Five days ago, Rhiannon Giddens returned from a week in the mountains of West Virginia. She was giving lessons on how to sing old-time ballads and blues to traditional music enthusiasts at The Augusta Heritage Center, a three-decade-old program dedicated to preserving the old-time American musical legacy. She thinks it’s a great idea, especially if you’re able to afford the camp’s $410 per week tuition.
If Giddens wasn’t a teacher at the school, she wouldn’t be there. As an under-30 professional musician, she’s not swimming in cash from her full-time bands the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Eleganza and Sankofa Strings, the banjo and voice lessons she gives, or her theater productions. And, if she was, most of her surplus funds for the next two years are already earmarked for her return trip to Gambia.
Even today, sitting downstairs in a coffee shop in Durham, leafing through a hundred or so photos she took last month in Gambia, she gasps and pauses. She misses the kids and the huts and the music. Giddens was in Africa for two weeks, but–by her own admission–that fortnight changed her life.
As one of a five-member American entourage to Mandinary, Gambia, that’s what Giddens wanted. After all, she’s a founding member of an African-American traditional string band and has devoted the past few years to investigating the historical roots of that music. Giddens made her first trip to Africa to study the akonting, the three-stringed Gambian instrument that’s one of the most direct though lesser known predecessors of the banjo. But she left with a new sense of self, too.
Most people interested in the banjo’s history are somewhat familiar with its African ancestry, but its associations with the akonting’s lute cousins–like the tiny West African ngoni or the giant 21-string kora of griot culture–are more common. The akonting, though, more closely resembles the banjo. It has two melody strings to the banjo’s four, and those two are below one droning half-string, the equivalent of the banjo’s top thumb string.
The akonting is played with the same down-picking technique used with the banjo, too. As Giddens moves her left-hand fingers along the long bangoe neck of one of her three akontings, her right hand curls into the clawhammer position, the technique used by both African akonting players and many stateside banjo players.
“There are plenty of people who don’t know that the banjo comes from Africa at all,” says Giddens. “But now, instead of just saying the banjo comes from a gourd instrument in Africa, which can be difficult to understand, you’re able to say, ‘Look, it’s played exactly the same, and you can see the banjo in this.’”
Giddens’ interest in the akonting began last year at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone. Daniel Jatta is a Gambian-born akonting player who had moved to America to study business before moving to Sweden, and Ulf Jâgfors is an independently wealthy Swedish amateur researcher who had traveled through Africa for years looking for banjo predecessors. Jâgfors found what he was looking for when Jatta, who was living only two blocks away in Stockholm, gave a talk about the instrument in Sweden.
Since meeting, the two have driven international interest in the akonting. They delivered a lecture on the instrument at the gathering in Boone, and Giddens was immediately taken by the instrument’s tone and lineage. When they told her about The Akonting Center they helped establish in Mandinary and about a trip to visit it during a celebration of Gambian and Senegalese music in July, she started saving money. The notice was too short to apply for grants.
“I didn’t know I was going for sure until I bought the ticket in May,” says Giddens, who put all of her money from a residency at The Artscenter in Carrboro toward the trip. “I had to save all of the money.”
When Giddens arrived, she began lessons with two teachers, Remi and Ekona Jatta. Because Giddens plays banjo in the clawhammer tradition, she immediately knew how to handle the akonting, whose neck is longer and whose resonating chamber constructed from a gourd is bigger and rounder than that of the banjo.
She also had a leg up on another Gambian tradition: Like Joe Thompson, the Drops’ mentor in Mebane, Gambian musicians insist one isn’t playing a song unless it’s being sung. As she learned new songs on a new instrument, she also had to learn the words, all sung in Jola, one of Gambia’s several languages. But learning to intonate on an instrument whose keys don’t instantly correspond to Western notation–and on a handmade instrument valued because it doesn’t sound like any other akonting–was the central musical challenge.
“Remi played an akonting that was completely different from mine. You can’t match the tune, so you have to figure out what strings he’s hitting,” says Giddens of her preferred teacher, who walks on his hands because of a childhood bout with polio. “It’s like having one of those Simon games that plays you the tune and then, when you start hitting the buttons, all of them are in a completely different key.”
She says that she will begin to incorporate the akonting into the Drops’ sets and is working on teaching the band what she can about Gambian music. Next time, though, she says they’re going with her: “Anything that we do together affects how we sound. We wouldn’t sound like we do if we didn’t go play with Joe regularly, period. Something like that would do the same. I’m going to teach them what I know, but they need to be there.”
But this first trip held more meaning than musical self-identity for Giddens. She was the only African-American to make the trip, and, because of that, she found it harder to dig into the culture than those she accompanied. Gambia–a tiny coastal country about the size of Connecticut, surrounded on three sides by Senegal and on one side by the Atlantic Ocean just below the Tropic of Cancer–was a focus of the slave trade. For centuries, Jola folklore considered the shore near Mandinary the place akonting players would be stolen by the devil. Giddens visited that shore and one of the trade’s primary outposts, James Island, which still sports the ruins of British offices used in the trade.
“Going to James Island, especially in the company of all white people, was weird because I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it, even though they were all totally sympathetic,” says Giddens, who says that understanding the cultural role of the island is crucial for understanding the akonting.
Giddens also found interacting with the African natives difficult at first. Her father is white, and she says her mixed heritage has always made fitting in somewhat difficult. The white akonting students, for example, immediately took to picking up and playing with the African children, but it took her at least the first week to be comfortable around them. The children were confused by Giddens’ appearance, too. They called her “toubab,” the Wolof language term for a white person, and it’s understandable when she sorts through pictures of herself among a group of natives.
“There were times when I felt really white, and there were times when I felt much more black than anybody else. When I first saw this group of girls, who I ended up loving to pieces, it took me back to middle school. You know, where the black girls dismissed me because I had good hair and the white girls thought I was obviously with them,” she says, staring at a picture of the girls. “But by the end they were offering to braid my hair and we were eating out of the same bowl.”