Chuck Levy

 

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Hello Friends,

Welcome to my online music hut.  Take a look around, set a spell, give me a holler.  My Banjourney has led me to all sorts of interesting people an places, from Ohio and Illinois, West Virginia, Virginia, North and South Carolina, to Mars and back, to The Gambia and Senegal, and home to Gainesville, Florida.  Along the way I have picked a bunch of banjos, a few fiddles, and an akonting or two as well, and some stories to tell.  What about you?

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An Interview with Laemouahuma (Daniel) Jatta

By Chuck Levy ©2012

 

In 2007, an unexpected series of events led me to Gambia where, amongst the Jola people and under the care of musician and scholar Laemouahuma (Daniel) Jatta, I would learn to play the akonting, (ekonting) a banjo-like instrument from that region.  (Although he is known to many Westerners as Daniel, I’ve learned that Jatta actually prefers his birth-name, Laemouahuma.)  Laemouahuma arranged my lodging and transportation in The Gambia, and introduced me to his cousins Remi Diatta and Ekona Diatta, master Jola musicians.  Laemouahuma was always kind and eager to share as we visited different sites in Banjul (the capitol), the busy urban area of Serekunda, and Laemouahuma’s hometown, the village of Mandinari.  I quickly fell under the spell of the akonting and the Jola culture.  In fact, I returned the following year for another dose, again under Laemouahuma’s stewardship. During my visits, I was able to introduce Laemouahuma to the field of Arts in Medicine, an interest of mine as a physician and banjoist.  We visited the Royal Victorian Teaching Hospital, and played music on the wards, which opened the doorway to conversation with the patients.

 

In 2010, Laemouahuma sent me an email from his home in Sweden, describing his work with individuals with developmental disabilities.  He was visiting supervised living centers and engaging the residents in African music and dance.  I am the Chair of the Advisory Board for the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, and thus was able to arrange a scholarship for Laemouahuma to enroll in our two-week summer intensive certificate course.

 

It has been a little over a decade since Laemouahuma and Swedish banjo scholar Ulf Jagfors presented their groundbreaking work on the origins of the banjo to the Annual Banjo Collectors Gathering in the United States. I believe their work was a catalyst to a renewed interest in the banjo, and a deeper understanding of its African roots.  The influence of this work can be seen and heard today in the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Béla Fleck’s Throw Down Your Heart, and PBS’s Bring Me the Banjo, among many other instances.  Towards the end of Laemouahuma’s Gainesville visit, he sat down for an interview, covering topics ranging from his childhood in The Gambia, his first memories of the akonting, his education, how he managed to come to the US, his near deportation, where he first heard the banjo, how he happened to meet Swedish banjo scholar Ulf Jagfors, and more.  An abridged version of this interview will appear in an upcoming issue of the Old-Time Herald http://www.oldtimeherald.org/ The following is the original interview, edited only very slightly for readability.

 

 

 

 

Chuck:  Where did you grow up?

Laemouahuma:  In Mandinari, in the western part of Gambia, West Africa

Chuck: And you have four brothers and sisters…

Laemouahuma:  Four brothers and one sister.

Chuck:  What is your earliest memory of the akonting?

Laemouahuma:  I think I got to know the akonting when I was between 3 and 5

Chuck:  Where did you hear it?

Laemouahuma: From my father.

Chuck:  What did your father do?

Laemouahuma:  Well my father is an akonting player, a farmer, a fisherman, an herbal medicine man.  He was a rice grower, animal farmer, he does almost everything.

Chuck: Was he different than anyone else in the village?  Did he do anything different than any other man?  Or was his life the life of a typical Jola man in Mandinari?

Laemouahuma:  Well it was not every man who was an akonting player but most of the things he was doing was typically traditional that almost every Jola can do like farming rice, raising animals, healing people with herbal medicine.  These are some of the basic traditional knowledge that most Jolas will teach to their children, but then it depends on people who can use it to higher level.  Some can use to only a basic level, some can use it on a more higher level.  He was somebody who could use a lot of herbs to heal us or to cure us.

Chuck:  When would he play?  Would he play everyday?

Laemouahuma:  He plays when he feels playing; there was no really regular time or say, fixed time.  But mostly on the evenings when we finished work and have to relax at home.  He would play especially for the children of the village.

Chuck:  In the life of a Gambian rice farmer, there are seasons where you are very busy, and seasons where you are not so busy.  When is it busy?

