I remember how surprised I was when I found out that the banjo had come to North America with African slaves. I had associated it for so long with both country and bluegrass music it was hard to believe it had ever been used for anything else. Of course, the instrument has evolved from its original form, and along with its physical modifications the role it played in music changed. Initially a percussion instrument, a role it can still play, the addition of the fifth string changed it into the lead instrument we are familiar with today.
But since finding out that it had come from Africa, I had been curious as to its origins. Africa is a huge continent after all, and there is no more a single African culture than there is a single European culture, so which of the many musical traditions spawned the banjo? I don't know if there is any definitive answer as the slaves came from all over the continent and would have formed something of a melting pot of traditions amongst themselves. What we call a banjo could have been the result of combining a few different instruments into one body.
One possible source of inspiration for the banjo is an instrument from the West African country of Mali called the ngoni. This is the Bambara name given an ancient traditional five stringed, lute like instrument found throughout the region, which is plucked with the thumb like the banjo. It's a deceptively simple looking instrument; a single piece of wood shaped something like a cricket bat's paddle with a length of round doweling serving as a neck. The five strings run from a bridge near the fat end of the paddle up the to the end of the dowel where they appear to be simply tied off.
Bassekou Kouyate is one of the premier ngoni players in Mali. Earlier this year, he and his band Ngoni Ba (The Big Ngoni) released their first album Segu Blue. Released on the Out/Here label from Great Britain, it is just now being distributed by Forced Exposure in North America.