by Béla Fleck
The world’s most innovative banjo player talks about the history and scope of his instrument, and why he still practices eight hours a day.
Photograph by Faith Ninivaggi
THE MORE I FIND OUT ABOUT the banjo’s roots and how widespread it is throughout the world, the less I feel like a goofball for being a New Yorker who loves the banjo.
You could argue that every culture has come up with a banjo, just like every culture will sing and come up with a drum. India and China have instruments very similar to the banjo. Our banjo came from West Africa with the slaves, though there’s some debate as to whether it was brought over here or whether they started making them when they arrived here.
Folks in The Gambia say that the slaves who played music were highly valued because their playing kept the other slaves on the ships alive; slavers permitted what we call the banjo because it helped keep their valuable payload breathing. From the slaves’ perspective, the banjo represented a piece of their culture not stripped from them. White folks feared drums because they thought Africans communicated with them, but slaves were allowed to play “harmless” stringed instruments. Pete Seeger contends that the banjo actually comes from the Tigris-Euphrates river system and Mesopotamia, and that it worked… [read more]