Searching for the Roots of the Banjo, Canadian Musician Jayme Stone Talks About his Recent Trip to Mali

World Music Central presents the travelogue of Canadian banjo player Jayme Stone. He belongs to the eclectic banjo school led by Bela Fleck. Stone combines old-time and bluegrass roots with a much wider palette of sound, including jazz improvisation.

He traveled to Mali in search of the roots of the banjo.

"Ani Su!

After a year of prep work and a generous Chalmers Arts Fellowship award, I lit out for Mali, West Africa to research the roots of banjo and collect material for an upcoming album of Malian music. I left knowing what is still news to most. That is to say that as early as the 18th century, slave traders were known to capture West Africans with instruments to keep folks on the boats dancing and alive across the middle passage. They were headed for America where a certain gourd-bodied, five-stringed instrument was about to be renamed, its heritage practically erased.

Slave life on the plantations was hardly the place for an authentic transmission of the African music’s nuance and rhythmic innovation, so I thought it high time to fill in the gaps in person.

I arrived in Bamako reeling, trying to find my wits and rhythm in Mali’s dusty, disorganized capital. We were sweltering at 40 degrees [Celsius] and rising. The world was orange. White goats and black children roamed the streets and I had to quickly adjust to the astounding scale of poverty. Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world and 85% of the population lives on $2 a day.


I stayed with a wonderful local family, ate mostly with my hands and slowly learned to navigate the city in battered green buses and renegade taxis. I discovered that speaking a little Bambara goes a long way, as does playing a note-perfect version of Ali Farka Toure‘s well-loved song Allah Uya.

There are no street signs or maps to be found, which is why it took some serious hunting to find the studio where I planned to meet Bassekou Kouyate, Mali’s premier ngoni player. He was at work producing Ami Sacko’s new album with members of Salif Keita‘s and Oumou Sangare‘s band. It was a wonder to see first hand how they make records there and even played banjo on one song (I hope they keep it!)

Spent the following day at Bassekou‘s house digging into the banjo’s roots in Mali. The exchange was illuminating and I came away with a renewed perspective on how the instrument and playing style has evolved on both continents. There is an astoundingly close connection between the ngoni and the banjo and we worked on traditional music dating back all the way to the 6th century.

I fled the city to travel rural Mali and visit the Dogon Country. Picture villages strung along an enormous escarpment and a way of life largely untouched by modernity. Village folk keep a five day week and often walk 25 miles a day to trade crops and crafts at their weekly markets.

It was in the village of Ende that I met Seydou Are Gindou, a young artist who plays the Konou, a two-stringed instrument made from fig wood and stretched with goat skin. Under the light and sway of the full moon, we had an impromptu concert complete with Konou, calabash, talking drum and half a village worth of singers crowded around the fire and music. Let’s not forget the crop of boys who returned at dawn from their annual circumcision ceremony atop the escarpment!

When I arrived back to civilization (and email), I met with surprise praise from fellow banjo researchers. Evidently I was the first to "discover" the Konou, an instrument as yet unknown outside the Dogon.

Later in my travels I also happened upon the earliest known ancestor of the ngoni called a Juru Kelenni. After some convincing, ethnographer and historian Salia Male allowed me to peruse the archives of the National Museum in Bamako to photograph and play this one-stringed curiosity that might forever alter our understanding of the banjo’s history.

We went to renowned kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate‘s house to pay our respects and he invited me to play that evening at his music haunt the Hogon. The show began at midnight, Toumani arrived after one and I joined his Symmetric Orchestra around two, playing well into the wee hours. It thoroughly rocked my world and I’d venture to say this is one of the most powerful bands in the world.

The last week found me working with kora legend Djelimady Sissoko at the National Institute for the Arts and adapting ngoni music with the likes of Adama Tounkara, Mama Sissoko and Abdoulaye Kone. The pedagogy here is as challenging as it is enlivening. People just start playing these rhythmically mysterious little melodies and just when you catch on, they throw in a variation, a countermelody, a blur of 32nd notes. It’s all done in time, with no chance to pause, practice or question. The music is alive!

I am now safely back on Canadian soil, poised to recoup and rehearse for the release of my brand new album The Utmost on May 1st. I look forward to reconnecting and hope all is well in your corner of the world."

Jayme Stone

Photo 1: Learning Ngoni

Photo 2: Bassekou Kouyate

Photo 3: Djelimady Sissoko and Jayme Stone

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