Banjo’s roots traced to Africa at Two Rivers Stage

Posted Aug. 23, 2008, at 7:13 p.m.

The place where the Kenduskeag Stream flows into the Penobscot River is where vastly different musical styles meet and mingle during the American Folk Festival.

The Two Rivers Stage sits in the shadow of the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge. It is the smallest of the festival’s five performance sites. At the intimate venue, musicians from the farthest corners of the world introduce festival goers to instruments and musical styles they’ve never heard of before.

Workshops tracing the roots of American music often draw to the riverbank an audience seeking to encounter the unfamiliar. On Saturday afternoon, a man from Senegal in Western Africa and one from the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia traced the roots of the banjo to the akonting.

Sana Ndiaye, a native of Senegal, told the overflow crowd of how he learned to play to three-stringed folk lute of the Jola people, who live in southern Senegal and Gambia, from his grandfather. The traditional akonting is made of a gourd covered with skin of a monkey, although Ndiaye has modified his own instrument replacing the skin with a thin piece of wood.

Steve Barr began playing the banjo when he was five and traveled with his parents’ bluegrass band. He mastered the five-string banjo and jammed with Earl Scruggs, the granddaddy of banjo pickers, when the young player was 11.

The banjo and the akonting share similarities. The akonting has two long melody strings and a short drone. Barr’s five-string banjo has four long strings and a short fifth or “thumb string.”

After centuries apart, the banjo met up with its ancestor when Barr and Ndiaye played together for the first time. The African instrument gave a bass under tone to the bluegrass classic “Cripple Creek.” Barr followed the Senegalese musician’s lead on a song he wrote as an homage to a friend.

At the end of the African song, Barr shook his head, unhappy with his performance.

“I don’t think I got it,” he said.

“Oh, I think you got it, Ndiaye replied. “I could feel it. It was good.”

Indeed it was.

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