Local News
4:10 pm
Tue February 18, 2014

Banjo historian highlights instrument's African roots for Black History lecture

The late banjo maker Scott Didlake called the instrument, a “well of souls.”

One look at the gourd banjo – with its goat skin head and papyrus neck – reveals a glimpse of the aching history of souls taken from Africa in shackles and forced into slavery in North America.

And with them, they brought the music.

Archivist and ethnomusicologist Greg Adams has been studying the banjo for 20 years.

Greg Adams brought four different banjos to help tell the history of the instrument's rocky traverse from Africa to North America. The two on the right have gourd bodies and are still played by musicians in West Africa.
Greg Adams brought four different banjos to help tell the history of the instrument's rocky traverse from Africa to North America. The two on the right have gourd bodies and are still played by musicians in West Africa.
Credit Cass Herrington / WNIN News

“Some people say, 'oh the banjo, it's such a happy instrument. You can't play a sad song on it,'" Adams said.

"Part of me feels like that's just an excuse for not looking at a deeper history that deals with a very painful reality," Adams said. "We've chosen to cloak it in this happy sound, but if we actually look at it more deeply, we see how complex it is and how interconnected all of us are to this deeper story”

Part of that story begins centuries ago in West Africa, where people still play counterparts of the banjo, like the ekonting.

White men first played the instrument in the 1800s, but it wasn’t a pretty sight. They performed in black face, mocking African slaves.

That was just the beginning of the stereotypes.

“When one says the word 'banjo,' it evokes an idea of a Southern white hillbillly," Adams said. "In the 19th century, the banjo is typically associated as coming out of African American culture somehow in the 20th century the banjo shifts commercially and is then projected as an instrument of whiteness."

Adams said that’s why the banjo is a good place to start the often uneasy conversations about race relations.

"I want to know, how do we use the changing access to information to have more inclusive, critical conversations?,” Adams said. "I think that's what's beginning to happen more and more."

Greg Adams is presenting his research, accompanied by four banjos, at the St. Bede Theater at Saint Meinrad Tuesday at 7:00pm.