Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Banjo Is NOT A Native American Musical Instrument

Written by Azizi Powell

First off, I wanna say that banjos are definitely not my favorite musical instrument. Nor do I think that "banjo music is the happiest music in the world" (as indicated in the "About" statement of the facebook group American Banjo Museum).

I used to detest banjo music because of its association in my mind with slavery and White 'blackfaced' minstrels. And I'm still vehemently dislike the negative racial stereotypes, "darky" references, and dialectic language found in many American banjo songs.

But I've learned to be more accepting of American banjo & fiddle music & actually like some old time songs - especially as they are performed by African American groups such as The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Sankofa Strings, and the Ebony Hillbillies. I very much support these groups' efforts to raise the awareness of African Americans and other people to this music, and I consider this blog post a part of that effort.

Perhaps because we African Americans are more self-confident about our racial identity, we can now go back & embrace this music that we had such a large part in creating. As the Ghanaian adinkra proverb Sankofa says "It is never too late to go back and claim what we have left behind."

Part of "going back and claiming it" is being alert to erroneous assertions that the banjo originated in the United States. It appears that some banjoists and some banjo groups may want to distant the banjo from its African roots. However, nowadays most musicologists and historians acknowledge that the prototype for the banjo came from one or more African musical instruments.

Banjos with fingerboards and turning pegs are known from the Caribbean as early as the 17th century. 18th and 19th century writers transcribed the names of these instruments variously as "bangie", "banzar", "banjer", and "banjar". Instruments similar to the banjo (e.g. the Japanese shamisen, the Persian tar, and Morroccan sintir have been played for many centuries. Another likely ancestor of the banjo is the akonting, a spike folk lute played by the Jola tribe of Senegambia, and the ubaw-akwala of the Igbos. Similar instruments include the xalam of Senegal and the ngoni of the Wassoulou region including parts of Mali, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast as well as a larger variation of the ngoni developed in Morrocco by sub-Saharan Africans known as the gimbri.

Banza and strum strum were just two of the many names for the earliest forms of the banjo, which first made its appearance in the Caribbean, most likely sometimes in the 1630s or ‘40s. From 1689 through the early 19th century, European observers documented other terms for these instruments such as Creole bania (Surinam), banjil (Barbados, Jamaica), bansaw (St. Kitts) and merry-wang (Jamaica). Two of the most common names were banzar in French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies, and banjar (also banjer, banjor, banja,banjah etc) in the English colonies.

The first documentation of the banjo in North America was in 1737

The banjo is a product of Africa. Africans transported to the Caribbean and Latin America were reported playing banjos in the 17th and 18th centuries, before any banjos were reported in the Americas.* Africans in the US were the predominant players of this instrument until the 1840s.

*I believe that "the Americas" here means "North America".

I've no problem whatsoever with musicians of any race or ethnicity playing the banjo. But I do believe in giving credit where credit is due. The banjo is NOT a "native American instrument" (as promotional literature for a US banjo club reads). The prototype for the banjo in the Caribbean, the United States, and other American nations, came from enslaved Africans' memories of that instrument. Yes, the banjo has changed since then. But the banjo's history in the Caribbean and the Americas is intricately tied to the history of Black folks.

Now run & tell that!

Here are videos of an African akonting player from Senegal, West Africa, an ngoni musical group from Mali, West Africa, and an African American banjo & fiddle group:

Advanced Akonting playing by Ekona Jatta

Uploaded by UlfJagfors on Oct 1, 2006

This video features one of the best Akonting player, Ekona Jatta from Mlomp, Casamance region, Southern Senegal.In slowed down and up the speed tempo he demonstrates advanced Akonting playing

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba at the Jools Holland 2007

reebeeking | March 10, 2008 | 3:23
live Mali Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba Africa

Carolina Chocolate Drops "Cornbread and Butterbeans"

knoxnews | May 12, 2008
Carolina Chocolate Drops performing "Cornbread and Butterbeans" at WDVX's Blue Plate Special.

Click for a related page from my Cocojams website.

Also, click for another related Cocojams page is a well researched online page for information about the early use of the banjo in the Caribbean and the United States.

In addition, click to read an article from NPR on the African origins of the banjo. That article focuses on the akonting. Hat tip to Mudcat Discussion Forum member Desert Dancer for her post on that article.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome!

1 comment:

  1. Here's the response from the Pittsburgh Banjo Club to my comment on their facebook wall about their group description which included the statement that the banjo is a Native American instument:

    "There's no doubt that it was the enslaved Africans that brought the banjo design to America. It was from those original designs (made from gourds - love it!) that America eventually developed the various forms of banjo that so many of us know and love today. It's the only instrument that has such a history and development here and the reason we call it native to America."