Billy Stevens: African American Music Creates Community

Billy Stevens explains that the instrument that the slaves brought over was the banjar, banza, or what we know as the banjo.

Billy Stevens explains that the instrument that the slaves brought over was the banjar, banza, or what we know as the banjo.

Lecturer and musician Billy Stevens came and performed his lecture concert, “Sincere Forms of Flattery: Blacks, Whites, and American Popular Music,” at Elon University Wednesday, Feb. 20 as part of the celebration of Black History Month.

Stevens explained that, from the beginning, American popular music – which is a fusion if European and African music – was shaped by the musical movements of African-Americans.

“All the great musicians of the ’60s were inspired by black music,” Stevens said, including examples such as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.

Music has become all about telling a story and that, Stevens said, is derived from an African group called the griots. Griots were professional musicians in Africa. He explained that they were storytellers, but they didn’t just tell the story, they sang it while accompanying themselves by playing string instruments.

The Africans had many methods of creating music and rhythm that has influenced the music we know today. They infused their singing with flat, gutted sounds and played multiple rhythms simultaneously. Their method of call and response came from when they were working in the fields and one person would call out and the others would respond, creating music.

Stevens told the story about the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina where originally, Africans were permitted to drum and dance on the plantation. But the slaves decided to rebel and were able to overpower their plantation owners, such as by burning down their owners’ plantations. They were able to do this successfully by playing the drums to communicate commands with each other.

“African music creates community and community creates power,” Stevens said. The slaves had the power of community and music on their side to be able to overpower their owners so greatly.

This is the instrument that the Africans brought with them to America. Originally called the banjar/banza. It is very much like the modern banjo. This is what the instrument sounded like played by Africans.

The instrument that the Africans actually brought with them from west Africa was called the banjar or banza. It was an instrument very similar to the banjo. The first time white people played the banjo was in 1830 and that was in black face.

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, there was a brass band concert with 500 musicians, all of the military marching musicians. They had to pawn off their instruments to be able to head home. Stevens said that this left New Orleans with a plethora of brass instruments and, with many brothels in their red light district in Storyville containing pianos, this was a great combination for new music to emerge. This form of music was known as jazz.

Stevens said that the 1890s was the most important time period for American popular music because that was not only when jazz became popular but also gospel, ragtime, and blues music.

All of these types of music tell a story, which in turn creates a strong community of people who listen to that music, sing that music, and/or appreciate that music. Stevens explained that Africans felt safe when they were part of a community.

“It’s about everyone gathering together and making music together and creating community,” Stevens said.

When popular musicians get on stage today, audiences flail and scream song lyrics at them, proving that music has the power to unite people in a unique way just as it always has with the Africans.

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