Preview: Blues: Back to the source, Barbican, London

Twangs for the memory of the blues
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The banjo is as country as yee-haws and mullet hairstyles, and is an essential component of hillbilly acts from the bluegrass maestro Earl Scruggs to the dustbowl revivalist Pete Seeger and the stadium country of the Dixie Chicks.

But, despite its position as a country music staple and its long-standing association with the indigenous folk musics of white European settlers in America, the banjo's roots are altogether more complex.

Scholars have placed the banjo's origins firmly in West Africa with the ngoni, which travelled first to the West Indies among the slaves shipped there in the 17th century, and then to America. The oldest example of a banjo-like instrument in the Americas dates from the early 1800s in Haiti. These banjos went by many names, including banza, banshaw, strump-strump and bangie, and were traditionally made from a gourd, a stick and wire for the strings.

White interest in the banjo came largely as a result of the minstrel shows that began in the 1840s. These died out in the early part of the 20th century, and while banjos appeared in the earliest jazz combos they would be displaced by the arrival of the electric guitar in the late 1930s.

Recent years have seen a minor resurgence of African-American banjo in the US. Veteran blues musician Otis Taylor's latest album, Recapturing the Banjo, makes specific the links between the blues, the banjo and US black culture. His live performance of Recapturing the Banjo is part of the Barbican's Blues: Back to the Source shows.

Taylor says: "People don't know the history of the banjo. White people don't know it and black people don't know it either, they don't know it's part of their culture. Nobody talks about it so we just assume the obvious. It's not thought of as a blues instrument, but the blues came from the banjo. The open tunings, the finger-picking playing style, that comes from the banjo."

Tonight (020-7638 8891; www.barbican.org.uk); Otis Taylor and his band tour to 1 May (www.otistaylor.com)

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