The west African Akonting is one of the direct ancestors of our American banjo. Some claim it to be the only true ancestor of the banjo but I quite disagree - not long ago, while in Senegal, I worked with traditional Wolof folk players of the "Xalam" and I was absolutely bowled over to hear their tunes clawhammered, just like our banjo! One argument against the Xalam as being a source of the banjo is the claim that it was played only by the Griot (professional, non "folk") class in west Africa - I found this currently and historically not to be the case, the instrument has a long history of being played by Wolof folk musicians as well as by the Griots. This, however, is another discussion. On to the construction of an Akonting, which is not only played in a banjo type clawhammer style, but quite resembles our American banjo in shape. A peculiarity of the Akonting is that it's strings are mounted backwards -- the lowest pitch string being in the 1st string position, the middle pitched string next and the highest pitch string, akin to banjo's 5th string, in the 3rd string position.
Click here to access
Akontings are quite easy to build and the accompanying illustration pretty much say it all but for
those preferring more written instructions, here's a flurry of words detailing construction:
Altho the neck described here is made of white cedar and not the traditional papyrus stalk (not many
papyrus plants growing around northern Michigan!) - and - I used fiddle pegs for tuning instead of
the traditional, pain-in-the-butt-to-use string loops, this is a quite real and very well researched
Akonting - same string gauge, length, spacing, string height, size, shape, volume, tone etc etc. This
instrument was made using a 10 inch diameter bushel gourd I grew in my yard last summer. The cedar for
the neck likewise grew on our property here.
Our cedar trees are quite straight but have hard knots which must be rasped smooth and flush with the
rest of the neck. I orient the slightly thicker end of the neck towards the end opposite the gourd,
leaving the thinner diameter end to be mounted to the gourd/skin.
Installing the three fiddle pegs:
First drill the guide holes the same diameter as the small end of the peg's taper.
Altho I do have access to a (expensive) peg-hole reamer, I did not use it for my current Akonting project.
I used an old, but quite effective trick: find a flat-bladed
screwdriver whose blade has the same taper as that of the fiddle pegs.
Or - if the right taper can not be found, it's easy to file down the edges of a bit larger screw-driver
blade until it's the proper taper then use the screwdriver to taper the holes. This is not fussy -
there's very little pull with such light gauge nylon strings & the pegs sit in a lot of wood. Slippage
is no problem even with a bit of a mismatched taper. In case anyone's wondering, cedar wood holds
With the gourd cut in two - maybe an inch higher than half-way, and the cut rim sanded smooth a bit,
file or rasp half-circles into opposite ends of the gourd's rim for the neck to rest in - so that the
neck settles-in about half of the neck's diameter. Not too critical.
DO NOT BE AFRAID OF MOUNTING THE GOATSKIN HEAD ONTO THE GOURD It's extremely easy to do - no tying,
tensioning etc as you'd have to do when making a Kora.
Rawhide (un-tanned) goat skin is regularly available on ebay, Amazon etc for around $7 to $15 or so.
Cut out a circle of skin five inches in diameter larger than your gourd.
Soak it in WARM (not hot) water for a few hours.
Pat off excess water with a paper towel.
Position on gourd.
Carefully press/pound in a couple of tacks (any type will do) - positioned about 1-1/2 inches
down from rim & about 1/2 inch apart. Do likewise on directly opposite side of the gourd PULLING
& STRETCHING THE SKIN AS
MUCH AS YOU CAN with your fingers/hands.
Repeat at 90 degrees then 270 degrees - pulling/stretching all the time.
Leave a "skirt" of loose skin below the tacks all around - for glueing as extra insurance*.
Tack halfway between existing tacks, all the way around. Aim to space tacks about 1/2 inch.
EXCEPT: do not tack within an inch or so of the two semi-circular grooves cut into gourd rim yet - this
is where the neck passes.
Cut holes through the skin (at the two half-circles) that the neck will pass through and rest in.
Make these two holes about 2/3 of the diameter of the neck. Make sure all knots etc are sanded smooth
& then carefully twist & wiggle the neck into one hole, under the skin & out the other hole, taking
care not to rip the skin in the process. Once the neck is properly positioned, finish pulling down &
tacking the skin on, around the neck/gourd joint. I put a tack or two thru the skin into the top of
the neck - at the holes. Do not tack the neck in the center.
* Here's a hint - I've done this for years in all kinds of skin headed instruments after the skin is all
tacked on & the skin is still damp: massage wood glue (I use Titebond) under the skin "skirt" - below the
tacks - then, using big Post Office type (yeah - I was a Mailman once) hold down the skirt until the glue
dries. This makes for a solid, no worries skin mount.
I cut a 2 inch diameter sound-hole in the side of the gourd, just below the tack line & facing up at me as
I play. This greatly improves the tone & volume of this Akonting.
The string action is SUPPOSED to be quite high!
String gauge, for all three strings, is .028" (50 pound monofilament fishline).
It's sometimes hard to find this large a gauge locally, but you can always buy it online.
Some folks use thicker 60 pound fishline.
While there are indeed many playing similarities to our clawhammered banjo, there are things (mainly
dealing with how the desired notes are achieved) that are quite different - even weird - but fun.
Here are some traditional playing "rules":
ONLY FIVE notes, in a single octave, are EVER played traditionally - the thing is pentatonic.
(This is the most commonly used tuning, "Kan-Ja-Ka", c E D ):
- c, the open shortest string which, traditionally, is never "fretted"
(tune to "Middle c" on the piano)
- E, the middle string, which likewise is never "fretted"
(tune to E in the first octave below Middle c on the piano)
- D, the longest string is the ONLY string that is ever "fretted" !
(tune to D in the first octave below Middle c on the piano)
open (un"fretted") = D
The G note above the open D
The A note above the open D
These three notes are the ONLY notes ever played on the longest string!
The G and A notes are the only notes that ever get "fretted".
There is no traditional "concert pitch" with the Akontiing -- d F# E, c E D, b D# C# etc all work
just fine. Other scaled are used as well. Easily researched on the internet.
This youtube video helped me more than any in understanding west African Akonting music.
I suggest fast forwarding to 3:25 in the video:
or just input these search words to find the video on Youtube:
akonting remi jatta 2003
The video is 8:05 long.
Pretty easy to pick up. Clawhammer!
With only five notes, the word "monotony" might come to mind but what the Gambian & Senegalese do with
these five notes is amazing! As you might expect, rhythms are a big part of Akonting music. There are
many interesting examples on youtube.
Dennis Havlena - W8MI
Straits of Mackinac,
keywords: akonting ekonting senegal gambia havlena diy home made homemade
Click here to access my webpage