A Quest to Return the Banjo to Its African Roots
Of all the melodic musical instruments in the world, perhaps none is more connected to the land it comes from than the banjo.
The “land” here refers to two things. It’s the indelible link to the continent of Africa, the geographic and cultural origin of that range of instruments which have evolved into the modern banjo. That fact of provenance alone puts any conversation about the history of the banjo inside the larger conversation about American history, and slavery in particular.
Being connected to the land also has a more immediate meaning, referring to the arable earth beneath our feet. Quite literally, every main component of a gourd banjo—one that’s built in the manner of its African precursors—arises from the land.
The Black Banjo Reclamation Project, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, aims to put banjos into the hands of everyday people. It does this in two connected ways: by producing most of the components and by teaching banjo-building skills in community workshops.
Then the BBRP addresses the bigger objective to retake possession of the narrative and tell the story of the banjo from the Black perspective. In this way, it can reconnect the African diaspora to their ancestral land and to their cultural legacy.
Hannah Mayree is the founder of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project and an Oakland, California-based singer-songwriter and banjo player. In an interview via Zoom she said, “We want to inspire everyone to reach back to who their ancestors were, and who we are now, and how we can honor that and bring integrity back into what we’re doing with music. The inspiration [for the BBRP] is the earth, really, because that’s where the instruments are coming from.”
A vision of banjos coming from the earth may take a number of twenty-first-century people by surprise.
The average American, if asked to conjure an image of a banjo, would likely picture the modern version of the instrument. It would be a factory-made object with a round wooden or metal body, with a synthetic, drum-like membrane stretched taut across the body, and four or five metal strings spanning a fretted neck.
In other words, people would tend to picture the good old bluegrass banjo, or the kind of instrument made popular by Pete Seeger and other singers and folklorists of the sixties. Either way, the context is almost always White, because for hundreds of years the story of the banjo has been told from an exclusively White point of view.
The familiar bluegrass-style banjo is indeed a twentieth-century American creation, a defining characteristic of the bluegrass and country music which evolved along with it. But the modern banjo, according to Mayree, is a demonstration of how far it has become separated from its roots. In fact, she calls it “part of the colonization of the instrument.”
Veteran banjo builder Pete Ross agrees. In his Baltimore workshop, Ross creates historical recreations of gourd banjos as well as wood-rimmed minstrel-era instruments. In an email conversation, he said, “What the BBRP is doing is actively reclaiming this co-opted, appropriated object and trying to re-root an extinguished tradition in the African American community.”
The story of the banjo goes back centuries, to West Africa, where folk lute instruments like the Senegambian akonting have long been in use. In recent decades, scholars and master musicians such as Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta have kept alive the traditions of these instruments, which ethnomusicologists worldwide are finally recognizing as living ancestors of the banjo.
Those African instruments never made the journey on slave ships bound for the Americas, but the technology for building them was carried in the heads of the passengers along with their memories of the music.
Enslaved Africans then fashioned variations on those instruments in the fields of the Mississippi Delta and elsewhere. Thus began the banjo’s trail of evolution in America.
In the mid-1800s, minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment, where White performers in blackface played banjos and sang and danced in a caricature of Black music and culture.
Owning a banjo (or an equally popular fiddle) soon became all the rage in households across the country. To meet demand, production became mechanized, and the banjo quickly lost all connection to the earth. Along the way, its connection to Black heritage was effectively erased.
By the early twentieth century, the mass-produced banjo had become a symbol of White supremacist culture—so much so that in later decades people sometimes had difficulty accepting the fact of its African origins.
“Correcting the history of the banjo and making it clear that this instrument, so central to American cultural history that so many White people have their personal identities wrapped up in, is in fact African American, forces a shift in understanding the country’s history as well as personal cultural identifications,” Ross claimed.
No one is suggesting that the banjo and its means of manufacture, along with the music played on it, ought to be immune to evolution and adaptation. All musical instruments are subject to change: today’s Fender Stratocaster, for example, bears little resemblance, visually or sonically, to a C.F. Martin parlor guitar of even a century ago.
