"The Devil's Instrument: The Fiddle in West African and African-American Cultures"

Jacqueline C. DjeDje

October 7, 2010 

For the second Brown Bag Lunch Discussion of the academic year, the ISS welcomed Professor Jacqueline C. DjeDje, chair of Ethnomusicology at UCLA. Her topic--"The Devil's Instrument? The Fiddle in West African and African American Cultures."  Her research tracked a brief history of the fiddle from its beginnings in North Africa to its use by enslaved Africans in North America.   She also discussed significations of fiddling with regard to African and African American religions, including Islam and Christianity, and concluded the discussion by offering several reasons why the fiddle became controversial, a reflection of social anxiety.
 The Fiddle in West Africa
Often associated with European culture, the fiddle is actually a product of the Arab world and was introduced in the 11th century to the Sudanic region, which extended from the Atlantic Ocean to just east of Lake Chad. According to DjeDje, the Fulbe were among the first groups in this area to come in contact with North Africans. They are responsible for the dispersion of the fiddle into West Africa.
In the Senegambian region, which includes present-day Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, Ghana, Benin and Nigeria, each ethnic group identifies with the fiddle in its own way.  The Fulbe fiddle was used for entertainment and the establishment of the bounds of ethnic identity.  For the Dagbamba, the instrument was used to symbolize royalty and political authority.  And the Hausa of northern Nigeria used the fiddle in religious activities and as part of social occasions. The style of the music played by fiddlers in Senegambia is unique to each ethnic group.  Typical of the music of North Africa and the Arab world, the Tuareg people produce improvisatory sounds.  In the forest region of West Africa, fiddlers play straightforward melodies in a call and response fashion alongside drummers and other instrumentalists.  And the Fulbe sound is a fusion of elements from North Africa and the forest region, usually consisting of more ornamented harmonies played in concert with a single drum.
DjeDje explained that West African fiddling is performed not only in ceremonial, festive and social occasions, it is also used for work, to report on history and current events and to perform songs of praise and social commentary. For several groups, fiddling has such deep spiritual implications that when practitioners call on spirits as the instrument is being played, they feel they are healed immediately and their problems dealt with swiftly.  According to a northern Nigerian fiddler, only the sound of the fiddle induces the trance in Bori.
Generally, African fiddlers view their craft positively.  However, one notable exception is that of a Hausa fiddler in Niger who did not want his son to become a professional fiddler like himself because he believed his rivals might put a curse on the boy. So there are both positive and negative associations with the fiddle in West Africa.
Fiddling in African America
Senegambians, many of whom were fiddlers, constituted the largest group sold into slavery during the 16th century, making them the largest African people represented in the Americas.  Upon their arrival in America, African musicians transferred their skills performing the violin to the European prototype, while also constructing and using African-derived violins, sometimes made of gourds with horse-hair string.  Although their musical repertoire included both European and original songs, the repetition, variation, percussion, emphasis on rhythm, and minimal melodic development of their music remained African.   Because fiddling was a tradition admired and valued by Europeans who did not feel threatened by it, African Americans could easily continue performing it for entertainment for both blacks and whites.  In as much as fiddling was a joy and a means of survival for early Africans in America, it allowed fiddlers to create a special identity and space for themselves that was distinct from other Africans, many of whom identified much more with drumming, which was outlawed in the south.
The Fiddle and African and African-American Religion
Prof. DjeDje's research on the relationship between fiddling and African and African-American religion is informed by the work of John Mbiti.  In African Religions and Philosophy, Mbiti states that for Africans there is no formal distinction between the sacred and the secular, religious and non-religious, spiritual and material areas of life.  In addition, most Africans are monotheistic with God or a supreme being as the origin and sustenance of all things, simultaneously transcendent and eminent.  In a few cases, dual aspects of the one God are recognized as an explanation of the transcendence and eminence of God and of the problem of good and evil.  Since most African people regard God as essentially good and not intrinsically evil, unexplainable misfortunes are attributed to malicious human agents. While many African societies acknowledge that spiritual forces are connected to fiddling, spirits themselves are not regarded negatively.  In fact, fiddling is regarded positively because it heals, empowers and enhances beauty and good. Therefore, if Mbiti's position is accepted, the idea of a devil or Satan does not exist in indigenous African worldviews, making the characterization of the fiddle as the devil's instrument incomprehensible.   

