Type: Chordophones > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Country: Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau.
Region: West Africa.
Description: The akonting [or ekonting in French transliteration] is the folk lute of the Jola people, found in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. It is a banjo-like instrument with a skin-headed gourd body, two long melody strings, and one short drone string, akin to the short fifth “thumb string” on the five-string banjo.
Jola oral tradition places the birthplace of the akonting in the village of Kanjanka in Lower Casamance [Senegal], near the banks of the Casamance River. The name of the instrument’s home village is recalled in the most common tuning pattern for the akonting’s three open strings [from the 3rd short “thumb” string to the 1st long melody string]: kan [the 5th note of the scale, tuned an octave higher], jan [root note], ka [flatted 7th note].
Analogous to the traditional old-time / folk styles of playing the 5-string banjo, the akonting is tuned in different tunings. Using the kanjanka tuning pattern of 5 / 1 / -7, a common tuning in Casamance is d / G / F. In Gambia, for another variant the 1st long melody is raised a semitone [half-step] higher to make a natural 7th note, as in c / F / E.
Gambian Jola scholar/musician Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta, who pioneered the research and documentation of the akonting in the mid-1980s, describes the music of his people’s folk lute as follows:
The music of the akonting is short sustained notes that are played over and over again. Usually they are between two to three notes. The mechanics involved in playing the akonting is the regular sounding of the short string [drone string] when playing any melody. It acts as a drum to add beauty to the melody. The middle string is also sometimes used as drone string. All the noting is done on the long string.
The music of the akonting has been and still is folk music. Akonting players do not play music to confer status to their patrons. They play their music, usually in the evenings after work to relax and have a nice time before going to bed. Also when in their rice field bars [Hu Waa in Jola] they play the Akonting in the evening after working in their rice fields and drink their palm wine that they are expert in tapping from the palm tree. The music of the Akonting deals with all matters of life and does not need to be augmented by any other instrument to be danceable. It is rhythmic enough to enable one to dance.