In 2005, Laurent Dubois had an encounter that would spark his transformation from a historian with a banjo to a historian of the banjo. It was an unusual example of the instrument that began to deepen his curiosity—a Haitian artifact that had languished for most of its life in a museum collection.
For Dubois, seeing this instrument at the Black Banjo Gathering was a game changer. “It was only there that I really began to understand the breadth of the story,” he tells American Songster Radio host Dom Flemons. “I realized then that, as somebody who knew a lot about Caribbean history, I could maybe join this conversation.”
In the years that followed, Dubois set out to answer some of the most fundamental and mysterious questions about the banjo’s history and legacy. What features can we say define an instrument as a banjo? Who were its inventors, and what motivated them? Why does the symbolism of the banjo remain so potent today? He proposes answers to these questions in the 2016 book The Banjo: America’s African Instrument.
On Episode 12 of American Songster Radio, Dubois discusses his banjo experiences and research with host Dom Flemons. Flemons also plays an in-studio version of a South African tune to highlight the ways African and European musics interacted in contexts outside of the United States.