African Roots

African Roots of American Music

Music of all different genres can be tied back to traditional African music and instruments. Enslaved Africans, although they were discouraged from bringing their culture and traditions into the New World, still maintained the essence of the music of the motherland in various ways. Enslaved people were able to reconstruct instruments of Africa using the materials they could find around them. Many popular instruments and musical genres that are typically attributed to white people, actually have roots in Africa.

Folk music bridged the gap from Africa into many of the modern genres we associate with black music today. Some traditional instruments include:


  • One to six strings
  • Gourd body
  • Parallel neck

The banjo was originally created by enslaved blacks in the American south and the Caribbean. It was a variation on an African lute-like instrument. However, it became a key element in blackface minstrel shows that sought to mock black people and black culture by creating racist black caricatures for white entertainment. Because of this, over time, the banjo began to be associated with white supremacy and eventually became known as a white/rural instrument. 


  • African drum made of goat skin
  • One solid piece of wood secured with tight rope
  • Produces 3 sounds: bass (low), tone (medium), and slap (high)
  • Used for storytelling, celebrations, and medicinal purposes


  • Found all over the world (Egypt, Greece, India, etc.)
  • Individual curved pieces of wood
  • Considered one of the oldest instruments in the world

The bones also became well known through blackface minstrel shows in the mid 1800’s. 


The blackface minstrel show was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th century. These shows appropriated and mocked black music, dance, speech, etc. The bones and the banjo were two of the most prominent instruments in these shows. This initiated the practice of black music being appropriated and repackaged for white audiences. The minstrel shows played a pivotal role in the development of entertainment and performances such as broadway. 

Folk music was a way for blacks living in America to connect with their African heritage. It subsequently led to the creation of countless musical genres. The singing styles, syncopation, call and response delivery, and polyrhythm of folk music can be found today in genres like gospel, r&b, jazz, etc. Folk music is a product of Africa and the instruments and styles that came out of folk contributed to gospel, r&b, hip-hop, etc. Africa’s contribution to music is undeniable. 

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