The Banjo’s African Roots


The Banjo originated in Africa and African slaves brought it to America in the 17th century.

It is the only Western stringed instrument with a vellum belly. African stringed instruments commonly include the musical bow, lute, lyre, harp, and zither. Professional musicians among the people of Gambia play the kora, a 21-string harp-lute. The xalam, a plucked lute, is a close relative of the African-American banjo. It is used in Senegal by Wolof praise singers, whose songs revere important people.

From various historical references, however, it can be deduced that the banjar, or bangie, or banjer, or banza, or banjo was played in early 17th century America by Africans in slavery who constructed their instruments from gourds, wood, and tanned skins, using hemp or gut for strings. The banjo was similar to instruments made by the Moors north of the Sahara. It is a stringed instrument of the lute family, with an open-backed round body consisting of a circular wood hoop over which is stretched a vellum belly, a long, narrow, fretted neck, and metal or metal-wound gut strings.

The strings run from a tail piece, over a bridge held in place by their pressure, up the neck to rear tuning pegs. Five strings are typical: four full-length strings and a shorter fifth “thumb” string running to a tuning screw halfway up the neck. Often a five-string banjo body is suspended in a metal or wood resonator. Early banjos had fretless necks, a varying number of strings, and, sometimes, gourd bodies. Thomas Jefferson, in his 1785 notes on the State of Virginia, aptly remarked that the slave instrument of choice, “is the Bonjar which they brought hither from Africa.”

Adopted by white musicians in 19th-century minstrel-show troupes, the banjo gained frets and metal strings. The five-string banjo, plucked with the fingers, is common in folk music and commercial bluegrass bands. The plectrum-plucked four-string banjo was popular about 1900 in vaudeville bands. What brought the instrument to the attention of the nation, however, was a grotesque representation of Black culture by white performers in minstrel shows.

Reference:
The Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage
by Susan Altman

Below is an article by the group Carolina Chocolate Drop. Formed in 2005, the group members wanted to keep a Black tradition alive by learning the Banjo. Now, they have created a formidable music group that performs nationally. The banjo was viewed as a slave instrument and technically it was but it roots goes back to Africa and it needs to be reclaimed here among African Americans. Slavery made African Americans ashamed of traditions that others now celebrate in the open and with joy. It’s our time to celebrate our ancestry and enjoy its wealth.

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