(Release date March 1st, 2016)

Laurent Dubois, The Banjo: America’s African Instrument


This website is a work-in-progress by Laurent Dubois, David Garner, and Mary Caton Lingold. Our goal is to showcase our research on the history of the banjo in the Afro-Atlantic world, including historical documents, visual materials, material objects, and musical transcription and analysis. We focus particularly on Haiti and Louisiana, but also provide information from other areas along with the transcriptions of a wide range of banjo music. We are also the creators of Musical Passage: A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica, a digital project that explores rare musical notation documenting African performances in the Americas. You can find a full history of the banjo, including fuller analysis and contextualization of the materials on this site, in Laurent Dubois, The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Harvard University Press, 2015).

Writing the history of the banjo, especially of its early formation as an instrument, poses important challenges. We have to return to the period of the 17th through the early 19th century, and to work from fragments to reconstruct what we can about the construction, sound, and social and cultural meaning of the instrument.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of excellent research on the early history of the banjo. For a detailed investigation of some of the West African instruments that inspired the construction of the New World banjo, and an interpretations of the early history of the banjo, you can visit Shlomo Pescoe’s three excellent Facebook pages: Banjo Roots, Banjo Roots: West Africa, and Banjo Roots: World Banjo.

Greg Adams has produced the very valuable Banjo Sightings Database, which brings together most of the known visual and textual materials about the early banjo in North America and the Caribbean. And Tony Thomas, the creator of the lively “Black Banjo Then and Now” discussion forum has written an essay outlining his ideas about what needs to be done in the area of research on the Early Banjo in this essay “Specifying the Early Gourd Banjo,” which he has asked me to specify “was written on the road between West Palm Beach, Florida, Buttleborn Germany,  Frankfurt Airport, Delhi and Pushkar, India, without the benefit of my library for adequate reference and sourcing, and without the benefit of the superb editing by others that often graces my more finished works.”

For an exploration of some of the broader methodological and theoretical questions behind this particular site, you can read this paper by Laurent Dubois titled “Afro-Atlantic Music as Archive.” It explores how thinkers including W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Gilroy have thought about the history of music. The second half of the paper uses the example of the banjo to suggest ways in which a combination of textual, material, and visual analysis can allow us to piece together fragments into a larger history of music.

The website was originally created as the basis for events taking place at Tulane University on April 21-22, 2013 around the theme of “The Banjo and the African Diaspora.” These included  a Brunch concert/discussion at the EMP Conference on Sunday, April 21st, from 10-1 p.m. featuring music by New Orleans banjoists Carl LeBlanc and Don Vappie, and the Senegalese group Njum Waalo and a roundtable discussion featuring Kenneth Bibly, Bruce Raeburn, Ned Sublette and Tal Tamari, and moderated by Laurent Dubois and Sara Le Menestrel from 4-6 p.m. on Monday April 22nd in the Freeman Auditorium at Tulane University.

Banjo in African Diaspora - v5

You can find a detailed account of a lecture by Laurent Dubois about the banjo, delivered at the University of Memphis in September 2013, here.

Our goal is ultimately to allow visitors to explore and comment on sources relating to the banjo’s fascinating history. We welcome your comments and suggestions!

Header Image: Pete Seeger’s Banjo.