History of the Instrument

Several hypotheses have been presented concerning the origins of the griot lute. The prevalent view, as first presented by early 20th century musicologists, has been that the modern ngoni is derived from the lutes played in ancient Egypt. These Egyptian lutes are then believed to have spread West across North Africa and down into the Mande region. The view presented by professor Charry in his article on plucked lutes, however, is that if in fact there is a connection between the lutes of ancient Egypt and those of West Africa, then the Egyptian lutes more likely moved south and across the Sahel to reach their destination. It is equally possible, however, considering the lack of material archeological evidence (lutes being constructed of non-persistent materials including wood and hides) that either West African lutes actually spread to Egypt, or that the two instruments arose simultaneously.

This video, while giving only a very vague, simplified English history of the xalam (a lute very similar to the ngoni, but played by the Wolof, rather than the Mande), shows intimate footage of the griot Samba Aliou Guisse playing the xalam. The following articles help to reveal the meaning of the “ancestral past” of the West African lute, which this video refernces but does not explain.

Plucked Lutes in West Africa: An Historical Overview, by Eric Charry

Article exploring the connection between ancient Egypt and West African lutes

Article describing first known documentation of African lutes

In addition to this academic view of the origins of the ngoni, there is also a mythical, spiritual story of where the instrument came from. According to the world famous ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, the first ngoni was given to his grandfather by a jinn, or water spirit. Although the ngoni has now been popularized and is a familiar sound around the world, the first instruments were restricted both in terms of who could play them (jelis) and who could listen to them (rulers and warriors).

Here is a brief documentary of Bassekou Kouyate, a famous modern ngoni player, in which he talks about his life, the history of the ngoni, and the banjo-ngoni connection. With his band Ngoni Ba, Kouyate has just produced an album titled Segu Blue, which features an untraditional combination: a ngoni quartet.

In studying the ngoni, it is important to examine not only its origins, but also the affects it has had on new, modern instruments. Specifically, the West African griot lute is seen as the direct ancestor of the American banjo. Most slaves brought to North America to work on Southern plantations came from West Africa, and understandably brought their instruments (or at least the skills and knowledge of how to make them) and musical traditions with them. Before becoming the instrumental icon of bluegrass and the folk revival of the 1950s, the banjo was a characteristic African American instrument. Both its construction and tuning, so similar to the ngoni, suggest a clear link to its West African heritage.

This video shows an American banjo player Bob Carlin and Malian lute player Cheikh Hamala Diabate performing a work from their joint album From Mali to America. Although in this performance Diabate plays a goard banjo, he is most famous in Mali and abroad as a jeli and ngoni player.

An article analyzing a museum exhibit on African Lute/banjo connections

An extensive resource with in-depth discussion of the history of many types of African lutes and their connection to the American banjo

(Posted by KMorgan)

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