information on a new book "The Akonting: Banjo Ancestor," Illustrated Poem Story of an African Legacy, by Steve Levitt

Click here to see the book on Amazon.com as print or Kindle eBook

 
A musical performance of the original poem "From Africa to Bluegrass Sound, Let the Strings of Akonting Resound" by its author Steve Levitt. 
To get more details or book a performance,
call Steve Levitt at 919-563-9527
This poem-story performance portrays/teaches many aspects of the history of the banjo from some of its roots and beginnings in the Casamance region of Senegal and The Gambia, West Africa to America.  The poem-story is brought to life with a variety of musical instruments which may include the West African Sangba drum, hambone, the Akonting, rhythm bones, flatfoot dancing and audience participation.
The music and dance performance of the poem is followed by playing the Akonting to provide a musical background for singing songs both from Africa and from slave plantations, including both 'step-it-down' songs and spirituals (these are not included in the video below but some are shown further down on this page).  Audience participation includes 'call and response' singing and dancing when appropriate.

IMPORTANT PLEASE READ: This is a performance of a poem-story originally written to be divided into segments to introduce the various dance scenes in the Chuck Davis/African American Dance Ensemble dance concert BlueGrass/BrownEarth. The performance focused, symbolically, on selected aspects of the history of the banjo from Africa to America and its evolution and connection to the development of one aspect of American music, bluegrass music. In this video, the poem-story is taken out of its original dance concert context and is performed in its entirety with accompanying musical instruments to help bring it to life. While both the original concert and the present video represent performing arts mainly for entertainment purposes, they also have the intent of stimulating interest in and providing educational information about the African roots of the present banjo, something that is not generally well known in America. The concert and poem-story focus on only one of the many African stringed instruments, the Akonting folk lute of the Jola people of the Senegambian region of West Africa. A key concept is that this instrument, which came (both literally and in memory) from Africa to America (probably often indirectly by way of the Caribbean, West Indies, Central and South America, and elsewhere) during the era of African slavery, has the unusual combination of a short top drone string and down picking playing style that both eventually became incorporated into the banjo and remains so today. They therefore represent "A part of history we can't forget, an African legacy that lives on yet." The Akonting is considered by many as an important ancestor (among potentially many others) of the present day banjo. More recently, since the posting of this video, research has uncovered several other African stringed instruments that also have a downpicking playing style.  Others also contain drone strings, sometimes the top string.  The  combination of a top short drone string and downpicking playing style in a single instrument is still relatively unusual and, combined with the number of Jola people who became slaves in the Caribbean and America, continues to suggest the Akonting as an important contributing factor in banjo evolution.  Research in this field continues to uncover new information and the origins of the present day banjo appear increasingly complex and with influences from many places and cultures.  Some questions may never find answers.  Due to obvious limitations from both a performance and time point of view, and with new information continuing to become available, this poem-story should now be viewed in the context of when it was originally written and used more for its symbolic rather than its literal significance.  It is not intended and does not represent itself as an exhaustive or currently accurate history of the banjo.  For example, it does not address all the many other African lutes and the details of their migration during the African slave trade to and evolution in the Caribbean, West Indies, Central and South America and other places (only alluded to), physical changes in the banjo such as flattening of the fingerboard, addition of tuning pegs and later frets, and the transformational influence of African American music on the development of religious, jazz, ragtime, blues, rock & roll, soul or hip hop music.  Enjoy it mainly for its entertainment value but remember the main message which is that the present day banjo has deep roots in Africa and in many ways continues the legacy of its African ancestors.

Steve Levitt performing the original poem-story "From Africa to Bluegrass Sound, Let the Strings of Akonting Resound."
 
This work is (c) 2007 Steve Levitt.  All Rights Reserved. 
This poem may only be performed with prior written permission or under license by the author.  To book a performance or obtain permission/license contact Steve Levitt at    stevelevitt@earthlink.net 
 
 

click here for written poem narrative

To get more details or book a performance,
call Steve Levitt at 919-563-9527
Recent Performances:
Created as the narrative story line in the dance concert "Bluegrass/BrownEarth" by the internationally renouned choreographer and artistic director Chuck Davis ('Baba') of the African American Dance Ensemble, Durham, NC.  This wonderful music and dance concert depicts many key elements of the history of the banjo from Africa to America.