Laemouahuma:  Well, between April…they start really fertilizing the land, like my mother used to take the cow dung or the chicken drops and all this to the farm, to the farm area, to spread them before the rain starts.  So the activity actually starts around April-May when they start fertilizing the land, and then between June to July is the making of the …what you call the fore-seedlings that you grow, to be able to transplant them to the main rice fields where it is really heavy rain that is in August to September.  So between June/July is growing the seedlings upland where it is not very muddy.  And then July, the end of July, or the beginning of August, they start transplanting when the rains start coming heavy.  They make the beds [in the soil] so that they can contain water, and that is making some sort of sand bars, to protect the water from going away from these beds.  August and September are the busiest rainy days.

Chuck:  And so a farmer would get up early, work all day, and then come home after dark…

Laemouahuma: Yeah

Chuck:  And is that when he would start to play?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, but some Jolas don’t come home.  After the rice work, after working for the day, they tap palm wine in the evening.  This is the time the climb the palm wine trees and tap them and then would stay around with certain friends or relatives and drink and play the akonting there instead of coming home.  Some do come home.

Chuck:  Some do stay out and celebrate and get ready for the next day.

Laemouahuma:  Yeah

What is the first song you remember?

Laemouahuma.  Well the first song which my father first taught me and which I think he said was the origin of the whole process of the akonting is the “Alinom”.

Chuck: And “Alinom” means?

Laemouahuma:  “My younger sister” or “my sister who goes around looking for a jab in the urban area, and I wish her not to have certain possibilities to stay there because of love or something.”  So they sing for their girlfriends not to stay there.    They should only go and work and when it is time to come back home during the summer, they come back.

Chuck:  Does little sister mean your sister or any young woman in the village?

Laemouahuma: It could mean anything…

Chuck:  It means a young woman in general

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, Yeah.

Chuck:  So your father was playing while you were growing up.  How many people were in the village when you were growing up?  Were there a hundred? Were there a thousand?

Laemouahuma:  It was not a big village at that time.  Maybe one thousand or less.

Chuck:  Were they all Jola?

Laemouahuma:  No.  Jolas were at one side.  Jolas, Manjagos, were on one side, and Mandikas were on the other side.

Chuck:  Did everybody get along?

Laemouahuma:  Well they do, but certain cultures they don’t, because ....  The reason why there were two groups is because we raise pigs and we drink and they don’t do that.

Chuck:  because they’re Muslim?

Laemouahuma: Yeah.

Chuck:  In your half of the village, how many other men were playing the akonting?

Laemouahuma: Well in my young days there were many because we normally have even people from Cassamance coming to tap palm wine in The Gambia, and the akonting was really one of the cultures.  It was very common.

Chuck:  Do you think when you were growing up you saw 30 people playing? 

Laemouahuma:  Or more.

Chuck:  Did you see fifty?

Laemouahuma:  It could be but I think it was more than 30.

Chuck:  Were you interested in playing the akonting when you were young?

Laemouahuma:  Well we played with it but I was not very much into playing it professionally as I am now.

Chuck:  A lot of kids when they grow up, the things their parents do seem old-fashioned, and aren’t the things that kids necessarily want to learn.  Was that the case with the akonting?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, in fact when we were growing up we never thought the akonting was really an instrument of value, say an economic value, we were just seeing it as akonting to entertain as my father was doing and nobody was, really,… I don’t see anybody in my family who was really… wanted to take it as my father did.

Chuck:  Did your father learn from his father?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah.

Chuck: and the other men in the village?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah.

Chuck:  Did you ever see woman playing the akonting when you were growing up?

Laemouahuma:  No. I have not, I have not. But with the Ekona group I have seen some girls trying to play but um…just a kind of, they just like to play with it , but not to…

Chuck: Not to study it.

Chuck:  What is the name you were given at birth?

Laemouahuma: Laemouahuma Jatta

Chuck:  What does Laemouahuma mean?

Laemouahuma:  Laemouahuma means the middle child in the family and a strong child.

Chuck:  How did you get the name “Daniel”?

Laemouahuma: Well I was baptized in my church school.

Chuck:  How did you end up going to school?

Laemouahuma:  Because the missionaries were going around to convince our parents to send us to school, and also to look for members.

Chuck:  Your father hadn’t gone to school.

Laemouahuma: No

Chuck:  What made him decide that you should go?

