Published: Jun 24, 2008 08:37 PM
Modified: Jun 24, 2008 08:37 PM
The banjo -- that quintessentially American instrument, staple of down-home musical styles like bluegrass and old-time -- wasn't born here, but came to these shores from Africa.
West Africans who were seized from their homelands and shipped across the Atlantic in chains brought with them the gourd banjo -- or at least the memory of it, and the ability to replicate it here. They did just that, and gradually banjos -- originally made from gourds and played for centuries in West Africa by musicians known as griots -- were adopted by white musicians, especially in the Southern Appalachians.
"Gourd banjos first appeared in America in about 1740," said Cece Conway, author of "African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia." "They were played exclusively by Africans. They had five strings, and they did have the short string, the drone string, that we still think of as one of the distinctive things about banjos.
"It surprises me, but even a lot of people who play the banjo don't know about this part its history."
Conway, a professor of folklore at Appalachian State University and a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, will join two master musicians on Thursday, June 26, to discuss and demonstrate the influence of African musical traditions on Southern banjo and fiddle music.
Singer and master old-time fiddler James Leva and West African griot Cheick Hamala Diabate will join Conway for the live music and a multimedia presentation Thursday, June 26, from 4 to 6 p.m.
The event is free and open to the public. It will take place in the theater at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at 150 South Road on the UNC campus.
Like the banjo, the fiddle as we know it had a forerunner in Africa.
"In Africa there's a one-string fiddle, and if you listen to that and then hear an old-time African-American fiddle player like Joe Thompson, you can hear the similarities in the rough stroke style of play," Conway said. "During the Colonial era, a lot of the primary fiddle players in the South were African-American."
On Thursday, Diabate will play the n'goni, a Malian stringed instrument, and Leva will demonstrate his skills as a master old-time fiddler, and Conway will explore the connections between African traditions and the music of the Southeastern United States.
Diabate of Mali is a master of the traditional n'goni and a West African historian in the griot tradition. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album last year for "Mali to America," a collaboration with banjo player Bob Carlin.
He has played on stages from Merlefest to the Kennedy Center, as well as working as an educator and choreographer. He appears in "Throw Down Your Heart," Bela Fleck's recent documentary chronicling a trip to Gambia and Mali to trace the origins of the banjo.
"He is really something, just an amazing musician," Conway said. "He's the Bach of Mali."
Leva has been playing traditional music since the mid-1970s. He has played from Merlefest and Telluride to the Nyon and Avignon Festivals in Europe, and has recorded more than a dozen albums to wide critical acclaim. His most recent recording is "Winkin' Eye," with his band Purgatory Mountain.
"James Leva is a fabulous musician and a great songwriter using old-style musical traditions," Conway said.
Conway will present video clips from her fieldwork, including African musicians, black banjo songsters from North Carolina and Virginia, and other mountain musicians. For information, see www.UNC South.org
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