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The banjo is a star of Beyoncé's new album. Turns out it has African roots

Beyoncé accepts the Innovator Award at the 2024 iHeartRadio Music Awards on April 1. Her new album is "Carter Country" and it features a banjo on the hit song "Texas Hold 'Em." At right: a gourd banjo was an early American incarnation of an instrument that originated in Africa and was played by African Americans.
Michael Buckner/Billboard via Getty Images; Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Beyoncé accepts the Innovator Award at the 2024 iHeartRadio Music Awards on April 1. Her new album is "Carter Country" and it features a banjo on the hit song "Texas Hold 'Em." At right: a gourd banjo was an early American incarnation of an instrument that originated in Africa and was played by African Americans.

Pop superstar Beyoncé released "Texas Hold 'Em" a few weeks ago and it features an instrument that she had never emphasized before. This hit song, on her new (and hugely popular) Cowboy Carter album, is both an invitation to dance and an assertion of African American cultural identity.

And the banjo, an instrument often associated with American Appalachian bluegrass music, has an overlooked cultural identity of its own — rooted in Africa, where a traditional instrument with a long neck and a body fashioned from a calabash gourd is clearly a banjo ancestor.

The banjoist on Beyoncé's album is the Black American musician (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Rhiannon Giddens. She's part of a group of musicians and musicologists who have been looking into the African origins of the banjo as well as its important place in the Black music legacy.

Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens plays banjo on Beyoncé's hit single "Texas Hold 'Em." Above: Giddens performs on banjo with her band.
Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images / Getty Images
Getty Images
Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens plays banjo on Beyoncé's hit single "Texas Hold 'Em." Above: Giddens performs on banjo with her band.

Giddens is especially active in correcting the banjo's narrative through her own performances on the instrument and initiatives like her video series, "Uncovering the history of the Banjo with Rhiannon Giddens: From African Roots to American Music."

Giddens, who grew up in North Carolina, said in her video that she did not initially know about the banjo's multifaceted history.

Giddens knowingly explores the globe in her presentation, with Gambian akonting player Laemouahuma Daniel Jatta as a central source (he appears at the 10:51 mark in the video). For years, musicologists had suggested such West African stringed instruments as the ngoni and xalam as foundational to the banjo's origins. Jatta has demonstrated that the akonting is a more direct source.

Jatta's advocacy for his instrument's connection to the banjo received a platform on NPR in a 2011 report: "The Banjo's Roots, Reconsidered." In correspondent Greg Allen's story, Jatta describes how his three-stringed akonting resembled what he saw and heard from American country banjo players while he was studying in South Carolina.

Jatta told NPR that while he pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, he learned everything he could about the origins of the banjo. Eventually, he reached a conclusion.

"Among all the instruments ever mentioned as a prototype of the banjo from the African region," he said in 2011, "the akonting to me has more similarities, more objective similarities than any other that has ever been mentioned."

The 2011 story added that the akonting looks like a banjo. Like early banjos, it has a long neck that extends through the instrument's gourd body. And it has a movable wooden bridge that, as in banjos, holds the strings over the skin head.

But for Jatta, and other banjo scholars, what's most convincing is how the akonting is played. Players use the index finger to strike down on one of the long strings, and the thumb sounds the akonting's short string as the hand moves back upward. When Jatta looked at early banjo instruction books from the mid-1800s, he found that they described an almost identical playing style.

"What struck me was when they mentioned the ball of the thumb and the nail of the index or middle finger. I knew straight away my father was using this same style," Jatta said. "This was never a surprise to me, because I have seen this since I was 5 years old."

Banjo player and roots enthusiast Chuck Levy of Gainesville, Fla., studied with Jatta in Senegal and the Gambia. He adds that documents from centuries ago show shared physical characteristics between the akonting and the banjo.

"Starting in 1600s, there were drawings and accounts of African instruments that were sometimes called guitars but resemble modern banjo," Levy said. "The akonting does not have a tuning peg to tighten the string. The string is knotted on the bamboo neck. Instruments then started to appear with pegs and this is probably a European influence that is now being adapted to this hybrid instrument."

The Banjo Project, launched in 1997, is an online archive that traces the instrument's trajectory. This site describes the story of enslaved Africans bringing stringed instruments to the Americas and how the banjo derived from their innovations. This was during a time when slaveowners and authorities prohibited drums, which they saw as subversive.

Crucial African American musical genres also included the banjo into the 20th century. Jazz artists, like Johnny St. Cyr of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, doubled on guitar and banjo in the 1920s.

Gradually, the instrument became a staple of bluegrass, folk and country. Due to the banjo's role in these idioms, it's been frequently characterized as an instrument of white musicians. Rhiannon Giddens says her earliest impression of the banjo was that it's played by "a white man in overalls." What's more, the banjo was prominently featured in degrading blackface minstrel shows. As a result, its Black origins were often buried.

This history does not just flow in one cross-continental direction. After the banjo became a popular and mass-produced instrument in the Americas, England and Ireland during the 19th century, British colonizers took it to West Africa. Musician and professor Chris Waterman's liner notes to the 1985 compilation album, Juju Roots 1930s - 1950s (Rounder), describes how British companies brought banjos (as well as guitars, mandolins and country music records) to Nigeria. Some musicians in Lagos, like Tunde King, played the banjo in a popular new music they created called juju, which later on featured electric guitars.

While contemporary global popular music continues to overwhelm traditional acoustic sounds everywhere, the akonting still has devoted practitioners. One such artist is Sana Ndiaye, who divides his time between his native Senegal and Massachusetts.

Another Senegalese musician who has emerged recently, Elisa Diedhiou, is one of the comparatively few women to play the akonting. She released her Ears Of The People album on Smithsonian Folkways in the United States last year.

Meanwhile, Jatta has continued his mission of performing as well as educating scholars, musicians and fans about the akonting and its connection to the banjo. This included publishing the Banjo Models: The Akonting and Other Folk Lutes of Senegambia: and I Never Allowed Poverty to Destroy My Life in 2022. He interweaves the study of the instrument and its relatives with his autobiography.

Jatta would like to return to the United States to perform and teach and is excited about the people from around the world who are reaching out to him for his thoughts. He is also seeking funds for his educational center in the Gambia.

"What you know of yourself is what you learn from your culture," Jatta said via a WhatsApp conversation from the Gambia. "If you don't know your culture and rely on people to tell you what you are, that's a problem. We have to know what we are before we become what we want to be. That's why I want to make sure to not only have this instrument played the it has always been played but to teach new generation for us to know our culture. People without a culture is like a tree without roots. You have nothing to make us stable."

Forming multicultural partnerships to trace the connections remain just as crucial, according to Jatta.

"The foundation of most of the music that America is playing today — blues, jazz, country, rock and roll — all come from banjo culture," Jatta said. "Everyone needs to have a better way of understanding it. It's the reality. We need to have this understanding to come up with a narrative that everyone can share."

And now Beyoncé's music is part of that narrative.

Aaron Cohen is the author of Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power (University of Chicago Press), Amazing Grace (Bloomsbury) and is the co-author of Ramsey Lewis' memoir,Gentleman Of Jazz (Blackstone). He teaches humanities at City Colleges of Chicago and regularly writes about the arts for such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader and DownBeat.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aaron Cohen