How I Got Involved with the Akonting (ekonting).
I started playing banjo at age 23, and fiddle a year or two later. When I was 30, I went to medical school, in part because I wanted to learn a trade that would serve people, and allow me some autonomy. While music and medicine compete for time in my life, they also inform one another. As part of my practice, I participate in an arts-in-medicine program. Specifically, this means that once a month, I spend time playing music for patients and staff at the Shands Hospital at the University of Florida.
In 2006, the Center for Arts in Healthcare and Education at the University of Florida began to work with a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya to form a collaborative exchange. As part of this, hospital leaders from Kenya came to visit in Gainesville, and while they were here they visited when I played for patients. It happened to be a good day, when children responded by smiling and dancing, and adults let down their burdens for a moment. Although I was never sure if it was my musicianship or simply the fact that I was a doctor playing for patients, my new African friends were very enthusiastic about my performance, and invited me to come to Nairobi. If I would pay for my flight, they would be happy to house and feed me. This seemed like a rare and amazing offer, so I accepted, applied for and received an Artist Enhancement Grant form the State of Florida to help pay for the ticket, and began my preparations for my trip to East Africa.
Two things happened. First, the band Roustabout came to Florida as guest artists for the Florida State Fiddlers Association. Band member Jim Bollman presented a banjo workshop where he spoke about the akonting, a West African banjo ancestor played clawhammer-style by the Jola people. I had never heard of this before, but with a little bit of work, unearthed articles by Ulf Jagfors and Daniel Jatta that verified Bollamn’s claims Second, the arrangement with the hospital in Nairobi fell through.
So I had a funding to go to Africa, but no destination. In the next few months, I was able get approval to use my grant to visit to The Gambia under the tutelage Daniel Jatta, who introduced me to Ekona Diatta and Remi Diatta, master Jola akonting players. I only speak English. Neither Remi nor Ekona speak English. Yet both were patient and able teachers. It helped that while akonting technique turns out not to be identical to clawhammer, it is mighty similar. By the end of my visit I could play a few tunes. In addition, I forged ties between Gambia’s Royal Victorian Teaching Hospital and the University of Florida that resulted yearly visits by UF faculty, med students, and undergrads.
However, when I returned home to the U.S., and tried to present what I learned, I was unsatisfied. With some reflection, it became obvious that I had not paid enough attention to the singing, which is so integral to Jola music. Therefore I returned to Gambia in 2008 for a second round of instruction, to learn to sing the Jola akonting songs. I met Greg C. Adams there, and together we traveled with our hosts to their home village, Mlonp along the southern shore of the Cassamance River.
At this point, I feel that I have grasped only the beginnings of the music of the Jolas. As I struggle to capture what I am hearing, I have become aware of how often my ingrained assumptions of rhythms and assert themselves, obscuring my ability to really hear what is being played. Yet the pursuit of this music has been immensely rewarding. It has loosened up my approach to the banjo in subtle ways. For example, I find that my thumb playing melodies in places where I would only have used a finger before, shifting the textures and dynamics of music. I feel I have dipped my toe into an ancient, deep river that flows through and links Africa and the Americas. I now see the banjo less as a finished product with discreet traditions, and more as many instruments dispersed across continents, peoples, and rhythms commingling together.
In Banjourneys, I have tried to allow these currents to wander and mix, to weave these various threads into something new and old, here and there. I hope this resonates within you in some manner as this all has with me.