Enslaved Africans play the banjo on a plantation.
John Michael Vlach/Wikimedia Commons
q&a / culture

Chronicling “America’s African Instrument”

Laurent Dubois discusses the banjo's history and its symbolism of community, slavery, resistance, and ultimately America itself.
In The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Harvard Univ. Press, 2016), Laurent Dubois weaves a narrative of how this instrument was created by enslaved Africans in the midst of bondage in the Caribbean and Americas. He documents its journey from 17th- and 18th-century plantations to 19th-century minstrel shows to the bluegrass of Appalachia to the folk revival of the mid-20th century. In the process, Dubois documents how the banjo came to symbolize community, slavery, resistance, and ultimately America itself. A historian of the Caribbean and a banjo player himself, Dubois relied on the work of academic historians as well as insights from musicians, collectors, and banjo makers to tell this story.

Why do you call the banjo the “first African instrument”? By “African,” I’m talking about a construct of the African continent that emerges in the 18th century and into the 19th century as a way to connect people from diverse African groups enslaved on the plantations of the Americas. The use of a drumhead over the resonator was a feature of lots of different stringed instruments throughout Africa; I argue that this is the key part of the instrument that literally and figuratively resonated with people.

You talk about how the banjo is uniquely positioned to bring together disparate groups of people. What are some of the qualities that enable it to do this, and what is one historical example of it doing so?

The banjo was made to cross boundaries, and having been created within a blending of cultures, it ultimately took its place in lots of different spaces in the Americas. The drumhead itself creates a sonic experience that attracts a lot of people: it’s not just something you hear; it’s something you feel. Another point people make about the banjo is its ability to condense rhythm and melody, which gives it flexibility.

Additionally, the banjo has been a symbol as much as a physical instrument from its beginnings. Within the American plantation context, it carried spiritual and cultural symbolism rooted in African religious traditions. By the 19th century, the banjo becomes emblematic of the institution of slavery itself, and by the late 19th century when it seems firmly anchored in Appalachia, it gets presented quite clearly as an instrument that is of the folk of America more broadly.
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