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PHOTO ESSAY

The Banjo and African American Musical Culture

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Patron Correa

Patron Correa, a Manyago bunchundo master. Amon, Guinea-Bissau, 2003. (Photo by and courtesy of Ulf Jägfors.)

Africans in the New World drew upon West African instruments and European instruments to create the banjo.(1) Instruments played in Mali, Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, including the Jola ekonting and the Manyago bunchundo, share features of the earliest banjos. The ekonting and the bunchundo each have a gourd body covered by a skin that supports a two-footed wood bridge held by string tension. The highest string is a short string played by the thumb, and the necks of these instruments go all the way through their gourd bodies. Like early banjos, most of these instruments were folk instruments for social dancing, and their playing techniques resemble the down-picking banjo technique that early European American players say they learned from traditional black banjo players. (The technique has the player strike downward with the nail of just one finger, either the index or middle finger, and "thumb" the short string by landing the thumb on the short string and then releasing the thumb.) Players of these instruments or their ancestors were among the millions of enslaved West Africans. Slavers forced African musicians to play on their ships' decks for the "dancing" that was imposed on the enslaved for "exercise."

(1) This work on the evolution of the banjo is completely indebted to the research of Shlomo Pestcoe and Greg Adams, as expressed in their 2010 Banjo Roots Manifesto. The work of Pestcoe and Adams, awaiting publication in its definitive form, has placed our understanding of the banjo's origins and its place in the cultural interaction between Africa, the Caribbean, and North America on a new plane.

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