Bringing The Banjo From 'Africa To Appalachia' While typically associated with traditional bluegrass, country and even jazz, the banjo has roots that stretch all the way back to West Africa. Musician Jayme Stone made that journey in search of the ancestors of his own banjo; along the way, he met kora player Mansa Sissoko. The two have collaborated on a new album called Africa to Appalachia.
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Bringing The Banjo From 'Africa To Appalachia'

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Bringing The Banjo From 'Africa To Appalachia'

Bringing The Banjo From 'Africa To Appalachia'

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OK, think of the banjo. What comes to mind? Probably bluegrass like flatten (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Chances are you didn't imagine this.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: The banjo has roots that stretch all the way back to West Africa. Musician Jayme Stone made that journey in search of the ancient relatives of his own banjo. And along the way, he met Mansa Sissoko. Together, they've put out a new CD called Africa to Appalachia. Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko are in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. And we should say that Mansa Sissoko speaks only French, so Jayme will be doing most of the talking. Hello.

Mr. JAYME STONE (Musician): Hello.

SEABROOK: And hello to Mansa Sissoko.

Mr. MANSA SISSOKO (Musician): Hello. How are you?

SEABROOK: I'm very good. Thank you. So let me ask you, Jayme Stone, the banjo comes from Africa?

Mr. STONE: It is true. The banjo came across the ocean on slave ships coming from West Africa in the 1600 and 1700s. And then got passed off to curious white folk and sort of never turned back, and although few people play some of the crossover styles that happened early on in the New World, it didn't seem like there was much knowledge of the music that it came from.

SEABROOK: Was it the banjo when it crossed those oceans?

Mr. STONE: Well, it's hard to say exactly what it was. More than anything, it was the blueprint of the banjo show that traveled over in musician's minds. And then they built a similar thing with what they had here, you know, dried out gourds and goat skin and, you know, whatever they could find. And so the instrument kind of changed, and then, with the advent of metal and all of these things, it sort of became an African instrument that went through the Industrial Revolution. And over in Africa, it has all kinds of names, depending on what region you're in or what dialect people are speaking.

SEABROOK: And some of those names?

Mr. STONE: There's an instrument called the ngoni that you find all over Mali, and it's anywhere from three to seven strings. Some modern players even have nine-string ngonis, and these are in Mali, where I was. But also in Senegal, there's instruments that are maybe even closer relations to the banjo, especially an instrument called the akonting.

SEABROOK: Your partner on the CD, Mansa Sissoko, he plays the kora. And what is the kora?

Mr. STONE: Have you seen one before?

SEABROOK: Well, I've seen pictures. It's sort of like a harp with a gourd on the bottom.

Mr. STONE: Exactly. It's a 21-string West African harp, and it's made out of a calabash, which is a dried up gourd, and then it's got a big pole, and tied to it are these leather straps that hold 21 strings in two banks, and they use fishing line.

SEABROOK: So, let's hear these two instruments side by side. Let's start with the banjo that we all know. Play us a little lick there.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Now, let's hear the kora.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: They have something in common, don't they?

Mr. STONE: They do. I mean, the sound of the notes are complimentary, you know. You have this kind of nylon against metal, but in some ways, the playing style and the melodic sensibility is quite similar.

SEABROOK: I'd love to hear you guys play a song off your album. Can we hear the one called Djula?

Mr. STONE: Sure. Un, deux, trois.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Mansa Sissoko singing with Jayme Stone on the banjo. And do you guys have a couple other players back there? I heard a drum.

Mr. STONE: We do. We have Harris Eisenstadt over here playing the drum kit and the calabash and all manner of shakers. And we have an incredible guitar player named Grant Gordy over here who comes from Denver, Colorado.

SEABROOK: Fabulous. You described some of the physical transformations of the banjo. Are there licks that survive, sounds specific to that old ancestral banjo that still survive in American music?

Mr. STONE: Well, yeah. There are traces of all kinds of things. You know, if you listen to what they call minstrel music, which was this first white adaptation of African music that was mixed with, you know, English ballads and Irish fiddle tunes and some European classical musical influences, this was the style that was really popular at the turn of the century, turn of the last century of course. And in that music, you can hear these sort of little repeated phrases. I'll play you a little bit of an African piece that sort of sounds like some of the repeated figures hear in that minstrel music. This is a piece that Mansa taught me called Sila.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: We've talked about its roots in West Africa, a little bit about its place in American culture, but the instrument's journey didn't stop in Appalachia. It went from via those minstrel shows to Ireland, where a string was taken away. It became the Irish tenor banjo. There's even a Turkish banjo. It's sort of a modern thing called the Cumbus (unintelligible), I think it's pronounced. What do you think it is about this instrument that is so appealing? Its journey just keeps going.

Mr. STONE: Let's just face it. It's the hippest instrument, at least in my world. It's just - it's really versatile, and it's got a fascinating sound, and it's a really flexible instrument. It's kind of quirky, but it's really adaptable, and you can be supportive with it. It's a rhythmic instrument. You can play melodically. You can play all kinds of different things, and, you know, more than anything, it's the player and the imagination, but I think the instrument is capable of playing anything, really.

SEABROOK: Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko, their CD is called "Africa to Appalachia." Thank you guys so much.

Mr. STONE: Thank you.

Mr. SISSOKO: Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much.

SEABROOK: Could you guys play us one more to take us out?

Mr. STONE: Sure thing. This is a piece called Ninki Nanka. And Ninki Nanka is the name of an imaginary snake that is so large that it can take up the whole world, and Mansa likes to say that perhaps Ninki Nanka is a metaphor for the ocean.

(Soundbite of song "Ninki Nanka")

SEABROOK: Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko. You can hear more music, including live performances from this session, at

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