B AC KG RO U N D
The African Heritage: African Musical Instruments Banjo
The banjo was an instrument first invented in West Africa and carried to the Americas by enslaved Africans. In 1782, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the most popular instument among his slaves was “the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.” The modern banjo, made from metal and employing nylon strings, is descended from African versions made from a single block of wood and using various natural materials for strings.
The most commonly used instrument in African music is the drum. The illustration shows various forms of “talking drums” from Nigeria. Unlike modern drums made from metal, African versions were carved from wood, though both use animal hides for the beating surface or head. Wooden pegs allowed for tuning by tightening or loosening ropes tied to the head.
Western banjo Western orchestral/ big-band drum Traditional African drums
Unlike European models, which were constructed from several pieces of wood, African violins were carved from a single block of wood. While European versions had four pegs, one for each string, African versions usually had three, with each being connected to both of the instrument’s two strings. The bow was usually made of horsehair, a material often used in ancient European instruments as well.
African horns were usually simpler in construction than their European counterparts. They had holes in place of mechanical stops but were similarly played by using the fingers over the holes to change notes. Of course, many of the brass horns used in jazz and other musical forms were invented long after Africans came to the United States, and their design reflects both African and European origins.