Although the majority of West African fiddlers identify as Muslim, over time, fiddling diminished in appeal for Muslims.  From the 10th to 11th century, heads of state and rulers of various societies in the region adopted Islam to enhance their trade, while most of the populations maintained indigenous practices.  Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Islam was adopted by the masses for social advancement as people from all over the globe, including Europe and Asia, came to West Africa to teach and study.  In the 18th to 19th centuries, which is also when the faith began to expand exponentially, reformists led jihads to restore more fundamental Islamic worship practices and moral standards.  Many northern Nigerian Muslims view the fiddle negatively because of the wide-spread Islamic perspective that all instruments are forbidden and only unaccompanied chanting of religious poems, religious hymns and the playing of certain types of drums are permitted in mosques.  Not only do Muslims in Hausa land and other parts refer to the melodies produced on the chordophone as the music of the devil, some believe fiddle music led people to engage in various unhealthy practices, such as the drinking of alcohol.  Since the Hausa fiddle is one of the main instruments used to venerate Bori spirits, it is understandable why Muslims did not receive fiddling with much enthusiasm.  These reasons and the instrument's association with pre-Islamic rites, including spirit possession, made fiddling especially taboo.
During the revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, many Africans became Christians but maintained some key elements of traditional religious practices, such as calling on spirits to preside over daily life, wearing charms, amulets, and other objects important in protecting or harming others, and communicating with spirits through dance and song.  For many of the same reasons as Muslims, Christians associated the use of the fiddle with the profane.  Though the fiddle's use in entertainment practices among African Americans during slavery is widely recognized by scholars, its association with black religious practice is rarely acknowledged.  (One of the few examples is revealed in tales about Brer Rabbit who, according to historian Sterling Stuckey, keeps the faith of ancestors, mediates their claims of the living, and establishes himself as supreme master of the forms of creativity through fiddling.  Realizing the significance of the fiddle to blacks for secular and sacred occasions, missionaries in Georgia attempted to eradicate widespread use of the fiddle.  Per Stuckey, "it is a study in contrasting cultures that missionaries thought the profane in religious ceremonies and Africans thought it divine in that context.") (Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)
The Devil's Instrument?
Practitioners of African or African-derived beliefs, whether in West Africa or in African America, did not associate the fiddle with the devil.  Rather, it was those who appropriated Islam and Christianity who viewed the fiddle as profane. Professor DjeDje offered several reasons for this, which had to do with context, behavior, the supernatural, the sound of the instrument, and more importantly, challenges to authority:
• The fiddle's use across the culture in house parties, brothels, juke joints, dance halls as well as in religious rites of veneration of spirits and spirit possession created an ambivalent attitude toward the instrument. 
• Fiddling conjured various ideas of the supernatural, from beings such as spirits and fairies, to legendary places of mystery and power such as the proverbial "Crossroads," to its strange and unfathomable healing capabilities.    
• The fiddle's hypnotic and seductive sound was believed to cast a spell on listeners, stimulating inappropriate emotions and feelings, creating unnatural attractions, and luring people to do things beyond their will.   
• It challenged both religious and political authority, empowering the disenfranchised and marginalized people of the society who performed with it. 
• It challenged family dynamics in that in some situations it was the women who appropriated this religion and their entrancement empowered them and invoked fear in their husbands.   
This provocative and informative presentation ended with the question:  Why is the fiddle's association with the devil such an issue?  DjeDje claims that it demonstrates the power of music, how it can affect the mind, body and soul and humans. Because music cannot be controlled, there are many who come to fear it. To control or mitigate this power those in positions of authority denounced it as evil, just as was the case with jazz, blues, rock, and hip-hop when they emerged.  Despite the denunciations, the music of the instrument continued to appeal to listeners.  Such attacks and negative associations have not affected the beauty of fiddling for many.
Questions for consideration:

1. In light of the history of the fiddle in African America, in what ways can the fiddle represent something like scripture, that is, a type of gateway to other ways of knowing or cultural transformations? 
2. That the fiddle signifies evil seems to have developed with scriptural religions.  What is at stake in larger historical terms for scriptural civilizations in associating the fiddle with evil?
3. What is the relationship between Africans and African Americans and subaltern peoples in general and the fiddle-and other such "instruments" of change of consciousness and feeling--in the contemporary world?
 Colleagues, as usual, your comments are welcome.

Submitted by: Wendell Miller
 Research Assistant
 The Institute for Signifying Scriptures

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