The Carolina Old Time Jamboree concert and benefit for the Music Maker Relief Foundation, Durham, NC.  Performed as part of a performance by musicians Terry Burtyk (bass), Randy Johnson (banjo), Alan Julich (banjo, Akonting), Clare-Steece Julich (guitar), Charley Pennell (fiddle) and flatfoot dancers Joan Levitt and Jimmy Holcomb.  Steve Levitt-poem, rhythm bones, hambone and flatfoot dance.  (Note: bookings for the poem performance does not include musicians other than Steve Levitt).  

The 1st Annual John Coltrane Edu-tainment Festival in honor of John Coltrane at his birthplace in Hamlet, NC, Oct. 3, 2009.  The poem performance was followed by songs from Africa and 'step-it-down' and spirituals originating on the slave plantations of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.  Audience participation included 'call and response' singing and dancing.    
 
This 1st annual festival was created and organized by Hamlet, NC native Mr. Gerard Morrison who brought together a wonderful variety of both local and invited performances in a wide range of musical genres.     

Old Fashioned Farm Days at the Winery at Iron Gate Farm in Mebane, NC  May 1, 2010
The Akonting-A Root of the American Banjo
 

Shavon Russell performs parts of the West African dance Yankadi-Macrou to the music and rhythms of the Akonting played by Steve Levitt at the 3rd Annual John Coltrane Edu-tainment Festival, Oct. 1, 2011, Hamlet, NC.

"How do you do, ev'rybody"  a greeting shout performed at the 3rd Annual John Coltrane Music Edu-tainment Festival, Oct, 1, 2011, Hamlet, NC

3rd Annual John Coltrane Music Edu-tainment Festival, Hamlet, NC Oct. 1, 2011

The West African Senegambian Akonting, a secular and folk instrument of the Jola people, is one important root and ancestor, among many, of the present day banjo. This video is part of an effort by the author to explore its potential and use in the current American musical and cultural context. This is also an attempt to explore the relationship of the Akonting to the African American music and song tradition, both with roots in Africa. This is illustrated by playing music on the Akonting for African American spirituals and secular songs. For more videos of the Akonting playing African and African American songs go to www.duelingshoes.com or 'stevesvideo' on Youtube. Contact Steve Levitt at stevelevitt@earthlink.net 

"And That Suits Me"

Spiritual "That's Alright"

"Read'em, John" on Akonting. Refers to John the Revelator, doing what the slave was not allowed to do--reading. But not just reading, but reading with an authority that no one else could match of the doom of his masters and the end of the wicked world they had created and ascent of the persecuted and good into heaven.

African American spiritual "Beulah Land"

African American Spirituals "Couldn't Hear Nobody Praying" and "There'll Be Singing Over Yonder"

"Sheep, Sheep, Don't You Know the Road" a spiritual with the intention of converting the unconverted. Originally recorded in the field by Alan Lomax and included in the CD "Georgia Sea Island Songs." Present version adds music with the Akonting.

African American spiritual "You Better Mind" played on the Akonting by Steve Levitt.

Akonting performance of  the African American spiritual "We'll Understand It Better By and By"  by Steve Levitt

Akonting performance of the spiritual "Come out of the Wilderness" by Steve Levitt

"Kneebone", often performed as a shouting spiritual and one of the oldest of the Sea Island songs.  Singers would bend their knees to lower themselves toward the ground/earth (characteristically a traditional African gesture and choreography) as the song invokes the bones of the ancestors, calling them morning and evening.  Field recorded by Alan Lomax and included in "Georgia Sea Island Songs."  Present version adds Akonting music.

BELOW IS A SERIES OF VIDEOS USING THE AKONTING TO CREATE RHYTHMS AND MUSIC FOR SONGS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES AND CULTURES IN WEST AFRICA AND FROM THE SLAVE PLANTATIONS IN AMERICA 
 
Akonting Session 1- Introduction :  Discussion of history and demonstration of construction, playing style and musical examples.

