If you’ve seen the film 12 Years A Slave, you may remember that Solomon Northup (shown in a sketch above), whose memoir was the basis for the movie, was a musician. Northup wrote of his life as a free black violinist in New York State:
In the film, he’s shown playing at such dances, and he later strikes a bargain with two unscrupulous promoters to go on tour to Washington, D.C., which is where his troubles begin.
In his memoir, Northup also describes playing violin for a Christmas party in Louisiana after he’s been enslaved — an occasion at which the slaves were permitted to take off their masters and perform their own exaggerated versions of European high-society dances [this kind of parody would evolve into the Cakewalk]. Afterwards, the slaves
set up a music peculiar to themselves. This is called “patting” . . . the patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees and then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, and the left side with the other — all the while keeping time with the feet and singing.
This patting is also known as patting juba, or just juba. It derives from sub-Saharan African music; the word “juba” means “to pat or keep rhythm” in the Bantu language. The patting of one’s own body as an instrument was an adaptation made by the slaves when drums were banned in the American colonies. And why were drums banned? You all remember this, from the 1964 film Zulu: chanting as preparation for war.
On Sunday, September 9, 1739, twenty Congolese slaves (mislabeled by contemporary historians as “Angolan”) gathered on the banks of the Stono River near Charleston (in this period, Sunday was a day off for slaves). They commandeered a guns-and-ammo shop, killed the owners, armed themselves, and headed south, chanting and playing drums as “a call to arms, a preparation for battle.” As a 1740 account of the uprising described it:
By the end of the day, the rebels numbered over a hundred, dozens of whites were dead, and the leaders of the Stono Rebellion would soon be executed.
After the rebellion was put down, the colonies enacted punitive measures against blacks, including the death penalty for any slave who learned to read. Slaves were no longer allowed to congregate, earn money, or grow their own food — and drums were banned. Juba was in some ways a response to the drum ban: the body became a rhythmic instrument.
Juba is usually performed just with the voice and the body. The drummer Sule Greg Wilson says:
Juba was sung and percussed to throw off and discharge the negativity of the institution of chattel slavery. Thus, we find in Juba a vital, sacred act—not to be confused with the good-time community activity of Hambone. Though both use body percussion, they are–functionally–very different.
As Sweet Honey in the Rock say, “You don’t just sing juba, you have to do juba. . . the word is African, but doing juba was made up by our people when we had to express how hard and unfair it was to be slaves . . . maybe some evil person can destroy your drums, but can anyone stop a true drummer from drumming? . . use your body . . . become a drum.”
A children’s call-and-response version which does not shy away from the injustice of slavery.
When juba is done as a social or community activity, it’s often called hambone. Here, Danny “Slapjazz” Barber demonstrates and discusses its origins in the Stono Rebellion:
Ella Jenkins shows Mister Rogers how to do it:
You can see how juba/hambone mutates over time into other forms. The first black dancer to perform onstage for white audiences in the United States was known as Master Juba (his real name was William Henry Lane). Charles Dickens saw Master Juba dance in New York’s notorious Five Points neighborhood on a trip to America. Dickens described this even in his 1842 book American Notes:
What will we please to call for? A dance? It shall be done directly, sir: “a regular breakdown.” The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding . . . marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known.
Master Juba later toured with white minstrel groups, and was a sensation in England. He is generally credited with amalgamating African and Celtic dance styles and inventing tap.
Virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has drawn a historical line between Juba and the New Orleans Mardi Gras song tradition, which he says is
Watch a TEDx talk by scholar Chris Johnson: “How Banning the African Drum Gave Birth to American Music.” Do you agree with his conclusions?