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The Banjo: African Echoes

To the average American, maybe not a musician, maybe just a regular person like you or like me the musical instrument called the banjo brings up certain images to mind.

It might be seen as a primarily “white” instrument or snickers and uncomfortable grins flash as someone intones that musical phrase from the movie Deliverance. Hicks, hillbillies, bluegrass and country music perhaps.

banjo-player

The History of the Banjo

However, the banjo is actually a descendant of African musical instruments, and was created in the American and Caribbean colonies by African slaves and occupied a central place in African American traditional music. It made its way into white music when slaves interacted with white sharecroppers and their music melded.

English Zither-Banjo, c. 1895

“…and their music melded”. That is a very polite phrase. Institutionalized slavery in America “melded” Africans and colonial whites in particularly violent ways. That phrase is also polite. When you have a literal master/slave relationship you must be aware of the dynamics present in any “cultural exchange”. Africans brought their knowledge of their own musical instruments to America and the Caribbean and modified them and created unique versions of them with the different materials at hand. Which were then co-opted by their white masters. Politely speaking.

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Bringing The Banjo From 'Africa To Appalachia'

While typically associated with traditional bluegrass, country and even jazz, the banjo has roots that stretch all the way back to West Africa. Musician Jayme Stone made that journey in search of the ancestors of his own banjo. Along the way, he met kora player Mansa Sissoko. The two have collaborated on a new album called Africa to Appalachia, and recently spoke about their musical partnership from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Originally, the banjo traveled across the ocean on slave ships coming from West Africa in the 1600s and 1700s. The instrument was "later passed off to curious 'white folk' like me," Stone says. "Although a few people play some of the crossover styles that happened early on in the new world, [it] didn't seem like there was much knowledge of the music that it came from."

The Banjo's Evolution

Naturally, at that time, the instrument was not the modern-day banjo that most people recognize. Instead, it was more of an early incarnation that evolved over time.

"It's hard to say exactly what it was," Stone says. "More than anything, it was the blueprint of the banjo that traveled over in musicians' minds, and then they built a similar thing with what they had here: dried-out gourds, goat skin, whatever they could find. The instrument changed, and with the advent of metal, it became an African instrument that went through the Industrial Revolution."

The banjo in its current form has frets and employs a short droning string — what banjo players call the fifth string. But in Africa, these early predecessors sometimes used only one string and as many as 21. They have all kinds of names, depending on the region and dialect the people are speaking. Most common are the ngoni, which can have anywhere from three to nine strings; the two-stringed konou; and the one-stringed juru keleni, all found in various parts of Mali. Stone says that Senegal has instruments that are even closer in relation to the modern banjo — especially the akonting.

Sissoko specializes in the kora, a 21-string West African harp made from a calabash — a dried-out gourd also used to play percussion, as well as carry fruits and vegetables from the markets. Stemming out from the calabash, the kora has a long pole with leather straps tied to it that hold the 21 strings, which are made from fishing line. Despite the evolution of the instrument's physical aspects, when played side by side, the banjo and the kora have a very similar sonic quality.

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Blind Blake

Arthur "Blind" Blake (1896 – December 1, 1934) was an American blues and ragtime singer and guitarist. He is known for numerous recordings he made for Paramount Records between 1926 and 1932. Little else is known about his life.

Biography

Little is known of Blake's life. Promotional materials from Paramount Records indicate he was born blind and give his birthplace as Jacksonville, Florida, and it seems that he lived there during various periods. He seems to have had relatives in Patterson, Georgia. Some authors have written that in one recording he slipped into a Geechee or Gullah dialect, suggesting a connection with the Sea Islands. Blind Willie McTell indicated that Blake's real name was Arthur Phelps, but later research has shown this is unlikely to be correct. In 2011 a group of researchers led by Alex van der Tuuk published various documents regarding Blake's life and death in the journal Blues & Rhythm. One of these documents is his 1934 death certificate, which states he was born in 1896 in Newport News, Virginia, to Winter and Alice Blake (his mother's name is followed by a question mark). Nothing else is known of Blake until the 1920s, when he emerged as a recording musician.

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Charley Patton

Charley Patton (died April 28, 1934), also known as Charlie Patton, was an American Delta blues musician. He is considered by many to be the "Father of the Delta Blues" and is credited with creating an enduring body of American music and personally inspiring just about every Delta bluesman (Palmer, 1995). The musicologist Robert Palmer considered him one of the most important American musicians of the twentieth century.

Patton (who was illiterate) spelled his name "Charlie", but many sources, including record labels and his gravestone, spell it "Charley".

Biography

Patton was born in Hinds County, Mississippi, near the town of Edwards, and lived most of his life in Sunflower County, in the Mississippi Delta. Most sources say he was born in April 1891, but the years 1881, 1885 and 1887 have also been suggested.

Patton's parentage and race also are uncertain. His parents were Bill and Annie Patton, but locally he was regarded as having been fathered by former slave Henderson Chatmon, several of whose children became popular Delta musicians, as solo performers and as members of groups such as the Mississippi Sheiks. Biographer John Fahey described Patton as having "light skin and Caucasian features." Patton was considered African-American, but because of his light complexion there has been speculation that he was Mexican or Cherokee (a theory endorsed by Howlin' Wolf). It is now generally agreed that Patton was of mixed heritage, with white, black, and Cherokee ancestors (one of his grandmothers was Cherokee). In "Down the Dirt Road Blues", Patton sang of having gone to "the Nation" and "the Territo'", referring to the Cherokee Nation's portion of the Indian Territory (which became part of the state of Oklahoma in 1907), where a number of Black Indians tried unsuccessfully to claim a place on the tribal rolls and thereby obtain land.

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Gus Cannon

Gus Cannon (September 12, 1883 – October 15, 1979) was an American blues musician who helped to popularize jug bands (such as his own Cannon's Jug Stompers) in the 1920s and 1930s. There is uncertainty about his birth year; his tombstone gives the date as 1874.

Career

Born on a plantation in Red Banks, Mississippi, Cannon moved a hundred miles to Clarksdale, then the home of W. C. Handy, at the age of 12. His musical skills came without training; he taught himself to play a banjo that he made from a frying pan and a raccoon skin. He ran away from home at the age of fifteen and began his career entertaining at sawmills and levee and railroad camps in the Mississippi Delta around the turn of the century.

While in Clarksdale, Cannon was influenced by local musicians Jim Turner and Alec Lee. Turner's fiddle playing in W. C. Handy's band so impressed Cannon that he decided to learn to play the fiddle himself. Lee, a guitarist, taught Cannon his first folk blues, "Po' Boy, Long Ways from Home", and showed him how to use a knife blade as a slide, a technique that Cannon adapted to his banjo playing.

Cannon left Clarksdale around 1907 and soon settled near Memphis, Tennessee, where he played in a jug band led by Jim Guffin. He began playing in Memphis with Jim Jackson. He met the harmonica player Noah Lewis, who introduced him to a young guitar player, Ashley Thompson. Lewis and Thompson later were members of Cannon's Jug Stompers. The three of them formed a band to play at parties and dances. In 1914 Cannon began touring in medicine shows. He supported his family through various jobs, including sharecropping, ditch digging, and yard work, but supplemented his income with music.

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