Laemouahuma: Well when the missionaries came and started explaining the benefits of knowing how to read and write, They [Laemouahuma’s parents] didn’t object.  They thought it was a good idea, but what have they always kept on telling us was we must also learn the tradition.  We must know how to survive in the Jola way.  Despite the fact that we were going to school.  And this they continued doing with us until we finished school.

Chuck:  Going to the Catholic school did not guarantee that you would go to high school did it?

Laemouahuma: No, because you have to take a national exam.

Chuck:  When did Catholic school end?  How many years of Catholic school would be normal?

Laemouahuma:  Right now in The Gambia, we have the same system as you have.  But during my time you go 6 years in primary school, 6 years in high school.

Chuck: So you finished your 6 years in primary school.  Did you know all along that you wanted more schooling?

Laemouahuma: Yeah, from day one I always feel like I must…’cause I’ve seen…I was taught we’d graduate from primary school because it was missionaries, nuns and priests.  And they were all graduates.  So I had the interest of being a graduate since from primary school.

Chuck:  You had a hunger to learn.

Laemouahuma: Yeah

Chuck:  So you took the exam.

Laemouahuma: Yeah

Chuck:  How many slots were open in the country for villagers

Laemouahuma:  Only 35 students to this Catholic high school that I went. But there were 3 high schools.  You would go to one of them but in our school, they needed only 35.

Chuck:  And that was for the whole country, right?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah.  But the whole country takes the exam for 3 schools.  That’s what I mean.  But the other schools, I don’t know how many people they take by year.  But in our school, it was 35.

Chuck: Ok.  And you did well enough in the exam to get to go to high school.  So then you had another 6 years of education?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, from the high school.

Chuck:  At what point did you realize that you wanted more schooling than 6 years of high school?

Laemouahuma:  After my high school, I was obsessed to get more education, so I started corresponding with American and British universities so luckily [Friendship] Junior College in the states invited me

Chuck:  Did you have a model that inspired you?  Was there a person that you looked up to?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, I had a doctor and also my teacher in high school who was educated in the states here.  He taught us sociology in school.  He was called Dr. Janha   He got his education through the same way that I got, and that gave me the inspiration because he normally tell us how he struggled to get his education.

Chuck:  Did you write away to 20 colleges?

Laemouahuma:  I wrote to many.  I don’t know how many.  It was Friendship Junior College in South Carolina that finally gave me admission.

Chuck:  How did you get the money to come here?

Laemouahuma:  Well, um, relatives helped, but mostly it was financed by a doctor called Dr. Peters who died two years ago.  He eventually when I wrote him…I didn’t know him, but somebody knows him, and told me about him, but he was willing to respond to my letter and when I met him and explained to him, he decided to finance the rest of the ticket to come.

Chuck:  Was he in The Gambia or in the US?

Laemouahuma:  In The Gambia.

Chuck: Then you got your plane ticket here, then what did you have as baggage when you came on the plane?

Laemouahuma: I got simple baggage and um, because I was not interested to come to be, a lot of clothes, because I knew my parents did not have a lot of money, and I didn’t want to borrow [from] anybody in the family for clothes.  But I came with some reasonable amount.

Chuck:  Did you have more than two shirts or two pairs of pants?

Laemouahuma:  Maybe three or four.

Chuck:  So you’re on the plane, the plane lands in the US.  What happened next?

Laemouahuma: What happened was the immigration looked at my papers and they said, “Well the school gave you half-scholarship”.  I said, “Yes”.  They said, “How are you going to finance the rest?”  I said “But according to the school I’m going to have work-study”.  So they said “Well it is not allowed”.  I said “But how can the school allow it, wrote to me and said I should do work study and then it is not allowed?”  Then they said “Well that is the law.  I [you] shouldn’t work here.”  So I said “Okay”, but the school has already contacted a member of their board in New York to collect me at the airport because they wanted him to help me to get to the school.  So when he came to the airport and didn’t find me, he was trying to find out, because he knew what time I was coming to land.  So they find out that I was with the… I don’t know, for some reason, with the immigration. Because they forgot that I was around for the network system, so five minutes before I was to be returned back to Gambia, they give me a call.  I got the officer who came to the car and said, “Well who is Daniel Jatta”, because we were many to be shipped back to Africa. So I said “It’s me.  What happened?”  He said, “ You have a phone call”.  And that was how I met these people.

Chuck: So you are about to be deported, you’re in a police car or police van getting ready to be deported…

Laemouahuma: Well I don’t know really, but it was some of the security at the airport who took me really.  But that was it.  Some officers from the airport.  I don’t know if they were police or security or something.

