ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. The banjo has been part of American music for more than 250 years. It was brought here from Africa by slaves. NPR's Greg Allen brings us the story of one man who is tracing the connections between the banjo and an instrument called the akonting.

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LAEMOUAHUMA DANIEL JATTA: My father was born with this instrument. This was part of our history.

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JATTA: (Singing in foreign language)

GREG ALLEN: Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta is a slim man who looks much younger than his 55 years. He's from Gambia, a member of the Jola people. This song, written by his father, talks about the closeness of Gambia and Senegal, two countries that in pre-colonial days used to be one.

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JATTA: (Singing in foreign language)

ALLEN: The akonting is a three-stringed instrument with a long neck and a body made from a calabash gourd with a goat skin stretched over it. Jatta's father and cousins played it, but he didn't think much about the instrument until 1974, when he was visiting the U.S. from Gambia, attending a junior college in South Carolina. He recalls watching TV with some of the other students.

JATTA: There was this music program from Tennessee, and they called it country music. Well, I watched this program, and I saw the modern banjo being used into it, and the sound just sound like my father's akonting.

ALLEN: That experience put Jatta on a journey to explore the banjo's connections with the instrument he grew up with. The banjo came to America with the slaves, and musicologists have long looked in West Africa for its predecessors. Much of the speculation has centered on the ngoni and the xalam, two hide-covered stringed instruments from West Africa that have some resemblance to the banjo. But they're just two of more than 60 similar plucked stringed instruments found in the region. Over the next two decades, while he pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in the U.S., Jatta learned everything he could about the origins of the banjo. And eventually, he reached a conclusion.

JATTA: Among all the instruments ever mentioned as the prototype of the banjo from the African region, the akonting, to me, has more similarities, more objective similarities than any other that has ever been mentioned.

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ALLEN: For one thing, the akonting looks like a banjo. It has a long neck that, like early banjos, extends through the instrument's gourd body. It has a movable wooden bridge that, as in banjos, holds the strings over the skin head.

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ALLEN: But for Jatta and other banjo scholars, most convincing is how the akonting is played. Using a downward stroke, players use the index finger to strike down on one of the long strings, and the thumb sounds the akonting's short string as the hand moves back upward.

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ALLEN: When Jatta looked at early banjo instruction books from the mid-1800s, he found they described an almost identical playing style.

JATTA: And what struck me was when they mentioned that the ball of the thumb and the nail of the index or the middle finger, I knew straight away my father was using this same style. That was never a surprise to me because I have seen this since I was 5 years old.

ALLEN: That early style of playing predates the three-finger style used today by nearly all bluegrass banjo players. Something similar is still used by folk and country musicians who play in a style sometimes called frailing or clawhammer.

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ALLEN: After doing 10 years of research supported by a Swedish university, in 2000, Jatta presented his findings first in Stockholm and then a few months later at a banjo collectors' convention in Boston. Greg Adams is a banjoist and graduate student in ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland. He says Jatta's findings on the akonting have forced many scholars to rethink their assumptions about where to look for information about the banjo's ancestors.

GREG ADAMS: A lot of the emphasis up to that point was largely focused on griot traditions, which is extremely important as part of the conversation as we look to West Africa. But what the akonting did was open up a new line of discourse.

ALLEN: The ngoni and xalam are instruments typically played by griots, praise singers who enjoy special status in many West African tribes. Adams says the akonting is a folk instrument played not by griots, but by ordinary people in the Jola tribe. In terms of which tradition has the most direct connection to the banjo, Adams believes it's a mistake to think of it as an either/or proposition.

ADAMS: Each of these traditions deserves to be explored, experienced, examined and appreciated on their own terms.

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JATTA: (Singing in foreign language)

ALLEN: Jatta plans to continue his work, documenting the akonting musical tradition, its connections to the banjo and other areas of Jola culture through a research and education center he's founding back home in Gambia. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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