A look into early African instruments, music types, and performance styles reminds us that complexity runs deep in the roots of Black expression. Many instruments that may look deceptively simple have incredibly unique methods of playing and purpose. This article looks into some instruments of African origin that are common in American music, particularly (black) American folk music.
A multi-purpose instrument, the Djembe is one of the most widely recognized African instruments in modern society. I personally have memories of drum circles (including Djembe(s)) at the conferences of my mother’s educational institution – New York Theological Seminary. Some celebratory usages include weddings, parties, baptism, births, etc. The drum is also used during cultural and spiritual healing processes. This instrument makes three sounds: tone (mid-tones), bass(low tones), and slap (high tones). The Djembe, like many traditional African drums, was also used as a form of communication beyond the healing properties of the rhythmic experience.
Bones are curved pieces of bones or wood that are clapped together. They are also known as rhythm bones – which speaks to the origin and purpose of this instrument. They make a clackity-clack sound. I would compare it to the sound of tap dancing. With that being said, look at it like this – a lot of different types of people can tap dance, but only certain tap dancers can really pierce through to the ancestral beings within us. Bones came to America through the Irish and originally were popularized in minstrel shows.
The banjo; even the name gives a simplistic ring. The sound of the strings playing on the banjo is to me almost comical – definitely much lighter and more jolly than other string instruments often associated with African-American’s like the Double Bass and the guitar. While this instruments’ origins lie in the Caribbean and the banjo was brought to America along with enslaved Africans – it was popularized in the American tradition of minstrel shows. In minstrel shows, white Americans often played the instrument in conjunction with mockeries of black bodies and lives.
Reasonably, I believe African-American folk music had a lot to do with rhythm and beats. Instruments associated with the genre: the banjo, bones, djembe, guitar, piano, and many more, are all instruments that have to do with percussion, rhythm, or using your hands to maintain that rhythm.