Chuck:  Someone called, they said “Where is Daniel Jatta, we’re from the college, he does have our support.”  Where did you stay that night?

Laemouahuma Jatta:  With them, and then after at least a week, they got me a ticket to go.  Because they wanted to buy a plane ticket.  I told them “No”, I want to know the country,” so I went by bus.

Chuck:  The people that you stayed with, who were they?

Laemouahuma:  [An] African-American family living in New York, Dr. Johnson, and Mrs. Johnson.

Chuck:  So you got off the plane, stayed with Johnsons, and took a bus to South Carolina.  What happened with the Johnson’s?

Laemouahuma:  Well I was just curious to come out one night, and I opened the door, and there was police trying to find out who am I.  I didn’t know the house was alarmed.  But then when they checked with them [the Johnsons], they found out I was their guests.  It was just a mistake that I didn’t know that it was [an] alarmed house [a house with a security system] before I came out.

Chuck:  So you came out, you think you are just going to walk around, and all of the sudden you are surrounded by police officers?  Did they draw guns?

Laemouahuma:  They came out with certain weapons and was trying to say I should not do anything, so I just obeyed.

Chuck:  Were you scared?

Laemouahuma:  I was not scared.

Chuck:  Why weren’t you scared?

Laemouahuma:  Because I didn’t do anything!  I was just surprised but I was not afraid.

Chuck:  Tell me about the first time you heard the banjo.

Laemouahuma:  Well this was when we sat in our student lobby in our campus to watch American football.  This music, beautiful music came up.  I started getting curious to know about the instrument, and luckily I started knowing that it was an African instrument.

Chuck:  So after the football game there was…

Laemouahuma:  A group from the Tennessee Country Music Organizations.  I don’t know which group was it.

Chuck:  What year was this?

Laemouahuma: ‘74

Chuck:  There was this group and there was a banjo in the group?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah

Chuck:  What did you say when you saw that?

Laemouahuma:  I was surprised because it sounds like my father’s instrument. The sound was really unique, compared to guitar or any other instrument.

Chuck:  Did you ask anybody about that?

Laemouahuma: Yes, I asked the nearest friend to me who was also an African-American, but I don’t remember his name now.  It might be John something; I don’t know the last name.  And he started explaining that this was a slave instrument or an African slave instrument, which was played by many generations of blacks before it became what it is now. So then I started getting interested to know, because he told me it was made of gourd, which is calabash.  And then that really made to be interested more to know how it looks like, and how it was played, and how it was constructed.  And eventually I started to connect, because I could see a lot of it was…I was not even working with my father because I just…Watching my father when I was small I knew he was using two fingers to play the akonting.  And the way he was using his fingers, I could also remember by reading all these descriptions.

Chuck: You went to the library to look up anything you could about the banjo?

Laemouahuma:  In the beginning it was just like a hobby to know more about how it was. And eventually I started getting more and more interested as I got more and more information.

Chuck:  Was there a moment where you realized or you thought that the akonting that your father had played was…that the banjo was connected to this instrument?  Was it from the very beginning?

Laemouahuma:  From the very beginning I knew I saw something I saw something like this, but I had no good evidence to back my observations.  But I was never confused with the facts I was getting because they were so clear to me all the time.  The more I get facts, the more I feel, especially when I started looking at the old pictures, when I started looking at the old description of how it was made, of how it was played.  Because most scholars, when I read their research, they always generalize things.  The way I was seeing the facts, and the way I knew the instruments that most of these scholars were supporting, I knew that most of it did not fit with most of their instruments.  Because they did not have much empirical evidence, maybe those instruments [ngoni/xalam family instruments] were more recognized in those days.  Because those were the only instruments they had.  But I never had any doubt, as I started working with my father and started seeing the similarities I was looking for. 

Chuck:  You stayed in the US for 10 years and then you went to…

Laemouahuma:  I got a scholarship to work in Sweden to study in Stockholm University, and then after my studies in Stockholm University, I got a job.  But before I went there I worked here for two years in the states.  I was an accountant at the Hilton Hotel accounting department in Atlanta.

Chuck: But you decided to further your education and the best place that you found was Sweden.  This would have been around 1984.

Laemouahuma:  1983.

Chuck:  In Sweden you had the opportunity to go back to Gambia once a year.  The Swedes paid for your plane fair.

