Few instrumental sounds are more immediately recognizable than the bright, metallic twang of the banjo. Clear, resonant, and earnest, the sound of the modern banjo is strongly associated with American folk and country music. Musicians like Pete Seegar and Earl Scruggs popularized the banjo in a modern context throughout the early to mid-20th century, and today, banjos in mainstream culture are squarely associated with white men in overalls and work boots.
But the modern banjo is a colonized form of a traditional African instrument. While the exact roots of the banjo aren’t entirely clear or even singular, instruments like the West African kora and akonting are obvious precedents. Unlike the modern banjo, these traditional precursors were fretless and often carved from gourds, connecting them almost inextricably with their place-based context.
Ultimately, though, the banjo was brutally extracted from its traditional home and brought across the ocean by way of the horrific and unforgiveable Atlantic slave trade. Brought to places like the Caribbean and the American South, enslaved Africans engineered new instruments akin to the traditional ones they’d been forced to leave behind. Over time, the mingling of traditional African folk musicians and working-class white musicians led to the absorption of the African banjo into the developing American folk and roots genre.
By the mid-1800s, the banjo was popularized in the white Western world by Joel Walker Sweeney, a white American musician who often performed minstrel shows in blackface. By the end of the 19th century, a group of five brothers known as the Dobson brothers began adding frets and resonators to the originally fretless instrument, and by the time the mid-20th century rolled around, the banjo was squarely associated with the heavily whitewashed world of popular bluegrass and country music. Today, the banjo’s relationship to Black culture and history is largely underestimated if not entirely unknown to most people.
But despite this history of slavery, theft, and exploitation, the story of the banjo and its ancestral belonging to Black and African culture has been sustained through the efforts and practices of Black musicians and musicologists.
The Black Banjo Reclamation Project (BBRP) is an Oakland-based education and skill-building collective spreading awareness about the true history of the banjo and working to reclaim what has been stolen and suppressed. A self-proclaimed “vehicle to return instruments of African origin to the descendants of their original makers,” BBRP was founded by creative facilitator and musician Hannah Mayree.
Originally focused on redistributing existing banjos into the hands of Black musicians and aspiring musicians, BBRP has evolved into a constellation of community resources, hands-on training opportunities, community gatherings, research projects, and more. Holding regular banjo-building workshops in Oakland and elsewhere along the west coast, BBRP has expanded their focus from banjo reclamation to banjo co-creation. The collective works with Black instrument builders and teachers to provide Black folks of all ages with the opportunity to build their own traditional banjos from scratch using natural materials and building practices. This summer, the collective led a week-long, 60-hour training fellowship for seven Black banjo players and plans to offer a similar fellowship in the fall.
From the perspective of the folks driving BBRP, reclamation is so much more than the process of reclaiming the banjo as a physical instrument. Reclamation is about reclaiming knowledge, skills, and a sense of connection to community, ancestry, history, and the land. By teaching African diasporic folks to build their own banjos using earth-based practices, BBRP engages in the work of deep healing, community transformation, and cultural reclamation.
This element of land connection is central to the vision of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, which aims to “utilize the power of music, community, and hands-on, earth-based traditions in healing historical, ancestral, and racialized trauma.” For founder Hannah Mayree, the work of getting banjos into the hands of Black musicians isn’t only about countering centuries of injustice. It’s about reconnecting to the literal, physical roots of home and exploring what it means to deepen into the practice of belonging.
By combining the restorative and connective power of art and music with the life-giving power of community and ancestral reclamation, The Black Banjo Reclamation Project embodies a potent approach to the work of anti-racism and ultimately contributes to a healthier, safer, and more enlivened world.
You can support the 2022-2023 programming of the Black Banjo Reclamation Project by donating to their Open Collective page here.