The Banjo: America's African Instrument

Laurent Dubois

Laurent Dubois' biography of one of America’s iconic folk instruments spans continents and cultures. In this excerpt, we explore the banjo's humble origins.

The Banjo: America's African Instrument

Author: Laurent Dubois
Publication date: 2016-03
Excerpted from Chaper 1 of The Banjo: America's African Instrument by Laurent Dubois, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2016 Laurent Dubois. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Sounding Africa

West African kings understood that music is power. They made sure their official audiences were accompanied by song. They traveled with music, too: when the king of Mali returned from a journey, wrote the fourteenth-century scholar Al-’Umari, “a parasol and a standard are held over his head as he rides,” while ahead of him came musicians playing “drums, guitars, and trumpets, which are made out of the horns of the country with a consummate art.” The legendary chronicler Ibn Battuta described similarly how when the king of Mali arrived for an audience, “the singers come out in front of him with gold and silver stringed instruments in their hands and behind them about 300 armed slaves.” A 1655 account of the court of Askia Mohammed-Gâo, the seat of the Songhay empire, described him surrounded by “instrumentalists who played the guitar” along with other instruments, sitting “under the pasha’s tent, behind the dais.”

These writers used various Arabic terms to describe the instruments: Al-Umari used tanbūr or tunbūr, a Persian term for a long-necked instrument, while Ibn Battuta used a term rendered as kanābir in the 1922 French edition, quinburī in the more recent English one. And the “Kano Chronicle,” first published in 1804 on the basis of earlier materials, mentions a stringed instrument called the “Algaita” that was requested by a Kano ruler for his court in 1703. But these writers were using the terms for their own familiar stringed instruments, so we can’t assume that this was the name used by the musicians themselves or draw conclusions about the construction of the instruments beyond a general analogy.

There is a fascinating glimpse in a series of metal plaques from the thirteenth-century Kingdom of Benin. These renderings, the earliest visual depictions of West African instruments, include only one figure holding a stringed instrument: a small harp. A gold sculpture from the Akan people of Ghana, however -- dated sometime between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries -- shows a musician playing a stringed instrument with a curved neck and a rounded resonator that looks as if made from a calabash.

To understand what the music meant, and how it was intertwined with practices of storytelling, memory, and power, we need to turn to the lessons carried in the music itself. And that means looking to the griots, the “expert hereditary professional musicians” whose practice as makers of instruments and performers of music defined the cultural meaning and uses of stringed instruments in many societies in the region over the past centuries. The history of the griots is a story about the power of music and the attempts made over time to channel that power.

Griot traditions offer a version of their origin story in the legendary Sundiata Epic, which was passed down in Mali within family lineages for generations and legitimizes their social role by anchoring it deep in the region’s political history. One of the key characters in the story is griot Balla Fasséké, who plays a vital role in assuring the victory of the epic hero Sundiata Keita, an early king of the empire of Mali. The griots, as the epic explains, serve as “depositories of the knowledge of the past.” “Every king wants to have a singer to perpetuate his memory,” the epic explains: with their songs, they rescue “the memories of kings from oblivion, as men have short memories.” But the role of Fasséké, and by extension of griots in general, is not only to cultivate memory. In the epic, the power he has to recount history enables him to help make it. He helps to prepare Sundiata’s forces for battle by calling “to mind the history of old Mali” and spurring them on to their own feats of heroism: “I have told you what future generations will learn about your ancestors. What will we be able to relate to our sons so that your memory will stay alive?” With the final victory assured, Balla Fasséké composes “the great hymn ‘Niama’ which the griots still sing.” At the great celebration, “the musicians of all countries were there,” but it was Balla Fasséké who commanded them all. His prize for his loyalty was won not just for himself, but for his descendants: Sundiata Keita declared that the kings who would follow him would always “choose their griot from among your tribe.” The role would come with a particular privilege, that of being able to “make jokes about all the tribes, and in particular about the royal tribe of Keita.”

The Sundiata Epic can help us understand how and why so many West African societies have cultivated and maintained a system in which music is provided by special “castes,” groups-- like the griots -- whose role is passed on, and guarded, within particular families. That such work became hereditary is of course logical enough: musical skills, instrument building, and the corpus of song in memory could be preserved, protected, and passed on within families. But griots in West Africa also occupied a kind of curious double role. They were respected but also feared, included but also excluded. Within the social and political structures of West Africa, the creation of hereditary groups of musicians was probably a mechanism for containing and channeling the power of music. In some cases, one group that conquered another might absorb its former enemies’ musicians, establishing them as a group apart within society in order to capture the power of their music. But in many cases griots became itinerant, moving from place to place, groups to be appropriated or deployed by those in power.

What instruments did the griots play? In the Sundiata Epic, Fasséké plays the bala, or balafon, which creates “sounds of an infinite sweetness, notes clear and as pure as gold dust.” But at some point in this history many griot musicians adopted stringed instruments that, in time, would become part of their signature practice. The turn to stringed instruments could have been driven by practical considerations: they are lighter and easier to carry than the bala. The griot became not only the players of these instruments but also their makers. In the long term, the widespread adoption of harps and plucked lutes by griot musicians helped to assure their presence throughout West Africa. In particular, a group of instruments with an oblong wooden body covered with an animal skin resonator -- and known variously as the xalam, ngoni, or hoddu (among other names) -- were familiar in many different regions. Their use by griots also meant that these instruments were celebrated and understood as vital participants in the transmission of memory and history, as well as accompanying the songs of praise and humor griots offered to communities. These instruments functioned as powerful symbols, condensing history and lineage, their sound connecting the living to generations of their ancestors.