Laemouahuma:  For 10 years.

Chuck:  How long would you typically stay in Gambia when you would visit?

Laemouahuma:  Well normally I have 6 weeks of holidays every year.  Because that’s the law in Sweden.  At my age, I have 6 years.

Chuck:  You would spend all 6 in the Gambia.  You would see your old friends and family and you would talk to your father and learn from your father. 

Laemouahuma:  Yeah

Chuck: What did your father think when you came back and all of the sudden very interested in the akonting?

Laemouahuma:  He was happy that at least has somebody in the family who wants to take over.

Chuck:  Was he a good teacher.

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, he was.

Chuck:  Was he a kind man?

Laemouahuma: (smiles) Yeah.  He would never like me to play like him.  He wanted, he shows me how to play and tell me to play.

Chuck:  He wanted you to develop your own voice, your own style.

Laemouahuma:  Exactly.

Chuck:  So you began to learn from him, and you looked around to find others.

Laemouahuma: Yeah

Chuck:  Did you find other instruments that hadn’t been well known?  So the akonting had not been well known.  Were there other instruments like the akonting that you discovered?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, Buchundo.  I was the first person to show it to the world.

Chuck:  The Buchondo is an instrument of which people?

Laemouahuma:  The Manjagos.

Chuck:  What’s the relationship between the Manjagos and the Jola?

Laemouahuma:  Well the relationship really…I don’t have much research on that.  But what I know is that we have very much similarities.  In Language, words, rituals, in traditional things, and more importantly, we have almost the same identical instrument.

Chuck: Both the akonting and the buchundo are gourd instruments, they both have floating bridges, they both have necks of papyrus that goes all the way through the instrument.  What’s different about them?

Laemouahuma:  The play style.  The Buchundo they use thumb and brush, or they only use the thumb.  But the Jolas don’t play like that.

Chuck:  Do they tune the instruments the same?

Laemouahuma: No

Chuck:  The little that I have seen of the bunchundo, it looks like they are doing some up-picking.  Is that right?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, I don’t really study their movements much but Sang Gomez who I documented, whom I studied most with Ulf, who was the highest bunchundo player we could find in The Gambia, who died.  Mostly he uses the thumb.  Because it’s his playing style. But it varies from person to person.  So I don’t know.  I have not studied most of the Manjagos.  But he uses only the thumb.

Chuck:  So you’re gong to Gambia, you’re trying to widen your understanding of the akonting and the related instruments, and then you would come home.  And then you would go back work in Sweden and come back the next year.

Laemouahuma: Yeah.

Chuck:  How was it that you met [Swedish Banjo Scholar] Ulf Jagfors?

Laemouahuma:  Well, My research was completed in ’99, and then I took some time to really plan the presentation [for] the year 2000.  September 23rd  2000, I made the public presentation in Sweden, and the whole Swedish community, especially the Swedish music community, was pretty much interested in the research and that was how they announced for the next presentation which Ulf got to know, and came to the presentation, and that’s how I met.

Chuck:  What was the presentation called?  “African Origins of the Banjo”?

Laemouahuma: Yeah.

Chuck: So Ulf shows up.  Did he talk to you before the presentation?

Laemouahuma:  He called me when he read about the information, and then we talked two hours at my job, and then he promised to come.

Chuck:  Ulf himself had been interested in the African origins of the banjo.  He had traveled to West Africa himself.  Is that correct?

Laemouahuma:  According to him, when I met him he said he had been almost all over the world to look for the banjo.

Chuck: He had been in Gambia and Senegal.

Laemouahuma: Yeah.

Chuck: But the akonting had never been presented to him.

Laemouahuma: No.

Chuck:  Do you have any idea as to why no one had ever presented the akonting to him?

Laemouahuma:  Well I don’t know really, but to my theories, most of the scholars in those days, when the y go to Africa, the griots are their archives, or their counterparts, so most of them interviewed the griots.

Chuck: So they came looking for the banjo, people may have directed… they [the West Africans] said “Oh you are interested in music.  The people who know about music are the griots,” and then the griots would talk to them about the music that they [the griots] knew and supported.

Laemouahuma: That is my assumption, because none of them have ever reached the Manjagos or the Jolas.

Chuck:  So Ulf shows up at your presentation, and then after the presentation, what happened?

Laemouahuma:  Well he went away for a week.  I did not hear from him.  Then one day he called, [and said] that he wants me to follow him to the states to meet the banjo community he’s working with, who are the Banjo Collectors in Boston.

