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Art Exhibition Examines Link Between the Banjo and African String Instruments

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson/KRCU
Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, an associate professor of fine arts at Southern Illinois University points to a banjo piece for his new exhibition.

The new exhibition “Reconstructed/Reconceptualized” examines the link between the banjo and African string instruments. Ahead of the exhibition’s opening at the Rosemary Berkel and Harry L. Crisp II Museum, KRCU’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with its creator Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, an associate professor of fine arts at Southern Illinois University to find out exactly what that link is.


On what the link is between the banjo and African string instruments

Abdul-Musawwir: The link is the contribution made to America by those individuals who were taken from their home in Africa and brought to America and put into slavery. And I'll say to this point, there's no such thing as an African slave. What it is is an African put into slavery. And so, what happened is that during slavery Africans made things and created things that reminded them of home. Even the shotgun house, Torah who's known as person who came on a slave ship said that when he saw  a shotgun house it reminded him of Africa. So certain things that were happening in America made them think about Africa. And the banjo or the string instruments is one of them. Africa is well known for its string instruments. Well some of them have one string all the way up to 21 strings.

On what the instruments look and sound like

Abdul-Musawwir: I listened to quite a bit of it when I was at the Smithsonian doing some research at the [Warren M. Robbins Library at the National Museum of African Art]. And it depends on the instrument itself, because some of the instruments you know they're made out of calabash wood and then they have the leather skin much like we see today. And some of them look like harps. And they almost sound like some have a harp like sound. But then you have those that look like the banjo--a guitar that has another similar sound like a cigar box guitar. Some of the older ones sound like that. But the newer ones because of technology they have a really more sophisticated and innovative sound, because of technology. But never the less the old ones still have great sounds. And it's interesting watching someone play with one string. You hear the string, but it's the way the pressure of the fingers the movements of the fingers that gave it multiple sounds, not just one sound. If I was to compare it, I would compare it with maybe the violin, the fiddle and other string instruments.

On how the banjo find prominence in the United States and the American South

Abdul-Musawwir: Not only did they make string instruments, they also made drums. They made things that made sound. And again during slavery they weren't allowed to have drums and they really weren't allowed to do anything other than labor, or whatever they were told to do. And what happened is that some plantation [owners] would allow them to use [them] during weddings. So when they allowed slaves to get married or have babies born, they allowed them to play those string instruments that they created, as well as some drums. And so, they would sing these songs and it became part of the religious activities of the slaves. And the banjo would be one of the instruments that they would reference.


And it really didn't take hold until some white southern business men decided to create their own banjo. And because the banjo had been played basically by poor whites [who] knew more about the banjo than the white population. But it really didn't take hold as a commodity until they started marketing it. The question is, why would they market a banjo? And I think they did it because they knew the banjo was a very important contribution to America. Why? [former President] Thomas Jefferson stated that one of the greatest contributions Africa made to America was the banjo, because the banjo brought a great amount of pleasure as an instrument, but also it became a commodity. And so, when they decided to market it, they attacked the character of the African string instrument, which as we know as the banjo in America as though it was not sophisticated enough or elevated enough to be considered. It was really just garbage.


I found some of these ads when I was at the Warren M. Robbins Library at the [National Museum of African Art]. And I'm looking at these ads and I'm like 'wow.' I mean they just straight up had a strong marketing strategy... to attack the African string instrument, but at the same time imitate it--create a banjo that they can claim as their own. They also took the opportunity to market it to the minstrel shows to white artists--white banjo players who had to put [on] black face if they [were] going to perform. And so that's a sad commentary because according to some of the things that I read--the little notes, it appears that they wanted to play the banjo. They wanted to be a musical artist, but the only way they could make a livelihood is [by doing] the black face.

Credit Marissanne Lewis-Thompson/KRCU
Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, an associate professor of fine arts at Southern Illinois University crafted a banjo that mirrors a slave ship out in the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by burlap "dead bodies."

On what people can expect from the exhibition

Abdul-Musawwir: There are small pieces. There are huge pieces and I have four large pieces. The four large pieces [are] blue, green, red, yellow. The blue is the Atlantic Ocean, the green is the plantation. The red is the revolt. The yellow is we're standing under the sun. And so, what I did was [use] the color to actually show a timeline of the banjo. So the Atlantic Ocean piece is a very large piece with one banjo sitting in the middle looking like a slave ship moving in this huge blue space. And below the horizon line you see a lot of burlap movement--loose burlap, dark blue. That's the bodies that were thrown over into the water. Not only slaves who died... but even whites who were on the ship and got sick and threw their body over in the ocean. And so here it is that the banjo survived that. It became an object of survival once they got to America.  


What: “Reconstructed/Reconceptualized” exhibition byNajjar Abdul-Musawwir


When:  Sept. 1-Oct. 23


Where: Rosemary Berkel and Harry L. Crisp II Museum at the Southeast Missouri State University River Campus. 518 S. Fountain St. Cape Girardeau, Mo.


Ticketing: Free Admission