Akonting Session 2- Kaira Silo
A song for weddings in the Mandinka language

Akonting Session 3- Amoulanga. A song from the Ivory Coast

Akonting Session 4- Sunu. A Malenke folk rhythm of welcome

Akonting Session 5- KuKu. Rhythm from the forest part of Guinea, West Africa

Akonting Session 6- Mendiani. A Malenke rhythm danced by young girls 7-14 in special costumes.

Akonting Session 7- Yankadi Makru. A Susu rhythm and dance of seduction.

Akonting Session 8- A medley of 3 rhythms Jondon (slave dance), Wolorsodon (freedom dance) and Saramaya (the good person is like the elephant)

Akonting Sesson 9- Soli. A Malenke rhythm to accompany the rituals of initiation and circumcision.

Akonting Session 10- Aye Loo Aye Kudabla. An Afa song from the Eve people of Ghana that says 'the life you have is worth living.'

Akonting Session 12-Old Bill Rolling Pin. Slave plantation song about the task master.

Akonting Session 13-Way Down Yonder in the Brickyard. Slave song to keep spirits up.

Akonting Session 15-Down in the Valley. Children's game and community building song/dance.

Akonting Session 18-Old Lady from Brewster. Originally a game from slave plantations and song about punishment for lying.

Akonting Session 19- Old Time Joe (an original rhythm). Based on the tune Black Annie as played by Joe Thompson, Mebane, NC.

Akonting Session 20- Stepping It. Rhythm sequence based on percussive dance steps.

For more details or to book a performance,
call Steve Levitt at 919-563-9527
Akonting Description and History 
The Akonting is a full spiked folk lute played by the Jola people of the Casamance region of Southern Senegal and The Gambia, a combined region sometimes now referred to as Senegambia.  It is made from a stick, a gourd and goat skin.  It has three strings including a long bottom note string, a middle note string, and a top short drone string.

The Akonting is of great interest to banjo historians because of all similar lutes found in West Africa, this recently discovered folk instrument is one of the few so far that has been found to have both the same top short drone string as later developed on the banjo in America, and also the same downpicking playing style (o'teck "to stroke" in Jola, or clawhammer/frailing in English) as later developed for the banjo.  Added to this is the fact that many thousands of Jola people were brought to America as slaves during the Atlantic slave trade.  The Jola people are rice farmers and live along major rivers, making it relatively easy for slave traders to come up river at night by boat and capture many of them.  With this as a background, the Akonting continues to appear as an important African ancestor of  the present day  banjo, with potential influences regarding its construction and playing style.  Ongoing reseach conrtinues to uncover new information indicating the ever increasing complexity of the banjo's evolution and development.

Some Details:  The Akonting's short top drone string (other African instruments also have a drone string) is found on the American 5-string banjo.  It's playing style consists of first brushing down on the long note string with the back of a finger followed by the drone string plucked by the thumb (this order is not always used).  This constitutes the basic mechanics of the down picking, claw hammer style of old time banjo playing that persists in America.  So, both the structure and playing style of the Akonting strongly suggest that it is an important ancestor, brought (literally and/or through memory) to the Carribean and America by West African slaves where it contributed (along with many other instruments) to the eventual evolution of the present day 5-string banjo.

The Akonting is a folk lute which, until recently, was in danger of becoming lost to time.  Very few young people in the birth place of the Akonting were interested in carrying on the tradition of making and playing this instrument.  The scholar/musician Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta originally from The Gambia (now living in Sweden) pioneered the research and documentation on the Akonting beginning in the mid-1980s.  There is now a revival of interest in the Akonting that has been catalyzed and supported by the efforts of a number of individuals from many different places:  Swedish banjo collector/researcher Ulf Jagfors; British banjo historian Nick Bamber, American old-time country musician/scholar Ben Nelson; banjoist/instrument maker Paul Sedgwick; and other banjo musicians/enthusiasts/scholars Tony Thomas, Greg and Maggie Adams, Shlomo Pestcoe and others.  Tradition bearers today in Senegambia include Ekona Jatta and Remi Jatta, Esa Jesus Jarju, Bouba Diedhiou, Sana Ndiaye and growing numbers of others.  The Akonting Center for Senegambian Folk Music in Mandinary, Gambia is a grassroots cultural effort devoted to researching, documenting and perpetuating the many endangered string instrument traditions of the people of Senegambia.
 
For more details or book a performance,
call Steve Levitt at 919-563-9527