Chuck:  So your presentation was in September, and collectors was…

Laemouahuma: November 2nd, 2000.

Chuck:  This was just a couple of months away!  He wanted you to go?

Laemouahuma: Yeah.

Chuck.  But you were working.  You had a job.

Laemouahuma: Yeah.  He had to fight both… At that time I had no citizenship, because I never wanted to change my citizenship.  So he fight for me to get the visa, he fight for me also to get the permission from my job [for time off], and that’s how we came to Boston.  We came one day before the meeting, which was November 2nd.

Chuck:  Did you understand who the Banjo Collectors were?

Laemouahuma: Yeah, he mentioned briefly that they are the people who are really, who know the history and the whole, the whole organization of the banjo in the states controlled by them.  If you want to know the history, you must relate to them.

Chuck:  Who presented first, you or Ulf?

Laemouahuma:  Ulf presented first.

Chuck: And then Ulf introduced you.

Laemouahuma:  Yeah.

Chuck:  When you looked out, what did you see?

Laemouahuma:  There was only one African-American.  The rest were…Americans.

Chuck:  So you looked out, and saw a bunch of Caucasians, and one African-American.  How did that make you feel?

Laemouahuma:  Well, for me, it was a big surprise because I was thinking that I would meet a lot of African-Americans, because this culture belongs to them.

Chuck:  Right. You thought, “I am presenting about the African origins of the banjo, who would be more interested than African-Americans?”  But it didn’t quite turn out that way.

Laemouahuma: Yeah, it didn’t, because maybe those people to have no contact with these people.  I don’t know why I didn’t find some scholars of African-Americans, but I would have been very pleased to see them and to also find out from them their perspective of these things.

Chuck: So you go out and present the akonting.

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, I presented it for almost one and a half hours, both theoretically and practically. 

Chuck:  And what was your reception?

Laemouahuma:  Well they ask some questions, but none of them could refute my facts because they were very clear and very vivid.  But most of their comments, after my program, to Ulf, they did not direct them directly to me, but they were questioning a lot about my authenticity of the instrument, and also how did I come out with such an instrument that has never been detected by any scholar, for many, many months.  And I happened to go with Ulf in July of 2001, and that was when the whole truth came out. First we spent a week in the Gambia, went to Cassamance [Southern Senegal] for three days and then went to Guinea-Bissau for two days. And these are the areas that only have this instrument.  There is no other place in Africa that has it.  But anywhere we went, you could see the same facts I presented to him, the same explanation, the same play style, the same construction.  There was no difference from Gambia, to Senegal, to Guinea-Bissau.

Chuck:  Right. Stepping back a moment, you came all this way, you presented what you had grown up with, what you had observed, and some people were suggesting to Ulf that you had made the whole thing up.

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, some people definitely were even using all academic argument to say that this was not possible. But for me I had no doubt that what I said was never a fabrication.  So they don’t know me and they don’t know the instrument.  But I knew in time they will change or they will come to understand. But that was what happened.  Ulf went with me almost 5 times in the Gambia since I presented this to the New World.  From 2001 to 2006 Ulf had been always going with me to the Gambia, and been current with them, and gradually they started changing.  Because after Boston, we went to Virginia, in Charlottesville, and after there we went to the Smithsonian Institute and they documented my facts, and then the following year, I think the year 2005, we came to Boone, the same thing, we met some of these people in Boone, some of them.  And since then, the whole story started getting into them.

Chuck:  So when you came back, was it always to the Banjo Collectors every year?

Laemouahuma:  No, no.  In Boone it was the Black Banjo Gathering.

Chuck:  That was in 2005.  Did you come back to the Banjo Collectors at all?

Laemouahuma:  There was a time that we were in New York.  It was in Fort something, I don’t remember.

Chuck:  I heard that Ulf actually received death threats.

Laemouahuma:  According to him…I don’t know what kind of threat, but he was threatened at one time. What kind of threats, I don’t know, but he was threatened some time.

Chuck:  At this point, it seems things have changed.

Laemouahuma:  Well for me, as I see now, I don’t know how many of the banjo scholars in the West accept my facts, but all I know is some of the scholars I know today who have known the banjo history in Europe like Ulf, have no question of my research, and I am not saying he feels that that’s the only instrument.  We have also never endorsed that it is the only instrument, but he is on my side to say that the akonting is one of the fathers of the banjo, which we have always been saying, but many of the scholars always misquote us and say we are saying that the akonting is the only father of the banjo, which has never been our theory.

