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The West African Lute


There's scant information in the historical and archaeological record as to where the first lutes made their appearance in West Africa. There is no documentation of plucked lutes in this region until 1337, when Arab historian Al 'Umarī,  in his work "Masālik al absār fī mamālik al Amsār
", describes the fabulous wealth and majesty of the Mali empire which was considered to be one of the richest kingdoms in the known world.  Al 'Umarī wrote: "When the king arrived back at his palace, a jitr/parasol and a standard were held over his head , drums were beaten, and Tunbūr and Trumpets were played "

The word Tunbūr is an Arabic term which is generally taken to mean a long neck plucked lute, Tanbūr. However, the word Tunbūr was originally used to denote the Lyre, a harp-like string instrument on which the strings run upwards from the body (resonating sound chamber) to a horizontal yoke suspended between two parallel arms. Since Lyres are not found in West Africa, (they're common to eastern and north eastern Africa, as well as southern Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and the coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula), the conventional wisdom is that Al 'Umarī was referring to plucked lutes. Ibn Battuta of Morocco (1304-1369) wrote in the memoir of his journey to Mali  in 1352 a detailed description of the royal court of Mansa Sulayman. He ruled from 1341 to 1358 and was the brother of the renowned Mansa Musa. According to Ibn Battūta, when the Mansa  went into the palace yard for a royal audience, the Sultan was preceded by his musicians, who carried gold and silver Guimbris; and behind him were three hundred armed slaves.  Many scholars contend that Ibn Battūta's term Guimbri is in fact a reference to lutes because it is commonly used in Morocco as a name for the teardrop-shaped lute played by Amazigh Berber and Jbala Arab musicians. The word is akin to Guinbri, the most common name for the plucked lute of the Gnawa, a North African Islamic community comprised primarily of descendants of slaves and mercenaries brought to Morocco and Algeria from West Africa.

Lute-type string instruments probably came to West Africa from across the Sahara around the same time as the introduction of Islam, which was in the 10th century of the common era (CE). The Soninke empire of Wagadu (c.300-1100 CE), and better known as the kingdom of Ghana, was based in the southern region of present-day Mauritania, northern Senegal, and south eastern Mali. This area clearly was the epicenter of the trans-Saharan cross-cultural exchange and development that led to the emergence of the plucked lute in West Africa. Its successor, the Mande kingdom of Mali proved to be the crucible for the creation of Jaliya, the Griot musical tradition.

In terms of Lute ancestors, there is a suggestion that West African plucked Lutes are descended from those of Phaeronic Egypt.  At some point ancient Egyptian Lutes were adopted and adapted by  neighbouring Amazigh Berbers, the indigenous people of Tamazgha in North Africa west of Egypt, which is nowadays referred to by the Arabic term Maghreb. And it was the various Amazigh tribes who transmitted the plucked Lute concept and Lute-type instruments throughout North Africa and to West Africa by way of present-day Mauritania and the Sahara.

The earliest archaeological evidence we have of Lute family instruments comes from the region of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia between 4500-3100 BCE. The archaeological records also show that Lutes were probably introduced into Egypt by nomadic Semites from ancient Canaan and Syria. This being the case, it stands to reason that the route for the transmission of Lutes into Africa must begin in the Middle East and go through Egypt. The Amazigh, a population of ancient Libya, were definitely known to the ancient Egyptians both as neighbours, trading partners, and serious warmongers.  During the period of Phaeronic Egypt's middle kingdom from 2200-1700 BCE, the eastern Amazigh tribes of Libya who were known as Lebu by their Egyptian neighbours, became slaves to the Phaeraohs. There were Amazigh settlements in Egypt and many Amazigh served as mercenaries in the Egyptian military, several rising to great prominence in Egyptian society. Around 945 BCE, an Amazigh official became Sheshonq  1, founder of the 22nd Dynasty (c. 945-730 BCE). This was the first of  two Libyan Dynasties in Egypt at that time and there are still Amazigh communities in modern-day Egypt. The most prominent being the Zenatiya of the Siwa oasis, who speak Siwi which is an Amazigh language rather than Arabic. Of all of ancient Egypt's neighbours, it's only the various Amazigh peoples which have a tradition of plucked Lutes that most likely pre-dates the Arab conquest of North Africa (647- 945 CE). The Nubians were descendants of the ancient black African people who lived in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They created the Nile kingdoms of Kush (c.1550-590 BCE), Napata (c. 590-270 BCE), and Meroe (c. 270 BCE - 350 CE). Prior to the recent introduction of the Arab Oud by modern Nubian musician Hamza El-Din, the Nubians did not have plucked Lutes in their traditional musical culture. The Lyre, which is played by both modern Egyptians and Nubians in rural Egypt, is the only string instrument which had a counterpart in ancient Egypt.

 With the introduction of domesticated dromedary camels into North Africa by the Romans around 200 CE, the nomadic Amazigh tribes began a gradual change from horse and oxen-based transport to a camel-based system. By their masterful use of the ships of the desert the Amazigh, and in particular the Kel Tamashek /Tuareg, dominated the trans-Saharan trade routes between the Magrheb and West Africa for centuries. We know that it was primarily the Amazigh Moors  and Kel Tamashek who introduced Islam into West Africa. Until the rise of the Almoravid dynasty in Mauritania (c.1062-1150), which waged Jihad against ancient Ghana in 1076, the Amazigh Moors and Kel Tamashek were the neighbouring black African kingdom's main trading partners in the trans-Sahara trade. The Arabs didn't achieve hegemony in Mauritania until 1674.

In terms of musical culture, this is borne out by the fact that throughout the Islamic sphere of influence, from the Maghreb to East Asia, musical instruments of Arab, Persian, and Turkish origin were adopted by the various peoples and adapted for incorporation into the given local tradition. West Africa is the one notable exception. The plucked Lutes found in West Africa bear no relationship to the Oud, Bozuk, Baglama, Saz, or Tar. The instruments they bear evident kinship to are the Moorish Tidinit and the Kel Tamashek Teharden. This is especially true of the wooden-bodied Griot Lutes. They are pretty much identical to the Tidinit and Teharden, in terms of physiology and playing techniques, as well as the fact that they are exclusively played by the male members of specific castes. We can see that the West African bowed Lutes are totally unlike any of the the various models of Rebab, Rabab or Kemene found throughout the Islamic world. Yet the many different kinds of folk fiddles found throughout the region, including  the Mandinka/Soninke Ngime, the FulBe Riti, the Hausa Ggoge and the Dagbamba Goonjiy, bear a strong family resemblance to the Kel Tamashek Imzad.   

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