The difference is one of cultural ownership and general acknowledgement, of giving credit where it’s due—especially when credit is long overdue to a historically oppressed people.
One way to give the story of the banjo a fresh start is to tell it to kids. Rachel Baiman weaves that kind of lesson into her children’s music camp in Chicago. A Nashville-based singer, songwriter, and banjoist, she also teaches about the origins of musical instruments and music.
“Music, like food and language, is a fluid culture, and folk music picks up all kinds of influences as it moves through time and different communities,” she said via email. “But White people do have a bad habit in this country of taking something from another culture, whitewashing it, and profiting off of it to the exclusion of that cultural community. It’s been a persistent trend throughout the popular music industry for decades.”
Along with their efforts to help African Americans reclaim the right to the narrative, the Black Banjo Reclamation Project also gives people the opportunity to return to the music itself, to explore their own spirituality and artistic voices, and to learn how to play through online lessons. That kind of music is best played on a gourd banjo—if you can find one.
Gourd banjos are not often heard in American music today, if only because they’re relatively hard to come by. Few banjo makers produce them on a commercial scale. As a result, regardless of the style, most banjo music today is played on factory-made fretted instruments—or, for the lucky few, on banjos crafted by high-end luthiers commanding thousands of dollars.
But even a basic, serviceable banjo costs several hundred dollars, a significant expense for many working musicians, putting the more expensive professional-grade instruments well beyond reach.
One solution for lowering the price of entry is to make a banjo of your own. Bay Area musician and BBRP co-founder Seemore Love did exactly that. He claims the banjo he built for himself at a BBRP workshop is the nicest one he’s ever owned. It’s a beautiful-looking instrument and is robust enough to compose, record, and gig with.
Love said his self-made instrument allowed him to tune into his ancestors. “I’m an African in America. I don’t play from a colonized approach. Playing a fretless gourd banjo has given me a deeper sense of connection to the instrument. The vibrations are warmer, it’s a little more rooted, and it sounds a lot earthier.”
The mellow, earthy tones should come as no surprise. Like most gourd banjos, Love’s has a wooden neck, wooden bridge, and wooden friction-style tuning pegs. The strings are nylon—the modern version of traditional “catgut” strings made from sheep or goat intestines. It’s topped off with goat skin stretched across the opening in the hollow gourd body.
In addition to offering opportunities for practicing musicians to create their own tools of the trade, the BBRP provides space for families or anyone in the local community to learn useful land-based skills. Gardening, tanning, and woodworking with hand and power tools are all skills applied in building a banjo.
“Everyone that’s part of this project is offering something that is furthering our healing as a community,” Mayree said. “And we definitely focus on the community that we serve in terms of Black folks.”
The folks in question aren’t just in the Bay Area anymore. The Black Banjo Reclamation Project is in the process of expanding their reach by working with partners in the Caribbean as well as Black farmers in Virginia and Alabama. One day, Mayree hopes to complete the loop and connect with Daniel Jatta and other major figures in West African music and ethnomusicology.
“This organization at its core is a land-based project,” she added. “All of us are farmers, and all of us are herbalists, and we work with plants and food sovereignty, increasing our ability to have self-determination through plants and through the earth and through natural things. So I think that’s a big part of the inspiration, as well as our ancestors, knowing that this has been happening for so many generations through from the Continent to Turtle Island to everywhere that we are.”
This journey of musical and cultural rediscovery begins by simply planting a seed in the ground. With proper care, that seed will grow into a gourd, which may be harvested in 180 days. After the gourd has been left for about a year to harden and cure, the banjo-building process can begin.
And if the day ever comes when you’ve grown tired of your gourd banjo, no problem: it’s almost entirely biodegradable.
You can hardly get more connected to the land than that.
Paul Ruta is a writer, stringed instrument junkie, and curator of @guitarsofcanada on Instagram. A recent pre-COVID pilgrimage to the Mississippi Delta inspired this story. He lives in Hong Kong.