Chuck:  Your position is that the akonting has many similarities with the banjo, that the people who play the akonting were from an area that was where slaves were taken to the New World, and that the oo’teck style of using the right hand is a downstroke style like stroke style and clawhammer.  Those are the things that you have said.

Laemouahuma: yeah

Chuck: You have also pointed out in our conversations that the akonting is a people’s instrument.  It is not restricted instrument like a griot’s instrument, and that is similar to the banjo.  You don’t have to be of a special caste to play the banjo.  But you have never said that no other instrument could go into the development of the banjo.  That has not been your position.

Laemouahuma: No [agreeing].

Chuck:  What has been rewarding about doing this work?

Laemouahuma:  Well what is rewarding to me is, the banjo community now is, those who are really interested honestly to work with this thing, to me, the akonting has given them another opening to understand the Jolas for example, and to understand more about some of these instruments and the cultural context of these instruments.  Because before I came to the picture, many people didn’t know that we have, what you call folk instruments and non-folk instruments in that region.  They were saying that every instrument, every lute is a folk instrument.  But this is not true [from] the African perspective.  Because most of these instruments are not folk instruments.  They have certain roles in our society, and I am not saying this to minimize their importance because all of them are important, but they have different roles.  So I think what is rewarding with the akonting is people have now started to know that we have different instruments even though they are within the same environment.

Chuck:  You’ve gotten a chance to listen to banjo and fiddle music a fair amount.  Do you like it?

Laemouahuma: Yeah [smiles].  It’s interesting.

Chuck:  You’ve had a chance to personally introduce at least a handful of Americans to the akonting in Gambia.  You’ve hosted Paul Sedgwick, Greg Adams, myself, Ulf from Sweden, Nick Bamber, Rhiannon Giddens, and Ben [Nelson].  What’s been the reaction of the people you have introduced to the akonting?

Laemouahuma:  Well so far, the people I know who came to Gambia to work with this thing, some were so fascinated that they came twice.  My biggest surprise is I thought maybe some of them when they leave Gambia they will not be interested again with the akonting, but so far, all the people I have seen in the Gambia, are still highly interested in the akonting, and are working with the akonting, and going around to talk about the akonting at their available time, if they have the time.  So this to me is a big achievement, because I never thought it would generate that kind of interest, you know for people to continue working with it.  I thought, maybe they were just coming to observe, and look at what my facts are, and come back to continue what they were doing, but the interest is growing.  I’ve seen all these people doing different things with the akonting.  Ulf travels now all over Europe with the akonting knowledge, and the banjo, the other instruments, but he speaks mostly of the akonting.

Chuck:  You’ve had a chance to be in Florida now for a couple of weeks.  How have you been received in Florida in regards to the akonting?

Laemouahuma:  Well, it’s a wonderful state, and Gainesville where I have been for almost two weeks, I have seen that, there are a lot of similarities I have seen here that goes in my society, and the people are wonderful.  All what I have been doing here has been very much respected by the people I met.  So I love it and I believe it’s a place I would like to see if I can establish myself to continue my work with the African folk music culture.

Chuck:  What’s next for you.  What would you like to see happen in the next five years or the next ten years?

Laemouahuma:  My goal is to set a center in The Gambia, which can be the gateway for everyone who wants to understand these folk cultures that are the foundation of our music, culture, and history.  To understand it and be able to use it as it was used before, to develop our societies in all forms.  Because the instruments and the cultures that were able to create all the thinking we have today is a kind of a creative knowledge that is in them that we must look into again, to be able to come back with the creativity that was there before.  Unless we do that with an institution that is prepared to involve these people who still have the knowledge, we cannot be able to go beyond what we have.

Chuck:  Are you surprised that you are kind of the major ambassador of the Jola people to the world through this instrument, the akonting?

Laemouahuma:  Well I think I should give credit to the people who showed me these instruments like my cousins Ekona, Remi, and the rest, plus my father.  I am just their facilitator for the world to understand.  But without them, I would not have been able to be where I am today, and I think the credit should be to all of us.

Chuck:  What about people like Paul Correa and Therese Senghore.  What role do they play?

