Fiddling in West Africa


edited from  Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje at and

Scholars have often seen the fiddle as something imposed upon blacks in 18th-century America by slave owners who wanted to enjoy European-style entertainment. What routinely gets left out of the story is that Africa had its own fiddling tradition every bit as old and rich as Europe’s, dating from roughly the 12th century in Senegal. It moved eastward across the continent with Fulbe migrants.

Africans were the people who played the violin here in North America. Whites didn’t always play the violin, because they saw it as work, and it was the Africans who did the work while the whites were there for the entertainment. Some Europeans taught their slaves violin, and Africans performed at settings or balls for them. So the violin was probably the most dominant instrument in African-American culture, up until the early 20th century. During slavery, it was more popular than the banjo.

When I studied the violin in Africa, I discovered they began learning the instrument in a way that’s very informal. In the part of Africa where I did my research, there were families of musicians, and therefore, you’re born into this family. You’re expected to learn this instrument. When the child is born, they may even hear the playing of the instrument at their naming ceremony, and when they’re introduced to the community.

From when they’re about two or three years old, they’re given an instrument – even though they’re not playing it, they’re supposed to go through the motions. Eventually, they’re supposed to learn the repertoire, learn the language – this is required. So very early in their lives, this becomes something they’re supposed to do, like eating and drinking – which is different from what we do here. We separate the two. We get up and we eat and drink and do this, and then we do our instrument, either for work or pleasure. In that particular part of the world, it’s a part of who you are as a person within that community.

In early 2000  I interviewed one of the Dagbamba fiddlers I had researched, and he told me that he had started an archive. I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yes. All of these Europeans and people coming from the United States asking for this music – it must be important, so perhaps I need to be able to save it.”

And I said, “How are you archiving it?” And for them, it’s the text, the song text that is important. Because the song text actually dates back to the 1700s, when Dagbon was just coming into existence as a political state, when the fiddlers had just entered their culture. And it was the song text for them that was very important – they thought it was easy to learn how to play the instrument. But once the texts were lost, and the people who performed them were gone, there was no way to recover it.

So what he’d begun to do is interview some of the senior people in his community, the elders within the family, and he’d begun to ask them to sing songs that they don’t normally perform, and wrote them down. He was Western-educated himself. He said, “The young people may not be interested now, but at some point in time, they will be interested, and I’ll have the material for them.”


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