CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS RECLAIM THE BANJO
March 9, 2012
Last month, a giant of folk music died, the 93-year-old fiddler Joe Thompson. He was instrumental in carrying a very old tradition of African American string band music into the 21st century, and inspiring young protégés like the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their new album Leaving Eden combines the old-time music they learned from Thompson with beatboxing.
The banjo derives from the African ngoni — a stringed instrument with a gourd base — and has a complicated history in the United States. It fell out of favor with black musicians for a good reason — the white minstrels, performing in black-face, who became a symbol of racism. That image still haunts the instrument. Events such as the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University are part of an effort to reclaim the instrument.
Alana Harper attended the 2010 Gathering and found that when it comes to talking about race, the banjo still flings off sparks.