Well I cannot thank them [enough] because definitely they were the first people to help me to lay the foundation in The Gambia.  And up ‘till now, they are the people to help me, even if I am not in there to receive people, and to help them understand what I was doing and am doing, and I am very much grateful to their sacrifice because I have never given them anything that is worthwhile [monetary compensation] for the work they have been doing, and they have been doing this for almost now 10 years.

Chuck:  Therese herself tracked down some of the Jola sources you have been able to feature.  Did she find Remi, did she find Ekona?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, she knows the Cassamance better than me, better than all of us, because she was more frequent there than us.

Chuck:  So it is great to have partners to share your vision, and to make something grand happen.

Laemouahuma:  Yeah.

Chuck:  Is there anything else that you would like your American audience to know.

Laemouahuma:  Well, I just want to say most of my achievements were because of you.  Because when I met you, you have really opened up doors for me in many ways.  Of it were not you I would not be here today.  So I am very much grateful to you, because without you, I would not have known Jill, I would not have known Sironka [Nicholas Sironka, a batik artist, activist, and cultural ambassador for the Massai that Laemouahuma met in during his coursework at the University of Florida], I would not have known Gainesville, I would not have known the wonderful knowledge that I have today.  I would not even had enough money to live here. So for me, I cannot thank you.  You are one of my greatest promoters.

[Note:  I did not meet Laemouahuma until 2007.  I think he was referring to the fact that I was helpful in arranging his stay in in Gainesville, and arranging a presentation in Gainesville.  I don’t think he was to his work in general- Chuck}

Chuck:  Well I appreciate that.  It is freely given.  I am so honored to have a part in this story that I find so interesting, and for me personally, having you meet me, and introduce me to this instrument and these people has changed my life in so many ways. So I feel pleased to just be able to give a little back.

Laemouahuma: I also appreciate the way, because the way I see you work with the akonting to, is marvelous ‘cause now it’s showing me that this instrument, if it dies in Africa, it will be alive in the States.

Chuck:  So one of the observations that I had when I was in Mlomp {Ekona and Remi’s village in Cassamance] with you and Greg and Remi and Ekona and everybody, was it seemed like that the majority of Jola people didn’t think that the akonting had much value.  In the United States there was a time when fiddling and banjo playing were widespread, and then things changed, and many people put down the tradition until a new generation picked it up.  It seemed to me that the people the village were more interested in [farming].  They were glad we were there, but it seemed like very few people were playing the akonting regularly, and that most people were concerned with farming and day to day activities.

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, the new generation today in the whole of Africa, since our instrument did not create any economic achievement to most of the people who play, they don’t see any value in using them because life is not like before, when things were easy.  You need money to send your child to school, you need money to take care of yourself, so many people don’t really want to identify with this instrument. Because there is no economic benefit much in them.  But they need somebody to help them develop.  They need somebody to help them raise this instrument to a level, and I believe with the success of the research of the akonting, if we are successful to create a market to be buying and selling these instruments, to create a market to attract people to come and learn this instrument, it will start changing the mentality of the people.  But at the moment, they have not seen any benefit much into it, and they are not really convinced that they can live [make a living] with such an instrument.  Okay, before nobody lives with it Times have changed that one has to understand the world today.  That to work with an instrument that does not give you much money, it is not easy to respect as before, because the new generation now, they go to school and they think different.

Chuck:  In your father’s generation, I am guessing if you wanted music, you made it yourself.  But in the current generation, if you want music, you can carry it in a portable…

Laemouahuma:  Yeah yeah.  That is also another thing.  In my father’s time the influence of foreign music was not strong like [it is] today. Today, the influence of foreign music is all over Africa even in the remote places

Chuck:  The availability and celebration of Western-influenced music is a force that makes people have less value for their traditions.  Do you believe that’s true?

Laemouahuma:  Yeah, in a sense because as we said, it’s easy to reach this music.  You can buy you can see it anywhere to use.  But when it comes to the local music, you must have somebody to play it because the software part of it is not easy to get.  So this is one factor.  You go to some of these villages when they have celebrations, they are using these CD recorders and playing music that can be bought in the supermarket, in the record stores, but when it comes to the local musician you have to pay him to bring him to the program which is expensive.  Something like that.

Chuck:  In the Jolas traditionally, the musicians aren’t paid in money.

Laemouahuma: [Agreeing]. No.

Chuck:  It is just part of what the village does.

Laemouahuma:  Yeah.

Chuck:  Well, thank you again for agreeing to let me ask you these questions.

Laemouahuma:  Thank you for interviewing me.  It is my pleasure.