Tuesday, September 4, 2012


My final days in Bellingham were quickly approaching and I anticipated that San Francisco's dense neighborhoods would be less accommodating to building another instrument, so I took the opportunity last week to build another kamelengoni. I had one full antelope skin packed away from a trip in 2006 and a gourd from a trip in 2008. To date I've made 4, not including the assistance of that which I made with Sekou. Two of them broke; one had a tiny, thin gourd from a farm in North Carolina and the skin on the second one ripped under the tension of the bridge, leaving me with the mid-sized gourd from 2008 ready to go.

Making the instruments is pretty simple. The most difficult part of the entire process is getting the materials in the first place. Finding gourds of an appropriate size in the states is challenging (my efforts were unsuccessful, although I did get smaller gourds from farms in Florida and North Carolina that would be good for soku/njarka).  Anyway, here are some photos of the process with brief descriptions.

Step 1: Assemble materials. 

In a clockwise direction starting at 11: Antelope skin, high guage fishing line for strings, wooden bridge with holes drilled for however many strings you want (I did 6), bamboo rods to insert under the skin/on top of the gourd, upholstery tacks to secure the skin, neck with guitar tuning keys to tune the strings, gourd with top cut off and insides scraped out, 2mm accessory cord to counter-tension the bridge against the taught strings, fabric or cord to tie two of the bamboo handles to the neck (see below where I just used 1mm cord), knife and razors to shave the skin and make small incisions for the bamboo rods.

If I were a better wood worker/had better tools I'd smooth out the cuts when attaching the guitar keys.

                                    Full dry skin (blocks to keep it from rolling for the picture)

Step 2: Finding the area of skin you want to use, cutting it, soaking the skin, cleaning it, and ripping off some of the under-layers that prevent it from being as elastic as possible.  

I have never found a good method for getting those layers off, nor have I really searched.  I just remember with Sekou tearing off those layers, and it's incredibly hard.  I change out the nasty water and soak the skin overnight.  Sekou wrapped our skin in a plastic bag after it had been soaking and buried it overnight.  The thinnest part of the skin tends to be around the shoulder area and neck and and if you can get off those under-layers it will almost be transparent in parts.

Step 3: Attaching the skin. 

While the skin is still wet, align it over the hole in the gourd and tap in the first tacks to anchor the skin.  Then in a star pattern, stretch the skin over the gourd, pulling as hard as you can and tapping in more tacks.  Other methods would be to thread some cord through the fringes of the skin, like a draw-string, and pull the skin taught underneath and then start to plug tacks in.

Step 4: Insert the bamboo rods.

The bridge will eventually sit in the little square that is delineated by the four rods. This time around I aligned the rods that run perpendicularly to the neck a little further back on the gourd but usually put them about half distance.  There is no particular reason to do this, I haven't noticed a difference.  If you align it closer to the neck and therefore pluck the strings closer to the bridge it might have a twangier sound, which could be nice.

Step 5: Secure the parallel bamboo rods to the neck.

Since I'm a rock climber I like using climbing cord whenever possible and tying climbing knots.  You could even use a series of rubber bands to secure the rods, or tape, or whatever you want.  These two are important because you hold onto them to play the instrument.

This is what the ngoni looks like so far (below).  Eventually the skin dries around the gourd and becomes crispy again.  You can trim the skin to make it look neat but I liked all the directional lines created by the edges of the skin and on the top (couldn't get all the layers off, which is the difference between the colors on the skin).

Step 6: Attach and secure the bridge.

This step is a sequence of back and forth between the strings and the cord used to counter-anchor the bridge.  First I loop cord around the head of the bridge and the butt of the neck that sticks out of the bottom of the gourd, angled back.  Next I thread two strings through the bridge up to the guitar tuning keys and tune them till they're fairly taught.  If needed I'll adjust the cord because even though it is capable of holding hundreds of pounds of force, it has some elasticity to it and eventually will be pulled forward. 

Step 7: Tune the rest of the strings and finalize the bridge attachment.

The light purple cord on the left and right of the bridge doesn't really do much after the bridge is pulled into place from the front and back, but initially it helps keep the bridge upright as a left or right string is tuned tight.  Again, since I climb and like knots I get overly-fancy with the finishing touches.  Something much simpler will work.  The black spot on the bridge is a spot pickup available at guitar shops, commonly used to amplify violins or other acoustic instruments.  It gets really good sound.

And the finished product:

It takes a few days to fully tune the thing, since the nylon strings continue to stretch.  Eventually they max out and it will stay in tune and taught.  I like the strings to be super taught to get good harmonics that add little "pings" among the other notes played.  I've tried using guitar strings but don't like how they sound.  I also bought a pack of six strings and used every one of them.  It might have worked better to only buy one guage so they have mostly equal tension and don't sound like plucked rubber bands.  If anyone tries let me know!

Here's a good alternative video and perhaps more "authentic".  His final product looks like what you see in the big market in downtown Bamako.  I guess mine is in the style that Sekou puts them together.


Here's my new house and it's amazing view:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A new home and build a beautiful instrument with one's hands seems something really good, it seems the good times are beginning, is always nice to get good news.

The climbing rope and wild skin, do not lose authenticity to the ngoni, only you incorporate a new style.

The donsongoni in the Malinke region uses metal strings apparently is the oldest and is called Simbi but is used with the loose strings to accompany other types of melodies, since one can not tune as high as the wassoulon ngoni that is more danceable.