The Banjo – America’s African Instrument

The Banjo - America's African InstrumentLaurent Dubois says he thinks of his new book, The Banjo – America’s African Instrument, as a biography of the banjo.

Tracing this uniquely American instrument from its West African roots, through its emergence in the folk and popular music of the Caribbean islands and the Southeastern United States from the 17th century to today, is the theme for this scholarly work targeted at a popular audience.

Just released by Harvard University Press, the book was inspired by Dubois’ own personal study of the banjo in the folk and clawhammer styles, and his attendance at the first Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC in 2005. There he met Dom Flemmons, who shortly thereafter formed The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and picked up an interest in the banjo as a subject for academic research.

Laurent Dubois“My scholarly work had been the 18th century history of the Caribbean Islands, Haiti in particular, and I was fascinated by the discussion about the use of the banjo in those cultures. It occurred to me that here was an understudied topic which fit into my area of expertise.

I had been playing banjo for a while already at that time. I played guitar since I was very young, and picked up the banjo as an adult. When I taught at Michigan State I used to take banjo lessons at Elderly Instruments, and attended a number of Ken Perlman banjo workshops.”

Laurent told us in a discussion earlier today that the book is centered on the instrument itself, and why it has become so powerful and such a central part of American music. But he also covers all the ideas and symbolism that people have projected onto it.

He said that the first half of the book is a particular theory of his about how and why the instrument emerged in the 17th century. Dubois believes that the banjo as it developed among an enslaved population had to reach across African cultural boundaries, and be suitable to varying ethnic groups who were forced together by their situation. Perhaps this same smoothing of differences in the early construction of banjos in the Americas also contributed to its appeal to Frech and English colonists.

“You only find the banjo in the French and English colonial culture. I didn’t see references to it in Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Dominican history. Why that is is an interesting question. The African populations were certainly the same in either case. Maybe because of the prominence of the guitar in spanish culture.

The banjo is still very important in Haiti and Jamaica, and is used in the mento style that influenced and pre-dated reggae. It plays a rhythmic part very similar to what the electric guitar does in reggae.

Afro Caribbean musicians accept the banjo as a part of their folk music. They usually play US-made banjos, though they may be altered to suit individual preferences, but there are still builders who make them in the old time way.”

Dubois has also found that the banjo is prominent in North African music, where Arabic orchestras will use both lutes and banjos. Again, he says that they tend to purchase American made banjos for their music. The circle has now closed, with the banjo returning to Africa from the US.

He has been pleased by the interest in his book among banjo players, builders, and lovers regardless of style.

“It’s certainly a book that it pretty heavily researched, but I hope that anyone who enjoys the banjo will enjoy reading it. There are so many angles to this story, and I think people really do want to understand more about the early history of the instrument.”


The Banjo – America’s African Instrument should be available now wherever popular books are sold. It runs to 384 pages in hardcover, distributed by Belknap Press, a Harvard University Press imprint.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.