The Banjo: America's African Instrument

Laurent Dubois. Harvard, $29.95 (366p) ISBN 978-0-674-04784-6
In this less than melodious celebration of the origins and history of the banjo, Dubois delivers a straightforward social history of the relationship between race and music. Drawing deeply on archives of primary materials, Dubois traces the life of the banjo: its earliest days in Africa, its introduction into Caribbean culture by enslaved peoples in the 17th century, its central role in the lives of slaves on 19th-century plantations, its use in minstrel shows, its rise in the Appalachian mountains during the second half of the 19th century, and its role in the folk movement and protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the music of Pete Seeger. The instrument has had many names—banza, banjaw, bandjo, banjor—but they all describe a kind of "drum on a stick" with a long neck, at the top of which are four tuning pegs. Dubois illustrates that the banjo was instrumental in transculturation, a process by which a number of cultures shaped one another to create something new, especially as the banjo moved from Africa to the various indigenous cultures of the Atlantic. Regrettably, Dubois leaves out many women banjo players, such as Wilma Lee Cooper, Roni Stoneman, and Alison Brown, who as the cofounder of Compass Records has done more in the last 20 years to raise the profile of the banjo and its history than perhaps any other musician. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 07/04/2016
Release date: 03/01/2016
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