poem narrative

New Book: The Akonting: Banjo Ancestor
Music Video about Ekonting
The Akonting-Poem Performance about History of the Banjo
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                      “From Africa to Bluegrass Sound,Let the Strings of Akonting Resound” 
                                                                                                    By Steve Levitt    
                                                                                              Clarifying Comments
This is a story we’d like you to know                            notice the word 'story'                  
Story about the history of the banjo                                a 'story' about the history, i.e. not exactly a history
Before we begin we need one more thing
A rhythm with your hands to help us sing                      audience starts performing a demonstrated hand and body rhythm

Very good, and now my friends
The story of the banjo beginning to end                         again 'story'
In Africa, they drum and dance
To help them work and to enhance
The fabric of their daily lives                                        music is an essential part of all aspects of traditional life
Birth, marriage, death, for sacred ties
The rhythm, song and dance are one                              'one' means always done together, not separately as in the West
Sometimes serious and sometimes fun                            religious, sacred or secular

Now that we set the stage
The banjo is on our next page                                         
Way back in time, who knows when
In Senegambia, West Africa it did begin                         Casamance region of Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau
A stick, skin-headed gourd, 3 strings                             papyrus stalk, goat skin, Calabash gourd, palm roots  
Akonting, a folk lute with short drone string                   a folk instrument used to play secular music
First the back of a finger brushes down                           nail of index or middle finder
On the long note string to make its sound                      often the only string that is noted, othet strings are drone strings

Followed by thumb-string making back-beat                  not always, sometimes thumb comes first
The rhythms sent out are really neat                             very much a percussion instrument
You can dance to those rhythms alone
No need for help from drums or bones                           sometimes played together with drums

From the 1600s and for hundreds of years                      doesn't include earlier slave trade involving Spain and Portugal
Africans were enslaved and brought right here
To America where they were sold
No drums allowed, they were told                                frequent preferance/attitude/ban, but not always    

To keep their spirit and culture alive                             survival and maintain ties to cultural roots
They took their rhythms and improvised                       'improvised' pertains to substituting body parts for drum
With their voice, body, hands and feet                           'took' and 'played' their rhythms implies maintaining cultural ties
They played their rhythms and kept the beat                   'kept the beat' suggests cultural roots, identity, survival         

With little food and not much hope                               little or no hope of returning to homeland or freedom 
The bone of the ham sometimes flavored their soup          resourcefulness, making do
They passed that bone one family to next                       strong sense of community, caring and support for each other
Sharing the flavor that was left                                      making the best of a terrible situation
They were creative, resourceful and wise                         had to be to survive
The bone of the ham helped them survive                       not just physical, also self- and cultual identity
The name ‘hambone’ came to mean                                             
The will to survive by creative means                           think about this meaning of 'hambone' 

The name hambone was later given                               'later' meaning not in the earliest days of slavery             
To improvised body rhythm                                         body rhythms, including improvisational aspects, have     
Because that body rhythm did the same                              strong cultutal determinants even as they evolve over time
It helped a people to remain
In touch with their ancestry                                           playing rhythms keeps strong connections with cultural roots   
Saving rhythms to set them free                                     'free' represents hope, cultural identity and sense of self 
Hambone, patting juba, hand jive                                   different names applied ove time to similar rhythm method
African tradition it helped survive                                   rhythms rooted in past helped avoid cultural disconnection

Here’s a sample of that rhythm slap
You play your body with a pat
You hit your arms, legs and chest
And play a rhythm you like best                                    hambone routine, both group and solo

Exactly when the Akonting came                                    focus is on Akonting but other instruments came as well
To this land, a mystery remains                                     'this land' = America 
Whether brought by slave ship on sea                              from Africa directly to America or first to Caribbean
Or created from a memory                                              all Jola people who came knew about the Akonting  

It sowed a seed, a root did grow                                            'a seed' not the only seed, and 'a root'not the only root
Of a musical tradition that we all know                            'musical tradition' symbolizes all musics found in America
Let us all hear that beautiful sound
Let the strings of Akonting resound                                 Akonnting played             

An African treasure it will remain                                   now appreciated for its historical significance 
And American music was never the same                        Akonting (African) contribution to banjo and music
And over time it was altered                                          evolution of early gourd banjos 
But its basic uniqueness never faltered                             short top drone string combined with playing style

Banjar banjil banza bangoe                                            symbolizing banjo evolution in Caribbean over many years
Bangie banshaw it’s been named
Banjo is the name we know
Its spirit however, remains unchanged                             African roots in the current banjo still alive

From the Akonting to gourd banjo                                 gourd banjos have relationship to other lutes as well
Its looks and sounds were about to go                            evolving both in the Caribbean and America
The minstrel movement quickened the pace                     lots of public interest in the banjo and more changes
Times were a-changing, in this place 

Musical change was in the air                                        the music was evolving 
But that short top string stayed loud and clear                  short top drone string maintained on evolving banjo            
Played up high, by thumb, a drone                                
The Akonting style had found a new home                      Akonting o'teck (down stroke) style now prevalant in America

Frailing and clawhammer became its names                     new names for essentially the Akonting style of playing
Fingers brushed down, then the thumb came                    not always in this order                           
Syncopated rhythms filled the land                                 a major and transforming African contribution
Helped create the sound of the old string band                  and other types of music

With a shuffle on the fiddle by a rosined bow                   fiddle and banjo often played together
And bones or spoons to keep the rhythm flow
Listen to that sound, hear it ring                                      
Listen to that fiddle and banjo sing                                 referring to any and all kinds of music of that time

And then one day it did show                                           only one of several types of music evolving
Bluegrass picking on the old banjo                                             in America               
Pick that 5-string, bluegrass style                                   finger picking, Earl Scruggs and others 
Clap your hands and give a smile                                   keep the beat to music that makes you feel good

And add some dance steps on the floor                          dancing and music arose together
Buckdancing, flatfooting, clogging and more                  clogging-roots in Africa, Europe and Native America          
Dance that rhythm, keep the beat
Play that music with your feet                                        the feet can be a musical instrument if used properly   

From Africa, from brown ground                                     'brown ground' from title BlueGrass/BrownEarth
All the way to bluegrass sound                                       and to all types of music similarly influenced
Where it’s going, no one knows for sure                     
One thing’s certain, there’ll be more                                a living, forever evolving, cultural tradition and expression

This is a story we hope you’ll recall                                what this story represents is important to remember
Pass it on to one and all                                                 let's all do our part
A part of history we can’t forget                                       this legacy is present all around us, but not always obvioius
An African legacy lives on yet                                              unless we look for it.  Don't stop looking.
And thank you so much for your time
Those rhythms you played were mighty fine                       refers to the rhythms the audience played in the beginning
If you want you can clap and shout
And keep the beat while the music plays out                                  ending

Copyright ©2007 by Steve Levitt.  All Rights Reserved