The Hyers Sisters

With Joseph Bradford and Pauline Hopkins, the Hyers Sisters produced the “first full-fledged musical plays… in which African Americans themselves comment on the plight of the slaves and the relief of Emancipation without the disguises of minstrel comedy”, the first of which was Out of Bondage (also known as Out of the Wilderness).

The Hyers Sisters were singers, Anna Madah born in 1855 and Emma Louise born in 1857. Their father, Samuel B. Hyers, came west to Sacramento with their mother, Annie E. Hyers (née Cryer), after the Gold Rush. He made sure his daughters received both piano forte lessons and vocal training with German professor Hugo Sank and later opera singer Josephine D’Ormy and they performed for private parties before making their professional stage debut at on April 22, 1867 at Sacramento’s Metropolitan Theater. Anna was a soprano and Emma a contralto. Under their father’s management, they embarked on their first transcontinental tour in 1871. On August 12, 1871, they performed in Salt Lake City to much acclaim.

They were later called “a rare musical treat” by St. Joseph Missouri’s Daily Herald and earned equal praise in Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City. Their tour reached Worcester and Springfield, Massachusetts, as well as New Haven, Providence. They visited Boston, which was known to be extremely critical of new acts, and were also well-received, performing in the 1872 World Peace Jubilee which was one of, if not, the first integrated major musical production in the country.

The Hyers’ family organized a theater company, where they produced musical dramas starring Anna and Emma, including “Out of Bondage,” written by Joseph Bradford and premiered in 1876, “Urlina, the African Princess” by Getchell written by E. S. Getchell and premiered in 1879, “The Underground Railway,” by Pauline Hopkins in July 1880, and Hopkin’s stage version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in March 1880. In addition, there was “Colored Aristocracy” by Hopkins. Overall, they had at least six shows between the late 1870s and 1880s. They set the path for black musical theater and performance in the years that followed. They traveled until the mid-1880s with their own shows and continued to appear on stage into the 1890s. Though Emma Louise had died, in 1901, Anna Madah continued to travel with a show of John Isham.

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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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