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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Hi Joel,

FBC was no doubt a nice guy, but he didn't seem to me to have much respect for African-American musicianship.  The thing that makes no sense to me whatsoever is that a player who was in eAEab tuning would say that it was out of tune.  It is a fact that many West African plucked lute traditions involve a lot of retuning for different songs, as do early blues guitar players and 20th-c. banjo players.  No reason to think African-American banjo players didn't do it, but in any case they wouldn't describe it as being out of tune, unless there was a peculiar exchange going on.  If anything, a banjo tuned with a major 7th and major and minor 3rds (eAEG#b) is more likely to sound out of tune.

I mean, I can watch youtube videos of African folk music played recently in Africa by current musicians.  That does not give me an exact account of what a generation removed of enslaved African Americans--stripped of their culture, would have played mid 19th century. Or does it?

We don't know of course.  I think it certainly has to inform a musician who is serious about exploring what African-American banjo music might have been.  All I said above is that we shouldn't assume that it isn't similar, and a powerful argument can be found in how similar a lot of recorded 20th-c. African-American music sounds.  I have found that finding ways to play everything that I see influencing or being influenced by banjo music makes me perceive continuity in these traditions.  And I buy my own Gottschalk theory hook, line, and sinker, which puts a lot of banjo music from the 20th century as well as West African architecture smack dab in the middle of the 19th century.  I don't know, I guess I study anything I can get.  I said on another thread that I think it is important to acknowledge the gaps in what we know--things we just aren't going to know--and that filling those gaps is fundamentally a creative effort. 

I thought FBC made it pretty clear, it was an act.  The gag was "I am such a great banjo player that I am not bothered by it being out of tune! (twists a peg to "throw it out of tune"-- really just changing the intervals, but the audience does not know this).  Now listen as I can play with the banjo out of tune!"

That is "trick playing."  No different than when I play "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" while swinging the banjo in front of me for the finale of "Bell Chimes."  Or using scordatura to play "Bag Pipes Imitations." Or when Bacon played "Yankee Doodle" and "Blue Bells of Scotland" at the same time on one banjo.

That was show business (on a buskers scale).  One thing we have to constantly remember is that the banjo was used to make money and that even from the earliest times of the five string banjo it was played for entertainment. 

I'll bow down to others on the African Sound part.  The Habanera rhythm (16th/8th/16th ) is largely attributed to Cuba. I believe that the ragtime folks call that "untied syncopation."  But again, I'm speaking beyond my knowledge level.

I agree, FBC thought it was an act.  I'm saying that he may not have understood what he saw and reported it inaccurately.  Many of the first observers of African-Americans singing spirituals described their inability to sing on the beat.  If you don't think you have anything to learn from someone, you won't learn something from that person.  I surely don't know what he experienced, though.  Just speculation. 

If you don't think you have anything to learn from someone, you won't learn something from that person.

Very wise words to treasure and keep, Paul.  I've experienced that myself.

Wow, great comments--

The habanera rhythm was probably evolving in Argentina (tango) Cuba, Puerto Rico (danzon) and cakewalk (later) ragtime on the "mainland." Always an African/latin bloodline, but yes, African/Spanish musical cross pollination goes back to the renaissance (Canary Islands, etc)

That rhythm is also the main call of the lead drum in Ewe Gahu drumming (Ghana).

Traditional jazz aficionados call it the "hello my baby" rhythm, even though it's a lot older than that song.

It definitely makes a great starting point for a lively discussion, so many hints, little proof...

And Strumelia--"Pompey" is really intriguing, mainly for the attribution! The tune seems more like a European minuet or galliard, but if someone in the 1780s claimed it had African roots, deserves consideration. It can be played as a "Canarie," a 3/4 or 3/8 early baroque dance considered imported from the long colonized Canary Islands right off of West Africa. Once again, a gap...https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBgGs39Or2U

Jared, yes, the 'Latin' music from places like Cuba and Puerto Rico is most definitely a collision of Spanish and African music, a few other influences thrown in.  But the African side can be plainly heard/seen.

Pompey (sorry I misspelled it)-  I recall the first time I heard this tune, without knowing anything about it at all..just idly listening to a playlist and it popped up.  It struck me like a ton of bricks that it sounded sooooo strongly African, and I immediately loved it for that reason.  It really effected me when I heard it.

What is a 19th Century African song that has any ties to "Pompey"?

Better said, what are the elements that would draw a similarity.....got a sample?

Tim, (if you are asking me?) all I can say is that it's an aural impression I get.  When i listen to African traditional stuff on youtube, on plucked lute instruments, then the tune Pompey... evokes for me the same- the elements that draw the similarity in my head are the rhythm, the note sequences and their emphasis.  The notes more playfully tumble vertically like a seesaw, rather than following a logical destination pathway that evolves the same expected way of european tunes.  Lousy way to describe it, but that's the best I can do.  I'm sorry, I cannot find tunes that show 'ties' to pompey or prove anything.   I cannot provide samples or proof.  Like I described, it was only my immediate impression, my feelings upon hearing it.

Hi Tim and Strumelia--here's a guy who kind of tries to make Pompey "the missing link."

I guess the way that the material could be played over a 3/4 or 6/8 feel would be the strongest argument, if I had to look for one. 


Gets a pretty groovy maybe african feel going, Sure doesn't prove pedigree, but 

keeps the argument alive!

Hmm, ok like listen to the instrumental part (not the singing so much) of this:  http://youtu.be/Pc9Y_uu1KH8

To my ears, it has real similarities to a banjo tune like Pompey.  Listen to the variations towards the end as well. The playfulness of the notes and phrases repeating and tumbling up and down...not following the usual tune pattern of western or european music, not working its way to a musical 'conclusion' and not built around western chord changes.  I personally find less similarity between Pompey and the Charcoal Man for example, which sounds so very Irish and predictable to my ears.  It's all just my impressions, which prove nothing, but then I don't claim they do.  I'm no banjo scholar, like so many members here seem to be.

We aren't going to find a 19th-c (or 18th-c, since "Pompey" is that old) African tune that is going to make anyone say--whoa, that's "Pompey"!  Without sound recordings from the era, it just isn't possible.  Maybe something will come up a some point, but I'm not holding my breath.  Architecturally, however, "Pompey Ran Away" does not correspond to Western European dance music; its little repeating melody phrases that form the basis for the tune have no term in European music (ostinato is the best they can do), but West Africans have many terms for that, since they are fundamental in West African music.  Above, I mentioned the Mande word "kumbengo" and the Wolof word "fodet."  I'm sure one of our ekonting scholars could supply the Jola word.  The call-and-response form of "Pompey" is another basic African architecture.  So, five minutes on YouTube and I found this ekonting video.  Fast forward to about 6:00.  His voice supplies the "call" part of the call and response pattern.  3/4 time, essentially.  Anyway, for a quick-and-dirty internet search, I think this is a pretty good candidate for "elements that would draw a similarity."


By the way, I really like this version of Pompey, played by Joe Ayers and Mark Weems...


Maybe Pompey is an accompaniment to a higher melodic line.

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