Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Repertoire advice? Early banjo pieces that show African influence?

Hi everyone--really enjoying everyone's videos and high level discourse, a relative rarity online these days, it seems!

Anyway, sorry if this has been beaten about somewhere before, but I'm putting together a little lecture/recital on traditional bloodlines of early banjo music, exploring African/ Celtic and European contributions to early repertoire and playing styles.

I wanted to ask if anyone could suggest some pieces that best represent the West African roots of the banjo, that would be good examples to include in this concert.

I was thinking of adapting some Ekonting riffs off of videos, but that seems kind of like extreme reverse engineering, since that music has obviously developed over the last 200 years, and mostly seems to consist of repeated ostinato figures under ornately sung melodies.

I think the argument can be made for "Injun Rubber Overcoat," with its bluesy flat 5th and call and response form, but would appreciate any other ideas or input. 


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Whew, it's a pretty involved and marginal trail from West African tunes and rhythms to Minstrel banjo tunes and rhythms. In any other topic of historical research this would be a red flag, a call to step back and let the evidence guide the conclusions, not to let expectations guide conclusions.  One should at least ask first of all why it's so important to make the connection more significant than quantity of evidence indicates.  It appears there's a bit of a connection, and what's wrong with that?  Is it a disappointment if the connection is minor?  Not insignificant, just minor.

Three tunes out of a hundred Minstrel tunes that show West African influence is ok, isn't it?

You call things 'involved' or 'marginal' that I might call 'obvious' or 'significant'.  I bring up a simple and (I thought) sensible point about a tune's source possibilities and you respond with "Whew"... like it's a preposterous and convoluted concept requiring some misguided twisting of reality.  I get the feeling it wouldn't matter what it was i said...it would be considered implausibly bizarre or stretching reality somehow.  Over such a vast ocean of fundamentally opposed perception, I'm finding it almost impossible to communicate.  

Dan'l, when you say things like: "One should at least ask first of all why it's so important to make the connection more significant than quantity of evidence indicates",  I might instead ask why you find it so 'important' to continually and relentlessly make the African connection to the early banjo and minstrel music less significant.  I wonder why I even bother posting at all sometimes.  Maybe I should leave the discussions to the Learned Banjo Scholars who know everything (or if not, they at least begin their sentences with "We know that...").  If you (or others) think so, just tell me, either privately or plainly.  Really, i won't be offended- I have a tough skin. 

Strum - The West African tune connection is neither "less" or "more" significant. It just is what it is. That's ok, isn't it? If three tunes out of a hundred indicate a West African influence, it's just ok.
I'm not understanding what about that might upset someone. In living history settings I always credit African Americans as the originators of the banjo, knowing full well that the easier shorthand is "the Banjo came from Africa." Like anybody, I got social currency from saying that, a good surprise reaction, especially from Country Western fans. But no, the first banjo in Africa was imported there. I won't repeat the shorthand just to gain a little social currency.
And, by the way, saying that something is marginal is not a value judgement, and certainly not a slam. There were more old world tune influences besides West Africa, that's all. Nothing to be disappointed or offended about.
- Dan'l

See it whatever way you like Dan'l, and deposit it in your social currency bank along with my best wishes.

Let's not forget the larger contribution that traces all the way back to Africa: stroke-style.

I think that is a salient point, that the stroke still survives, as rare as we are, and it is the real link.

The rhythmic complexity of West African music is still light years beyond the comprehension of most European papertrained musicians (and listeners), whereas the opposite could be argued where melodic/ harmonic complexity is concerned. 

I don't think it's condescending to suggest that the earliest banjo and it's ancestors were used as highly sophisticated, multi pitched rhythm instruments, and when white players started using them, the focus on chords and melodies and the almost immediate adaptation of everything from Irish jigs to Gilbert and Sullivan hits really swamped what came before.  

