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African Origins of Clawhammer

Edited by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise(tm)

Editor' Note:For several years, Chris Erswell, a UK folk musician, was active in Internet folk circles, including the "Banjo Hangout." He often shared information, including the content on this page, under the name "Tom Joad," named for the fictitious hero of The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately, circumstances caused him to stop updating these pages several years ago, and the site subsequently went down.

We used to link to Chris' pages from this web site, and we have heard the dismay of readers who could no longer access Chris' files. So we sought permission to restore what we could, and this is the result.

Here's an interesting tie-in to this page based on my own experience - in 2015, a fellow presenter at an academic conference proposed that white people who play the banjo "misappropriate" African culture. There's no question in my mind that the 1800's-era blackface "minstrel" performers misappropriated the culture of enslaved people of African descent. On the other hand, the banjo rose to its highest level of prominence during the Jazz age, when there was a legitimate and - for the most part - friendly exchange of musical styles and tropes between black and white musicians.

Some folks are quick to point out that it was a white man who replaced the gourd body of the original African instrument with a drum-style shell. But as far as we can tell, he learned everything he knew about playing the banjo from people of African descent who were playing the gourd-bodied instrument.

Chris Erswell was interested in such questions and did some research on subjects like "Was the banjo really invented in Africa?" To him, it was evident that the popular banjo playing style that is currently called Clawhammer is directly related to a kind of playing style that is still used on the original gourd-bodied instruments in Africa. To demonstrate his point, Chris linked to YouTube videos of African musicians in Africa playing traditional African styles of music on traditional African instruments (Akonting, in particular). The links he used broke, but some of the videos are still up, so we've relinked to them in this version of the page.

If you have any of the other content that Chris generated that we are missing, please let me know.

- Paul Race

Clawhammer Roots

Did the clawhammer style of banjo playing originate in West Africa? It seems likely. The West African musical instrument known as the Akonting is played in a way that is very similar to clawhammer--as the following video clips indicate. It appears that clawhammer derives from this instrument and the technique was brought across the Altantic by the slave trade. The clips were posted to YouTube by Swedish banjo player Ulf Jagfors who has extensively researched the origins of the banjo in West Africa. Ulf says of the clip: "Joe Diatta (Jatta in English) plays an old Jola tune on the three string gourd lute Ekonting (Akonting). The name of the tune is Ampa Youtou, Child of Yuotou, a village in southern Senegal. The Akonting is one possible West African forerunner to the New World banjo."

Akonting Playing by Joe Diatta. Dakar. 07-2006

See also this clip for the basic method of playing the Akonting. Ulf writes: "Daniel Jatta shows you some basics for playing the Akonting. This is the way Daniel learned from his father in the 1980s."

Basic Akonting Playing by Daniel Jatta

Here is another clip posted to YouTube by Ulf Jagfors showing advanced Akonting playing. The text accompanying the clip says: "This video features one of the best Akonting player, Ekona Jatta from Mlomp, Casamance region, Southern Senegal. In slowed down, and up to speed tempo, he demonstrates advanced Akonting playing!"

Advanced Akonting Playing by Ekona Jatta. Gambia. 2003

This instrument, and the clawhammer style of playing, was brought across the Altantic to the Americas by West Africans during the period of the slave trade. The Akonting gradually developed into the modern banjo. West African Akontings, and early American banjos, were often made out of gourds.

The gourd banjo, to my ears, has a sound that is remininisent of the Akonting. This video, posted to YouTube by Boscoheja, shows a gourd banjo being played [in the style of] Fred Cochran:

Roustabout (Gourd Banjo)

And here is another video clip, posted to YouTube by Ulf Jagfors, which features a discussion of the evolution of the banjo in the Americas:

Scott Didlake and the Origin of the Banjo. Tennessee Banjo Institute, 1992

Finally, this clip, posted to YouTube by PaulBanjoSedgwick, shows an akonting player playing a modern banjo for the first time. He writes: "Master Jola akonting player, Jesus Jarju, plays a banjo for the first time. The banjo is tuned to a traditional akonting tuning: gBA, where 'g' is the 5th string, 'B' is the 3rd string and 'A' is the 1st string."

Jesus Plays the Banjo

History of Tablature

Tablature is not a recent invention. It was used for fretted stringed instruments during the Renaissance. An example was the lute, which was the most important instrument of its time, occupying the central place then that the piano does today. Tablature thus has a very long and noble ancestry! Lute tablature took different forms in different countries. In France, frets were not numbered, but given a letter of the alphabet. This system was the one adopted in England also. The open string was a, the first fret b, 2nd fret c and so on. Spanish and Italian lute tablature were more like modern tablature since both used numbers.

Most Spanish composers for the vihuela (a guitar shaped instrument with the tuning of a lute) used the Italian tablature system. This represented the 1st, highest pitched, string (the one nearest the floor) as the bottom line of the tablature.* Italian-Spanish tablature was thus the forerunner of modern guitar and banjo tablature.

* There were some important exceptions. Well known Spanish vihuelista, Luis Milan, represented the 1st string as the top line of the tablature. And Italian lutenist Francesco da Milano also used a different system.

Click here to see some images of Italian, French and Spanish lute/vihuela tablature.

Advantages of Tablature over Musical Notation

With instruments like the clawhammer banjo, which frequently use a number of different cross-tunings, conventional musical notation is impractical. There are several different string tunings in common usage for the clawhammer banjo. Tablature can be used easily with any tuning--it simply indicates which fret to hold down. Using musical notation would mean re-learning the note for each fret every time the instrument was retuned, which can be as many as half a dozen times in a performance. Another advantage is that once tablature is understood, it can be used to read music for any fretted stringed instrument. It is not necessary to re-learn the notes for each fret on a new instrument. So, once it is understood, banjo players can use tablature to help them learn the guitar and vice versa.

A disadvantage of tablature is that, unlike musical notation, it does not specify the length of every single note in the piece of music, but uses one note length symbol at any given point in the tablature.

Does all of this mean that you have to learn tablature or music notation to play the banjo? On the contrary. Pete Seeger, in his classic banjo tutor, reports a comment made by an old banjo player who was asked if he read music: "Hell, there are no notes on a banjo. You just play it," was his reply. I couldn't agree more.

Home | Clawhammer Tabs | Roots of Clawhammer Banjo | Cross Tunings |

All of the text in the white box on this page was created by Chris Erswell and shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. All other illustrations and content on this web page are copyrighted (c) 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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