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All-American Banjo Has African Roots

All-American Banjo Has African Roots
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From folk songs like Oh Susannah to its starring role in Bluegrass festivals, the banjo seems to be a quintessentially homegrown American instrument. However, as Colorado banjo virtuoso Jayme Stone has learned, this five-stringed wonder actually has roots half a world away - in Africa.

From Bluegrass festivals to backwoods, Appalachian porches to stadium concerts, a banjo’s twang is pure Americana. Or is it?

While playing a 13th Century Malian praise song in New York’s famed Joe’s Pub, Colorado-based composer and banjo player Jayme Stone says West Africa is the banjo’s true original home.

“It came over on slave ships with slaves in the 1500 and 1600s, and on through the 1700s, and made its way to plantations and farms and places where African Americans were living and working as slaves, and [it] slowly got adapted," he said.

All banjos and their ancestors share similarities.

“It’s some kind of resonating chamber, either a gourd or a carved wooden resonator, stretched over with some kind of hide, often a goat," said Stone.

Stone is interested in reuniting the American banjo with its roots.

In 2007, Stone was given a grant to go to Mali, considered by many to be the crown jewel of traditional African music-making. He loved the exotic sights and smells, the hospitality. Most of all, he cherished the chance to jam with local musicians.

A high point came the day he found himself in a remote village where he met a man playing a homemade two string “Ngone,” which Stone says is the great grand-daddy of his own banjo.

"And there was Pete Seeger’s right-hand technique perfectly intact from a musician who had learned from his parents or grandparents and had never travelled outside of the village," he said.

Back in the United States, Jayme Stone often combines his American and African musical passions. Radio Wassoulou is a song named for a popular community radio station in Mali’s heartland. It’s a musical bridge he traverses often.