A Banjo Bridge From Senegal

Pableaux Johnson Photographs

The banjo has traveled a long and sinuous trail from its origins in West Africa to varied outposts of the Americas. Dozens of plucked lute or stringed instruments joined the family of orchestral or ensemble performers across the map of the sub-Sahara. In New Orleans, the eye witness accounts of Congo Square in the early 1800s, particularly the famous sketch work of a small group of players by the architect Benjamin Latrobe, register the presence of transplanted African strings – no brass instruments.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who absorbed some of the Congo Square rhythms as a child*, did an 1855 composition, “The Banjo,” that stands as a kind of forerunner for the instrumental presence in later groups like A. J. Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra in the 1920s.

In April, the Senegalese group Demme Dia and the Njum Waalo made several appearances in New Orleans on their first trip out of Africa. The mesmerizing string work by these five seasoned artists suggested one end of the bridge that the banjo has traveled over time with the improvisational replies by Don Vappie and Carl LeBlanc anchoring the here and now.

The musicians performed for an event called The Banjo in the African Diaspora, as part at the EMP Pop Music Conference, hosted this year by Tulane University’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South.

Demme Dia performed with his four brothers, all fishermen in Senegal. They wore skullcaps and flowing robes, each in a different color, the leader, Demme Dia, in bright blue. One sibling played the guitar, which functioned more like a bass. Dia and the other siblings each played his own ngoni, a thin instrument made of a calabash or wood. The ancient African tradition of call-and-response, a cultural pattern embedded in black music, sang in the long, wavering call lines of one ngoni player, as the instrumental weavings filled the room with a sensation of shimmering movement, like waves of water. Two of the men tapped their fingers on the faces of their ngoni, rippling a ground beat out of the meld of polyrhythms.

The music had no chord changes, as in jazz or rhythm-and-blues, but the floating percussive clouds invited call-and-response work, while the men peeled away from the strings, turning to hand-clap rhythms that pulled the audience into the clapping like dancers in a night club.

When the Senegalese artists were done, Carl LeBlanc, the swinging dreadlocked banjo man and guitarist who plays in the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and at Preservation Hall, took the stage, alone, introduced his banjo as “Joniqua” (you could almost hear her chuckle) and launched into a version of the Mardi Gras Indian tune, “Jockamo” with the “hey-pocky-way” lines intertwined and unspooled as he carried a percussive melody. The beauty of the African string players was harmony. LeBlanc, the soloist, embroidered melody with his voice and lyrical lines.

The banjo man shifted to what’s arguably the greatest jazz song ever recorded, “West End Blues” as performed by Louis Armstrong, a work that has had endless variations that emulate the fabled opening sequence of Pops’ trumpet cadenza that rings purer than pure with every re-listening. Not to be outdone, Carl LeBlanc took the sequence on banjo and then refashioned it with his own lyrics as “Blues on West End.” The words below are an exclusive with permission of the artist:

 “As I sit,
 strumming chords of sad refrain
 on Pontchartrain,
 I just can’t help
 but wonder if
 Satchmo played
 his riff in the moonlight on a night like this. By a seafood house where he couldn’t get in
 on sandy beaches and sea walls
 where he couldn’t swim.
 That’s why I’m drinkin’ and thinkin’ and makin’ a friend with the blues on West End.”

 He has several CDs, including a Preservation Hall Recordings entitled “Carl LeBlanc, New Orleans’ Seventh Ward Griot,” and a priceless self-released “Justin Case: Carl LeBlanc Presents a Tribute to Justin Adams” – the traditional jazz guitarist who came from a storied musical family. His brother, Placide, plays drums on the disc.

When Don Vappie took the stage, he did more talking than playing, telling story upon story about his relationship to the banjo riffing out in other reflections. “Growing up on James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire,” he said, “I played guitar, wanted to play bass and ended up on banjo.” Later, he explained, “I wondered why so many of my generation – people of color – hated the banjo, why we hated something that came over here with the other instruments.”

The banjo, he explained, “had too many chords, compared to the guitar.”

Danny Barker, the legendary balladeer and guitarist who traveled with the Cab Calloway Big Band in the 1930s, was known for playing “the big fat chords,” as Nat Hentoff once told me. Danny also played nice and fat on the banjo. Vappie did a version of “Eh La-Bas,” the Creole patois dance tune that Danny recorded with his uncle, Paul Barbarin, and refashioned for many years as the elder statesman of New Orleans jazz. The “too many” chords of the banjo were perfect for “Eh La-Bas.”

As the afternoon deepened, Demme Dia returned to the stage, seated between Vappie and LeBlanc, and as the three men played an improvisational, magic, lit up the room, music as mellow and sweetly nuanced as has ever graced Freeman Auditorium.

“I find it interesting,” LeBlanc wondered aloud, “what an African once told me: music and dance aren’t engaged – they’re married for life, the dance and the song.”


Correction: Scholar S. Frederick Starr, author of Bamboula! The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, responding to the June column on the banjo, states that Gottschalk didn’t hear Congo Square rhythms as a child. Rather, as he writes in the biography, the family lived near the square only briefly when he was 2; however Gottschalk had a grandmother and a nurse, both from the island of Saint-Domingue. From them, “he was exposed to these [island] songs from earliest childhood,” as Starr writes in the book. “His sisters sang them and he learned to play them on the piano.”

We regret the error.

Categories: Theatre + Art