Imran builds his ngoni…

From his peaceful pocket of Bamako Waou answered my question, “you want to build a ngoni? It’s very hard!”.

With a little convincing he patiently showed me how to hand build an ngoni, the grandfather of the banjo.

Step 1: Taking a large tree trunk we chopped a log to the rough size of my future ngoni’s body.

Chopping the raw log

Step 2: Putting down our axes we carved out the inside to make a canoe shape and then sanded its rough surface.

Axe and feet

Imran and Waou

Carved body of the Ngoni

Step 3: Then we drilled about 16 holes around the edge of the body before creating a groove at one end for the neck to lay.

Step 4: Cutting bamboo poles we made around 20 wooden nails.

Step 5: Then for the smelly job, we sliced the cow skin (which had soaked overnight) to the shape of the body.

Step 6: Using the bamboo nails, we stretched the skin across the body and pinned it into place.

Stretching the skin

Step 7: Using a chisel tool we carved the neck to the shape of a broom handle with a spike at one end. We then cut holes into the skin and inserted the neck of the instrument.

Waou at work

Step 8: We then left the whole thing to dry in the blistering 42 degree heat of the Malian sunshine. With the scorching sunshine the skin-drying only takes a few hours!

The ngoni dries in the sun

Step 9: Using a hack saw we cut off the bamboo pins to the body.

Step 10: The instrument finished, we moved onto the strings

“What was used before nylon fishing line was available?” I ask.

Horse hair” explains Waou, his eyes scarcely stray from his work. Remembering a story of European violin players having to hunt down cats to make strings from their guts, I tell Waou that his ancestors were far more civilised than their European counterparts.

Trying to get that intricate knot right!

Waou attaches a string to the neck

After attaching all the strings to the instrument (six in this case), he proudly checks it over, fine tunes it and gives it a play. It is difficult to imagine that a day earlier it was little more that a log of wood, a fragment of calabash, some cow skin and a few metres of fishing line

For all the photos, click here.


9 responses to “Imran builds his ngoni…

  1. Matthew Stuttard

    Looks like hard work – but you get the perfect sound for old school blues!

    • His hard work, not mine I’m happy to say! He is now building me a kamel ngoni (a ‘hunters harp’ with ten strings), i’m taking lessons right now before loading one onto the bicycle for the onward journey to play during the long breaks we will have when we get back on the road (cycling between 12 and 3 will be pretty impossible in the desert heat… and there’s only so many games of shithead one girl can play)
      Big love to you, Mandy and the whole family! X

  2. great sound, really nice twang to it.

  3. FUCK YEA. sounds fucking sweet man!


  4. Woow ! that is brilliant !

  5. woooo, great story Imran, and such a transformation of matter, as you say!

  6. That sounds amazing!
    I’d be very interested to hear it a la chat…

  7. This is fascinating. The Ngoni is one of my favorite instruments and hearing how it is made makes it even more spectacular…

    • Glad you have enjoyed reading, make sure you check out today’s blog on a small band from Burkina Faso, very cool beats straight from the heart of Bobo-Dioulasso!

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