The fiddle (or bowed lute) originated in West Africa from a string instrument referred to as Gonje by the Hausa people in Nigeria, Gondze in Ghana and Nyanyeru in the country known today as Senegal (Senegambia). The instrument has one, two, or three strings and rests on the side of your body’s mid-section. Through the Transatlantic Slave Trade and enslavement, the instrument was transformed into the fiddle, serving as a hybird of the African and European cultures.
The Fiddle in the Colonies
When African people were initially brought to the American colonies; instruments such as drums were banned. This ban stemmed from the Europeans’ fear, the drum was a communications device the enslaved use to secretly exchange messages without their knowledge. Although brought over from Africa as well, the fiddle was viewed differently. The fiddle was well liked among most Europeans. It gained great popularity within both African and European cultures. Due to its popularity, often times, slave masters would have enslaved persons play the fiddle at their social events. Since Black fiddlers and White fiddlers had two different playing styles and techniques, Black fiddlers would combine the two thereby accomdating Europeans while holding onto their traditional style. This incredible fusion became the genre known today as secular folk music.
Misrepresentaion of Fiddling
Today, very little is known about African fiddles and Black fiddling. During the 17th thru the 19th centuries, Black fiddling was stigmatized as raw and uncivilized and Europeans clearly did not regard it as a music category of interest to Black people. This idea arose from the longstanding European belief that Black people only like sacred music such as spiriutals. Therefore, little information was written about Black fiddling and the music of Black fiddlers was almost never recorded. This unfortunately led to the dismantling of Black fiddling and perpetuated the wrong historical assumption that fiddling originated in Europe.
In the end, Black fiddlers and the Fiddle had a significant impact on the folk music genre we know today. Through the work and versatility of the many black fiddlers, unknown and known, music was shaped and transformed in unimaginable ways.
Popular Black Fiddlers
Bill Driver (1881 – 1985)
Missouri born fiddler who was immensely popular during the early 20th century
Famed fiddle and blues musicican
Notably Afro-Cubano fiddle player