Appalachian

CHRONICLING “AMERICA’S AFRICAN INSTRUMENT”: LAURENT DUBOIS ON THE CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE BANJO

Banjo

In The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016), Laurent Dubois weaves a narrative of how this instrument was created by enslaved Africans in the midst of bondage in the Caribbean and Americas. He documents its journey from 17th- and 18th-century plantations to 19th-century minstrel shows to the bluegrass of Appalachia to the folk revival of the mid-20th century. In the process, Dubois documents how the banjo came to symbolize community, slavery, resistance, and ultimately America itself. A historian of the Caribbean and a banjo player himself, Dubois relied on the work of academic historians as well as insights from musicians, collectors, and banjo makers to tell this story.

Why do you call the banjo the “first African instrument”? By “African,” I’m talking about a construct of the African continent that emerges in the 18th century and into the 19th century as a way to connect people from diverse African groups enslaved on the plantations of the Americas. The use of a drumhead over the resonator was a feature of lots of different stringed instruments throughout Africa; I argue that this is the key part of the instrument that literally and figuratively resonated with people.

You talk about how the banjo is uniquely positioned to bring together disparate groups of people. What are some of the qualities that enable it to do this, and what is one historical example of it doing so? The banjo was made to cross boundaries, and having been created within a blending of cultures, it ultimately took its place in lots of different spaces in the Americas. The drumhead itself creates a sonic experience that attracts a lot of people: it’s not just something you hear; it’s something you feel. Another point people make about the banjo is its ability to condense rhythm and melody, which gives it flexibility.

Additionally, the banjo has been a symbol as much as a physical instrument from its beginnings. Within the American plantation context, it carried spiritual and cultural symbolism rooted in African religious traditions. By the 19th century, the banjo becomes emblematic of the institution of slavery itself, and by the late 19th century when it seems firmly anchored in Appalachia, it gets presented quite clearly as an instrument that is of the folk of America more broadly. To the present day, the banjo connects different musical traditions, but some of that history has been forgotten, and there have been attempts to either forget about the instrument’s African roots or break that identification with black culture.

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AFRICA, APPALACHIA, AND ACCULTURATION: THE HISTORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC

AFRICA, APPALACHIA, AND ACCULTURATION: THE HISTORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC
by
Charles W. Perryman

D.M.A Research Project submitted to the College of Creative Arts at West Virginia University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Musical Arts
in
Composition

On the surface, bluegrass music is a style of country music heavily influenced by Appalachian folk music. As with almost all Appalachian folk music, the typical ensemble is a four- to seven-piece band made up of non-electrified string instruments. Many bluegrass songs are taken directly from the Appalachian folk repertoire and those that are original compositions show many of the melodic and rhythmic trademarks of the tradition. Bluegrass musicians, perhaps more so than in any other style of country music, are in constant contact with the communities of Appalachia and most of the musicians are from the region and frequently play there. These musicians and their audience are almost exclusively white, and it is undeniable that bluegrass music owes a great deal to the musical traditions of white Appalachians. It is equally irrefutable that bluegrass music shares a great deal in common with black musical styles such as jazz and the blues. Group improvisation, alternating solos, and swing are just some of the musical features that jazz, the blues, and bluegrass share. The banjo, an instrument which is inextricably linked to the bluegrass sound, is African in origin. Bluegrass singing was influenced by the blues, black field hollers, and African-American Psalm singing. The African, particularly West African, influence on bluegrass is perhaps more surprising, but is just as essential as the European influence. This study explores these two distinct strains of influence throughout the history (and pre-history) of bluegrass music. An examination of the musical characteristics of the style, the history of the music, the instruments, the playing and singing style, will reveal that the style has 2 roots in both West African and European cultures. These various elements will be traced from their origins in their respective cultures through the development of Appalachian folk music in the late nineteenth century to the emergence of bluegrass in the 1940s. It is my intention to explore how Bluegrass developed out of a synthesis of musical traditions that have their roots in European and West African cultures.

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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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The Extimction of the Black Banjo in the United States -- 1900 - 1930

Appalachian Music Fellowship

Final Activity Report

Jim Carrier


My Appalachian Music Fellowship study in June 2009 was in furtherance of developing
a film documentary dealing with the extinction of the Black Banjo that occurred in the
United States during the period 1900-1930.

Background

For three hundred years -- from the arrival of African slaves in Virginia to the dawn of
the 20th Century – the banjo was universally thought of as an African American
instrument. It was common and accepted knowledge, for three centuries, that the banjo
was invented by, played by, and associated with blacks, either directly or through blackfaced
minstrelsy. But over the course of the next half century, the black banjo tradition
virtually disappeared in the U.S. My Music Fellowship supported research was directed
at investigating why this happened.

Work in the Berea Archives

My findings, after a month in the archives, were informed as much by what I didn’t find
as what I did. For reasons that I will explain shortly, the record is largely mute; there is
no smoking gun. But, as in all good archives, clues were found in anecdotes, footnotes
and glimpses of the wider historical tableau on which this story played. By casting a
wider net through Berea College’s library, faculty, various online resources, and sources
and interviews suggested by the archive staff, I was able to sketch a conclusion. It is this:
Black banjo playing, and our knowledge of black banjo history, all but disappeared
because of a sequence of cultural and racial “filters.” Beginning with the arrival of slaves
on American shores and accelerating with the rise of mass media, these filters gradually
silenced the sound and memory of the black banjo. The final extinction, I discovered at
Berea, occurred in just 30 years, from 1900 to 1930. By the 1940s, Americans assumed
that the banjo originated with white Appalachians.

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