Taken together, Arabic sources, fragments of visual culture, and griot traditions offer a glimpse of the role played by stringed musical instruments in the culture of royal courts. What they don’t give us is a sense of the music played by the “subordinate classes” in these African societies. There were other types of traditions of vernacular instrument making and playing, some of which were described by European travelers who began to venture into West and Central Africa during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Such texts are often superficial, drawing vast conclusions based on punctual encounters, and sometimes infused with disdain and racism. But they are among the few written sources available and also very detail-oriented. These travelers often noticed aspects of daily cultural life, notably about the construction of musical instruments, which attracted their attention because they were unfamiliar. Through these observers, we can catch glimpses, and perhaps even a few bits of sound, from the musical worlds that some of the enslaved in the Americas would recall and draw on as they built and played the banjo.

In 1468, the Portuguese traveler Alvise Ca da Mosto visited Cayor, in what is today northern Senegal. He wrote that the people there had “no musical instrument of any kind, save two”; one was a large drum, the other “after the fashion of viol; but it has, however, two strings only, and is played with the fingers, so that it is a simple rough affair and of no account.” The “rough” two-stringed instrument was likely a lute made with an animal skin. Portuguese traveler Valentim Fernandes, who sailed along the coast of West Africa in the early 1500s, was struck by the music-making griots. He described them, interestingly, as “judeus,” -- “Jews.” He used this term not because he saw this group as part of the Jewish religion, but rather because --like Jews in Iberia -- they were seen as a group apart, segregated and despised. He translated the local term for this group, meanwhile, as “Gaul,” making for an odd pastiche of European ethnic terms projected onto a totally different social reality: “there are judeus and they are called Gaul and they are black like their countrymen; however they do not have synagogues and do not practice the ceremonies of other Jews.” They lived in “separate villages,” he went on, and “are often buffoons and play the viol and cavacos and are singers.” The cavaco was a stringed instrument familiar in Iberia.

In a 1602 account of the “Gold Kingdom of Guinea,” in West Africa, Pieter de Marees described a larger series of instruments, including “wooden Drums cut from a hollow Tree, over which a Cabriet’s skin is stretched,” and “small Lutes, made out of a block, with a neck, like a Harp with 6 strings made of rush, on which they play with both hands.” But the most detailed early European account of West African music comes to us from Richard Jobson, who traveled up the Gambia River in 1620 and 1621. “There is, without a doubt,” he wrote, “no people on earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people.” Important members of the community considered music “an ornament of their state, so that when we come to see them, their musicke will seldome be wanting.” When traders came to the river to meet him, they always had musicians accompanying them and playing. These musicians, Jobson wrote, had “a perfect resemblance to the Irish Rimer sitting in the same maner as they doe upon the ground, somewhat removed from the company,” singing songs that recalled the family history of the King, “exalting his ancestry, and recounting over all the worthy and famous acts by him or them hath been achieved.” They also often improvised songs to please their audience. Although the music was highly regarded, the musicians were not. When they died, their corpses were set “upright in a hollow tree” rather than buried, because they were considered to have a “familiar conversation” with “their divelle Ho-re.” To play well, it was believed, musicians needed to consort with evil beings. Some of Jobson’s group actually brought their own instruments on the journey. But, he noted, they avoided playing “upon any Lute or Instrument which some of us for our private exercise did carry with us,” because to do so would link them to the griots and therefore invite the scorn of their hosts.

The griots, Jobson wrote, had “little variety of instruments,” but the most common was “made of a great gourd, and a necke thereunto fastened, resembling, in some sort, our Bandora; but they have no manner of fret, and the strings they are either such as they place yeldes, or their invention can attane to make, being very unapt to yield a sweet and music sound, notwithstanding with pinnes they winde and bring to agree in tunable notes, having not above sixe strings upon their greatest instrument.” Jobson’s description is valuable for its details. Though he used a European term for a particular kind of lute with a circular resonator, the bandore, the instrument he described in detail here could have been either a lute or a harp. In either case, it had a gourd resonator and a system of pins, or pegs, used to tune the strings. Jobson suggests the presence of multiple stringed instruments, with the “greatest” having six strings. These instruments were often accompanied by another musician playing a “little drumme” which was held under the left arm of the player, and played with a “crooked stick” by the right hand and the “naked fingers” of the left, who also made a “rude noyse, resembling much the manner and countenance of those kinde of distressed people which among us are called Changelings.” For Jobson, the music had something supernatural about it.

Perhaps the first use of the term “griot” in a European text appeared in a 1685 text by a French merchant based in the port town Saint-Louis du Sénégal, Michel Jajolet de la Courbe. He described musicians encountered on his journeys to the regions to the interior. The “guiriots,” as he called them, were “marvelous singing praises to me and their master, and they accompany their voice with a small lute with three horsehair strings that is not unpleasant to hear.” De la Courbe had the pleasure of having the musicians praise him. The griots, he wrote, sang “martial” songs, “saying that you are of a great race, which they call grands gens in corrupt French, that you will overcome your enemies.” They also complimented the French visitors for being “generous,” before asking them for money in return for the song. During one journey, de la Courbe encountered a group of what he called Moors. Among them was a woman who played for him: “she held a kind of harp, which had a calabash covered with hide that had ten or twelve strings, which she played well enough; she began to sing an Arab song that was melodious but quite languishing, somewhat in the manner of the Spanish or Portuguese, accompanying herself with her harp with much care.” De la Courbe was right to link the Moorish harp playing to the music of the Spanish or Portuguese, though of course the direction of influence had, historically, gone the other way around. His observation that the Wolof griots had begun incorporating French into their singing is a telling detail: musicians must be ever aware of their potential audiences and sources of income. By the late seventeenth century, French visitors, merchants, and slave traders were an increasing part of the economic, and therefore cultural, landscape.

Laurent Dubois is Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University.

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