Stroke-style, polyrhythm, skin-headed lutes with fretless fingerboards and short thumb strings, and whole lot of what we think of as the "American" in American music was brought to this hemisphere by West Africans and developed in the African-American community.  Since there apparently has been some score-keeping on specific pieces of African-American influence in minstrel repertoire, I suppose we should also keep in mind that there are other pieces, such as Boatman's Dance, Clare De Kitchen, Old Jaw Bone, Possum up the Gum Tree that are credited to African-Americans (Hans Nathan, p.186--Jared, have you gotten ahold of a copy of Dan Emmett and the RIse of Early Negro Minstrelsy?), in addition to the seven pieces specifically mentioned in this thread.  There are others that demonstrate this or that particular influence, but still, there is no doubt that the predominant influence in minstrelsy is dance music, folk songs, and popular theater from the British Isles.

However, it is inaccurate to say that these European influences swamped what came before.  They only swamped what came before...in minstrelsy.  This is a pattern that would repeat itself numerous times in American music history, though it starts with the minstrels.  An African-American tradition is picked up by white musicians and becomes very successful ($$$), then European influences gradually predominate, paving the way for another wave of influence out of the African-American community.  Next is ragtime, then blues, then jazz, then amplified blues, then rock 'n' roll, then hip-hop.  It is ignorance to assume that these movements came out of nowhere; it is obvious that the African-American community was rich in musical tradition from the moment they arrived here.  Even rapping (called sataro in the Mande language) has been used to recite epics in West Africa for at least 700 years.  Any time anyone actually pays attention (I think Gottschalk was of the first), there is African-American music, in full flower.  The evidence I was asked for a page or so ago shows that musical traditions and ideas that survive in West Africa today turn up at every step in the development of American music.  If some are missing in minstrelsy, it is not because they weren't going full-steam throughout the 19th century in the African-American community, it is because minstrels were oblivious to them.  Clearly this is a tradition that some individuals work hard to perpetuate, even today.

By fretless fingerboars I assume you mean rounded ones, not the flat ones that developed in the Caribbean, not in West Africa. 

Agreed, I only meant in the extant repertoire associated with the instrument, sadly disconnecting it for so many generations from its cultural origins.

The Gottschalk truly seems to be a Rosetta Stone in this regard, and I think your work/research here is a fine balance of hard evidence and good artistic intuition. 

@John.  Yeah, with just a couple of strings you put your fingers on, there isn't all that much difference between the traditional West African round stick (I think they use a papyrus stalk in the ekonting) and a flat piece of wood.  You use what you can find, and my understanding is that the current theory is that the first actual banjos in the Caribbean used staves from barrels. 

@Jared.  Thanks for the kind words.

It's my understanding that banjos acquired flat fingerboards from Spanish instruments like the vihuela/ early guitar. I don't imagine is was quite as haphazard as you suggest.

@John.  That could be, since it also acquired tuning pegs at some point in the process.  Why you would think it was less or more haphazard than I suggest definitely requires imagination though, since there is virtually no evidence on this point.  If, as is likely, this was done by slaves, it is reasonable to assume that they didn't have much choice in materials.  This is a great example for where we have to fill in gaps, since the actual circumstances will never be known.  Who made the first hoop body?  My feeling is that, since ekontings and ngonis have now been made with mechanical tuners, pickups, and wood tops (not to mention cans) and they are still considered to be ekontings and ngonis by the people who made and play them, I find these alterations that turn a West African plucked lute into a banjo not to fundamentally change the nature of the instrument.  I think that this part of the discussion allows for great latitude in opinion, since there is so little known about the pre-minstrel part of the banjo's history.

Well, what I mean by less-haphazard is there were plenty of plants with round stalks available in the Caribbean, so I doubt it was lack of materials that drove slaves to make flat fingerboards.

It was me.  If you have two playing strings that you finger with your left hand, there is no difference really between a flat (I prefer radiased, myself) and a round surface.  It's geometry.  The flatter fingerboard is not significant until you get to three playing strings, which is acknowledged to have happened in the Caribbean. 

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