The Banjo: Resources
Beyond its beauty and power as an instrument, the banjo is invaluable for the insights that it gives us into the evolution of culture and music in the Western world.
After being created in West Africa, the instrument was eventually adapted and used as a survival tool by enslaved Africans to preserve elements of their spiritual practices, and provide music for a variety of functions. It is essential, as we prepare to address the whole history of the instrument, to always take time to reflect and respect the African people, and countless people of the African diaspora, who continue to develop and extend the profound traditions wrapped up in the legacy of the banjo.
As one who is working to perform and teach banjo music equitably, it is especially important to me to leave space for contemplation and celebration of the dignity, ingenuity and grace of the peoples and cultures that created this powerful instrument. Before delving into the stories and resources below, I request that you take time to do the same.
The video above shows the scholar Laemouahuma Jatta playing a Gambian instrument, the akonting, which is one of a variety of banjo-predecessors found in West Africa. Jatta's website is down at the time of this writing, and so I will refer you instead to an extensive conversation transcribed by the man who filmed this video, Chuck Levy. One essential point made therein is that this particular "father of the banjo" - and there are others - is a folk instrument:
"Well what is rewarding to me is, the banjo community now is, those who are really interested honestly to work with this thing, to me, the akonting has given them another opening to understand the Jolas for example, and to understand more about some of these instruments and the cultural context of these instruments. Because before I came to the picture, many people didn’t know that we have, what you call folk instruments and non-folk instruments in that region. They were saying that every instrument, every lute is a folk instrument. But this is not true [from] the African perspective. Because most of these instruments are not folk instruments. They have certain roles in our society, and I am not saying this to minimize their importance because all of them are important, but they have different roles. So I think what is rewarding with the akonting is people have now started to know that we have different instruments even though they are within the same environment." - Laemouahuma Jatta
Before delving into the banjo's evolution in America, it is important to recognize that multiple cultures (and their variety of instruments) and people from different parts of West Africa ultimately contributed to the early development of the instrument we now call the banjo. Some of those African instruments were meant to play special roles - "non-folk instruments" - in a given culture. One lesson that we should translate more consistently from this fact is that the same instrument can mean very different things to people depending on their cultural background.
When we forgot to acknowledge and respect those distinctions, we can do harm--no matter how well-intentioned we may be. To best mitigate the risk of harm, we have to stay humble and keep in mind the fact that our ignorance is greater in scope than our knowledge.
Before we even factor in the complexities imposed by enslavement (which traumatically threw together enslaved people from various cultures) and the different ways in which colonial terrorism imposed its will upon these combined cultures--
The appropriation by white musicians