DURHAM — During the 19th century, slaves on the Stagville plantation in northern Durham County celebrated Christmas with a musical festival called Jonkannu. They sang, danced and played the drums, moving from one house to another on the massive 30,000-acre plantation.
The occupants would have to pay participants to make the singing stop.
“For one night, they were able to honor their heritage and be on equal footing with their masters,” said Stephanie Hardy, who manages a state-run historical site on part of the old Stagville plantation. “Music made up a large part of slave life.”
Stagville, which now serves as a museum on slave life in the 18th and 19th centuries, held its annual Jubilee Music Festival Saturday afternoon. Hardy said the event – part of the Department of Cultural Resources’ “Second Saturdays” series – was designed to raise awareness for Stagville while highlighting an important part of black American history.
“We decided to focus on African-American influence on music,” she said.
The festival, which had to be moved indoors because of rain, featured jazz, bluegrass, blues and traditional West African drumming from Ghana.
Durham resident Osei Appiagyei, a native of Ghana, led a drum circle called African Rhythm. Appiagyei said he wanted to show the link between native African and African-American cultures through music.
One often-overlooked connection is the banjo, which is derived from traditional instruments brought to North America on slave ships in the 17th century. The banjo plays a prominent role in bluegrass music.
“You can see the connection between the traditional music of the continent and bluegrass,” Appiagyei said.
Bluesman revisits the past
Big Ron Hunter of Winston-Salem played an hourlong set that combined his original songs such as “It Can Make Me Feel Like Running,” with classic rock favorites such as the Allman Brothers’ “Melissa.”
Hunter likes to be called “the world’s happiest bluesman” because he combines blues lyrics with a more up-tempo style. A lot of his work, he said, is a tribute to the long line of artists who helped pave the way for his career.
“I play to show my appreciation for the guys who came before me … because they had to live harder,” he said.
Hunter has played all over the U.S. and even internationally, taking gigs in New York, Paris and New Orleans. But he said he looks forward to coming to Stagville every year to learn a bit about history. In the past, he’s taken the guided walking tour that takes participants through slave quarters from the 1850s.
“It’s very important for me to see how we used to live,” he said. “This is history for us, for black people.”
‘Going in the front door’
Stagville was once home to 900 slaves, who worked for the Bennehan-Cameron family. The historic site includes the Bennehans’ house and a two-story timber frame building that served as slave quarters. The family’s graveyard lies 100 yards southeast of the house, but staff members have not yet figured out where the slaves were buried.
Appiagyei, who has also taken the tour, said it was an emotional experience for him.
“You can tell our forefathers were here,” he said. “There’s a whole history our forefathers left here.”
In some ways, the peaceful rural setting reminds Hunter of growing up poor near Winston-Salem. He said he spent many of his days killing and preparing hogs and chickens for dinner, while his mother worked for a white family nearby.
But Hunter said he doesn’t want to stay completely wrapped up in the past.
“We’re not going in the backdoor, we’re going in the front door,” he said. “History’s still being made.”